A long-standing one-liner features a Northerner asking a Southerner, “What’s a grit?” Despite the fact that most Southerners would find this to be a ridiculous question, they would very politely explain, “There is no singular for grits.” Regardless, the question still gets asked on occasion.
Grits are coarsely ground corn cooked to a creamy, thick consistency. They are served mostly at breakfast, but not out of the question for lunch or dinner. A cold Southern morning almost requires a hearty bowl of grits, often served with a choice of butter and/or cheese, along with bacon, eggs, and homemade biscuits. My first experience with grits in the evening was grits with salmon patties. Many Southern restaurants carry the ever-popular shrimp & grits on the menu.
In Europe “grytt” means coarse meal and refers meal ground from any grain. In North America, grits originated with the Native Americans, stone-ground by hand from maize. Many countries refer to a similar product as polenta. While it is unlikely that you will find hand-ground grits any more, there are several mills that still stone grind their grits. These include Palmetto Farms, Carolina Plantation, and Falls Mill (which still uses an old-fashioned waterwheel to power its grinding machine) among others.
There is an on-going debate as to how grits should be cooked, from length of time to the liquid used. Instant grits aside, there are “quick” grits and “regular” grits. (Whatever you do, please do not let instant grits be your first grits experience!) Quick grits have the grain hull removed, presumably cutting the cooking time. However, with the recommended cooking time for quick grits being 5 minutes and that for regular grits being 15-20 minutes, this is one cook that believes both are incorrect unless you prefer your grits to be the consistency of watery sand.
Grits should be cooked slowly, to allow the grain time to absorb the liquid. Water or chicken broth is how I prefer to start my grits. The water should be salted, about ¼ teaspoon of salt per two cups of water. Let the liquid come to a boil, then slowly add your grits at a ratio of one part grits to four parts liquid. Continuously stir while adding and then immediately reduce your heat to a low setting. On an electric stove, I turn it down to 4 and sometimes to 3, depending on whether the mixture is threatening to boil over. Cover your pot, lifting only to stir about once every five minutes. When you open to stir, if you notice that your grits are drying out, add a little more liquid. Those cooked in chicken broth should have water or more broth added. Those cooked with water can have water or milk added. I prefer to add milk for a creamier, richer consistency. Add liquid in half-cup measures, stir, and cover. Check again in five minutes. I find that “quick” grits need about fifteen minutes of cooking time to reach the right consistency, while regular grits need at least thirty minutes. Remember, the key is to cook slowly on low heat!
Good cooks taste their food to determine if it is cooked to satisfaction. So it should be with grits. Set a small amount aside in a spoon to cool. Once cooled, the grits should have a creamy texture with soft grains of corn that provide little resistance to the tongue. They should neither be salty or sweet, but rather the taste of the corn should be prominent. Add some black pepper for taste. Other popular condiments that can be added to grits include cheddar cheese, butter, green onions, crumbled bacon, and sour cream. Grits can be used in breakfast casseroles that include sausage and eggs or can be paired with sliced tomatoes for a country side dish for dinner. They are a very versatile food!
More questions about grits? Find a Southern cook and feel free to ask! While every recipe will not be an instant favorite, there is no doubt that one or two will be up your alley no matter what part of the country you call home!