Polenta vs. Grits

September 24, 2010

Polenta versus grits. What’s the difference? Is there really any? Grits are something I became familiar with back in 2005. I had finished my year of studying in Austin, TX and bought a Greyhound bus pass, embarking on an adventure that took me and my closest travelling ally through the deep south.

Along the way, the thing that struck me time and again was people’s open-armed hospitality. You’ve heard of Southern hospitality but until you turn up on a stranger’s door step and have them welcome you into their home, give you a place to sleep and food to eat as if you were long-lost family, you haven’t known it. This happened to me in middle-of-nowhere Florida, en route to the Florida Folk Festival, and it’s one of my lasting memories of that adventure.

I woke up near the banks of the Suwannee River in a stranger’s home – the family friends of a “friend” I had met at a hostel – to the smell of sizzling bacon and laughing voices. The bacon had been bought from a local farmer that morning and was thick, salty and perfectly paired with cold, sweet tea, runny eggs, and creamy grits.

That is my lasting memory of grits.

But polenta? I have no story to tell of discovering it while exploring Italy or some such wondrous experience. Instead, I recently bought some cornmeal with the sole purpose of exploring the differences between grits and their fancier sounding cousin, polenta.

Here’s the thing: they are not all that different. Maybe they look a little different and the typical preparations of each are certainly different but they definitely taste pretty alike.

Grits for breakfast [source]

According to everything that I’ve read, it comes down to the part of the corn kernel used, and the size of the grind. This article explains it thus:

Classic hominy grits come from corn that has been stripped of its hull, leaving behind the white kernel, which is then ground to the consistency of coarse sand.

Polenta consists of whole corn kernels coarsely ground.

Because grits are ground so fine, they cook faster. Polenta, on the other hand, is so coarse that you may stand at the stove stirring it for 45 minutes before the ground grain gets creamy.

In terms of cultural differences in preparation, Italy has claimed polenta as its version of the cornmeal mush and the typical cooking method is with water or stock. It’s often allowed to cool, set and harden, before being sliced, sauteed, and fried and served with anything from fish and meat to tomato sauce and cheese.

Grits on the other hand originate from the deep south in America and are typically served as a breakfast cereal, alongside bacon, sausage and eggs, or as a side dish (shrimp & grits, anyone?). They’re sort of a typical every-man’s food in the way that potatoes are in England – classic peasant food, if you will – simple, adaptable, and cheap.

So, in beginning my exploration of polenta, I stumbled upon this recipe from Dana Treat. I made it several weeks ago when tomatoes were literally falling off the stands at the farmers’ market and basil was perfectly sweet. If you still have some end of season tomatoes then I heartily recommend this dish.

Other explorations will be forthcoming, but you can bet your bottom dollar that I will be keeping close to my heart the sagacity of that article’s author who notes that the discovery of grits (in my case, polenta) provides a wonderful new way to get butter and cheese into my life. Amen to that.

Polenta Baked with Corn, Tomatoes and Basil

adapted from Dana Treat

Ingredients

  • Polenta (recipe follows)
  • 1½-2 cups of your favorite tomato sauce (try my homemade sauce)
  • 1 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 3 ears of corn, kernels shaved off the cob
  • Salt
  • ¾ pound tomatoes, cored and seeded
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • Pepper
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • 1/2 jalapeño chiles, seeded and finely chopped
  • ¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. First make the polenta (see below).  Make sure you have plenty of time to allow it to set up.
  2. Heat the butter in a large skillet and add the corn.  Sauté over medium heat just until the corn is tender, about 5 minutes for very fresh corn.  Season with a sprinkling of salt.  While the corn is cooking, cut the tomatoes into large pieces.  Marinate the tomatoes in the olive oil with a ¼ teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Cool the corn and toss with the tomatoes, half the basil, and the chiles.  Add salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Preheat the oven to 375ºF.  Pour the tomato sauce into the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking pan.  Arrange the polenta triangles upright in tows across the width of the dish, overlapping the triangles slightly; use all of the polenta.  Spoon the vegetables into the spaces between the polenta triangles, separating the rows as you go.  Sprinkle with the cheese.  Cover and bake for 25 minutes, then uncover and bake for 10 more minutes, until the gratin is bubbly.  Sprinkle on the remaining  basil and serve.

