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Flying Biscuit grits

Grits from the Flying Biscuit Cafe.


Should polenta be allowed in a Southern pantry?

Southerners can be quite, shall we say, particular about what foods we keep in our kitchen. One of those ingredients that gets particularly reverential status is grits.

But what about its slightly more-worldly cousin, polenta? Should it even be allowed in a Southern pantry? And just what is the difference between grits and polenta?

Southern grits originate as dent corn, which is typically used for animal feed and ethanol. Both white and yellow grits are produced in the South, though white is more commonplace. To begin their journey to Gritsville, the dent corn kernels are soaked in a calcium oxide solution to remove the fibrous bran in a process called nixtamalization. This process causes the kernels to enlarge into what we know as hominy, and also brings out an aromatic quality in the corn. Additionally, nixtamalization further tenderizes the corn kernels, making them easier to grind.
Once the dried corn is pressed by stones through a water-based grist mill (hence, stone-ground grits), they’re ready to be cooked. Typically, coarse grits require a ratio of four parts water to one part dairy to one part grits. For example, 2 cups water, 1/2 cup heavy cream and 1/2 cup grits will reasonably serve four to six people. Some may argue for less liquid, but I’ve found that true stone-ground grits absorb liquid as they soften, and need a higher ratio of water to help maintain a beautifully creamy texture. Grits usually require a longer cooking time than polenta, often needing 60 to 90 minutes for the starches to completely soften and gelatinize.

Originating in northern Italy, polenta isn’t so much a grind of corn as it is an actual dish. Polenta can refer to any porridge or cooked grain mush, even though corn is what most people associate with the term. In fact, corn was not commonly cultivated in Italy until the 16th century, and polenta is known to have been made from ground spelt, farro, buckwheat or even dried chickpeas.

The polenta most widely available today is derived from flint corn, which is considered more difficult to grind than its American cousin, dent corn. Whereas the best grits are very coarsely ground, polenta is more of a medium grind, which results in less cooking time. As an overall dish, polenta is most successful when cooked in a more flavorful liquid, like milk or chicken stock. Because of the finer grind, a four to one total ratio of liquid to dried polenta produces the creamiest finished product.
How about flavor? Grits inherently have a more distinct flavor, allowing them to shine as a featured player on the plate. Hot buttered grits make a perfect breakfast companion to a plate of over-easy eggs and griddled breakfast sausage. Need a rich counterpoint to sharp red-eye gravy? Grits to the rescue. Even the most praised shrimp and grits throughout the South allow the natural flavor of the grits to stand out.

Conversely, polenta’s subtle flavors make it a great background singer; it's John Oates to grits’ Daryl Hall, if you will. For a perfect creamy foil to a hearty braised pot roast, try serving it with polenta instead of mashed potatoes. Velvety polenta makes a wonderful landing pad for meatballs simmered in tomato sauce. And though some Southerners may swear by adding butter and sugar to grits, the flavors may actually meld better when using polenta instead.

The bottom line is that there’s no need to take sides. Both grits and polenta can each play a unique role in a contemporary Southern pantry — just don’t forget the butter and salt.

Now that you're craving a big, hot bowl of grits (or polenta!), try these recipes:
Creamy Dreamy White Cheddar Grits
Cider-Braised Pork Shoulder with Polenta
Shrimp and Grits with Andouille Gravy
Cheesy Grit Fritters with Red Pepper Jelly

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Chef Jeffrey Gardner is a native of Natchez, Miss., and a graduate of Millsaps College and Johnson & Wales University. He lives in Atlanta and has served as sous chef for popular restaurants South City Kitchen Midtown and Alma Cocina. In 2013 he became executive chef for East Cobb restaurant Common Quarter and was named one of ten “Next Generation of Chefs to Watch” by the Atlanta Business Chronicle. He has appeared on TV shows including Food Network’s Chopped and Cooking Channel’s How to Live to 100, and also filmed a series of healthy cooking videos with retired pro wrestler and fitness guru Diamond Dallas Page. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling the world with his wife Wendy, watching game shows and “spending all his money on Bruce Springsteen concerts.”