Polenta

Ingredients

  • 6 cups water
  • 1½ tsp. salt
  • 1½ cups coarse cornmeal
  • ¼ tsp. pepper
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  1. Lightly oil a 9×13-inch baking dish and set aside.  Bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan.  Add the salt, then vigorously whisk in the cornmeal.  Bring it back to a boil, stirring all the while, then reduce the heat as low as it will go.  Cover the pan.  Stir every 5 minutes or so until the polenta is smooth, about 20 minutes all together.
  2. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the pepper, the butter, and the cheese.  Pour the hot polenta into the baking dish and set aside to cool.  Once it is cool, cover and refrigerate to make the polenta even more firm.  Once cold, dump the whole thing out on a cutting board and cut it into 12 squares.  Cut each square into two triangles.
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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Holly September 24, 2010 at 9:15 am

OMG…i had no idea they were do similar! very informative, if i do say so myself. and that dish looks absolutely gorge – adding it to my ever growing list of recipes to make.

love you – have a wondrous weekend :)

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Roxan September 24, 2010 at 12:45 pm

I’m different from Holly… I had no idea they were so different!!! Alton Brown, on Good Eats, once said that polenta was made with white corn while grits was made with yellow corn. So I thought that was that. Thanks for this extra info! I LOVE both grits and polenta.

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emily (a nutritionist eats) September 24, 2010 at 1:45 pm

I LOVE grits. But I will say that you have to have them in the South to fully understand.
Baking the polenta (I’ve never done from scratch but from the tubes) with some olive oil, s & p (a la Eat, Drink & Be Vegan) is AMAZING!

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Erica September 24, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Southern hospitality totally rocks :) And so do grits ….and polenta (I <3 both). This dish looks incredible. I made a polenta pizza one and this kinda reminds me of the flavors. Delicious

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Reeni September 24, 2010 at 7:37 pm

I love polenta! It’s one of my ultimate comfort foods. This makes me want to hold on to summer just a little longer!

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Dana September 24, 2010 at 7:54 pm

Yum! I loved this dish. I’m so glad you liked it too. It is actually hard to find grits up here in the Pacific Northwest so I order them online. They are very similar but I use them differently. Both delicious!

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janetha September 25, 2010 at 1:18 am

well this was rather thorough! i actually have never had polenta nor grits! maybe you should come make me some :)

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Crunchy Granola Gal September 25, 2010 at 7:40 am

I like that you can write. And that you used the word “sagacious” in a blog post. And that you explore food so thoroughly yet with a personal story behind it – I love that you stayed at random Southerners’ homes!

Overall, lots of likes. And a love. Happy weekend!

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The Enchanted Cook September 25, 2010 at 6:48 pm

The best looking polenta I’ve ever seen!

Best,
Veronica

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Cara September 27, 2010 at 12:52 pm

I love polenta – it’s such a versatile grain. This dish makes me excited that there is still fresh sweet corn around!

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Paola March 11, 2014 at 12:10 am

I confess: I am on a mission to give back the word Polenta its own true meaning!
The article quoted says: “Polenta consists of whole corn kernels coarsely ground” no, polenta is made WITH ground corn kernels, or coarse maize flour – as polenta is the dish, not the ingredient. It would be like calling oats “porridge” .
Polenta is not a grain….
More importantly polenta was a dish that had been cooked long before the American continent was discovered (this means long before maize was grown in Europe) … made with spelt, rye and other grains.

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Susan September 28, 2010 at 11:20 am

Thank you for describing the differences for me!!! Cornmeal isn’t that popular in Canada. I’ve never had polenta or grits, and only tried cornbread for the first time a coupe years ago. That make sounds heavenly though. Fresh tomatoes + basil + corn + cheese. Life doesn’t get much better than that ;)

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Macossay December 9, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Even Alton Brown can be wrong. Polenta is ground corn. Grits are made from hominy, corn that has been treated with lye to soften it and strip off the hull. Soaking the corn with lye makes the Vitamin B more bioavailable.

Corn (maize) is a new world grain that was brought to Europe as cheap fodder for the peasants. Meso-americans treated their corn with lye, but the Spanish who brought it to Europe didn’t understand the importance of this. Thus pellegra, a disease caused by a vitamin B deficiency, became widespread among northern populations that mostly lived on polenta. The connection wasn’t made until 1914.

Grits sold in North and South America are invariably hominy grits, even if it doesn’t say so on the box. Polenta is sold as polenta or coarse ground cornmeal.

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ThinkerBelle December 14, 2010 at 1:47 pm

Thank you. Your article hit home in so many ways… I lived in Austin, Tx and in south Florida (35 yrs in Fl and 12 yrs in Tx) so I loved and could relate to the history that came with the article.

Just moved from the States to England a month ago… got a craving for grits and could not find them any where. Searched the grocery store shelves and found Polenta. Will be trying the Polenta for breakfast in the morning in hopes that it takes care of the “grits” fix urge I’ve been having. Will let you know my thoughts about the difference between “Yummy” grits and Polenta.

Thanks again for a well written and informative article!!

Regards, Carol

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Angharad December 14, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Thanks, Carol! Really great to hear from you. How many random little connections to places we share! I’d love to know if the polenta worked out in place of your beloved grits…let me know!
Angharad

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seamonkee June 24, 2011 at 5:45 pm

I randomly came across your site. As someone from Florida who has welcomed a traveller or 7, I’m so glad you came away from here with very fond memories.

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Timothy Nohe January 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm

I realize that I am a little late to this party, but ….

There are people in my family who love polenta, abhor grits. So I call them white polenta. ANd I treat grits in all the ways I would treat polenta. So really no difference.

Recently I was stuck for dinner. In the fridge I had about 1 1/2 cup kidney beans, the same of diced tomatoes, and some fresh, colored sweet peppers, onions, etc. Ah! veggie chili. But how to make it different. I cooked up a mess of grits (a mess is a unit of measure for grits), put the finished chili in single serve cast iron pans, covered it with the grits. I topped them with s shake shake of cayenne and some shredded cheddar and popped them in the oven until I adjudged them to be done. And I had … what did I have?

It was kind of a Southern US cottage pie? No, not quite. Chili. Hmm Southwestern? Empanada de Cabana (Spanish for Cottage Pie). OK.

Grits is definitely versatile. Next I will try the same trick with East Carolina barbeque … yeah.

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Bill Retherford May 1, 2012 at 8:41 am

Great post. I have been trying to generate a definitive and succint understanding of the difference between Grits and Polenta for a article that I started to write today. There is so much information available on the internet and trying to distill the inherent confusion has been somewhat daunting.

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Margaret July 15, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Well, I live in the South. I tried to tell an Australian lady how to make cornbread. She said she was going to get some polenta, and I did not know what that was, so I came to this column and found that I do not know if polenta will make cornbread or not. You can also fry grits (yellow or white) if you have leftovers. Just put them in a glass and let them harden. Slice them up in rounds and fry them with bacon. You can also make cheese/garlic grits which are out of this world. Cornbread is my favorite ground corn recipe, and I use white mixed with yellow, add a little flour, an egg, some milk, and a little water until it is runny, heat a frying pan on the burner with some oil, put a few grits in the bottom of the iron frying pan, heat the oven to 450 degrees, and pour the mixture into the pan and cook until golden brown. Delicious.

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Margaret July 15, 2012 at 7:34 pm

I use self-rising cornmeal.

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Maranda Everson December 27, 2014 at 11:39 am

Being an American I can tell you in the south you get both cornmeal mush and grits they are not the same thing and even though the prep is similar the taste is very different. Grits are made from Hominy, corn soaked in lye to remove the hull and then dried and ground. Cornmeal is ground whole corn,good cornmeal is from dent corn dried in the stalk. Cornmeal mush and grits are both boiled in water and/or milk to make a thick porage. The taste and texture are different.

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