Grits have been a staple of classic Southern food since the first family recipes were passed down over a hundred years ago. What still confuses foodies regardless of where they're from is the great grits vs polenta debate. Depending on the source, some recipes appear to use them interchangeably, while others strictly call for one or the other. Although choosing between grits and polenta can be confusing, it's important to note that they are and always have been two unique ingredients with a few clear and identifiable differences.

Grits vs Polenta: History  

Grits are deeply ingrained in Southern American cooking. They're traditionally made from the corn that's most readily available in the United States, and although the specific variety varies a bit, as a category, grits are made from a class of corn called dent corn.

This variety, along with the milling and grinding process, gives grits a mushier texture than polenta. It also means that grits are traditionally white in color, unless other ingredients are added that change the color. 

Grits come in several varieties, including stone-ground and fast-cooking. Although fast-cooking is more convenient, the stone ground version have a better, more toothsome texture that make the extra prep time worth it. 

Polenta, on the other hand, hails from Northern Italian cuisine. It is traditionally made from a class of corn called flint corn. Flint corn holds its texture better, resulting in a more course end product. Flint corn also tends to have a more yellow hue, resulting in a yellow polenta. 

Polenta can also be found with several different grinds at the grocery store, which will vary in both cook time and texture of the end product. As a general rule, the coarser the corn, the longer it will take to cook, but the less mushy the texture will be in the end.

Because polenta holds its texture so much better than grits, it can also be found in cooled blocks. This can not only help to cut down on cook time because the polenta has already been cooked before forming the blocks, but offers opportunity for a variety of other applications besides as a corn porridge. 

Recipes for Grits

Shrimp and Grits

My personal favorite application of the ingredient, shrimp and grits is a staple of southern cooking. This recipe by Bobby Flay uses cheddar cheese in the grits to make them extra creamy and adds bacon on top with the shrimp because everything is better with bacon.

Breakfast Grits

Grits are the perfect ingredient to use when you're starting to get tired of your morning oatmeal. Depending on the mix-ins you use while cooking and your toppings, they can be taken in either a savory or sweet direction.

This recipe uses buttermilk to make the grits base tangy and pepper jack, bacon, and a fried egg for savory breakfast perfection. Alternatively, you could make the base using honey and butter and then top with fruit and maybe a scoop of nut butter for added protein that will keep you full until lunchtime.

Recipes for Polenta

Sausage Ragu with Creamy Polenta

Ragu is a traditional Italian sauce that can be made from a variety of meats and is usually served with either pasta or polenta. In the case of this recipe, sausage gives the ragù a delicious depth of flavor that, when mixed with the freshness of tomatoes, perfectly contrasts the rich, creamy polenta. As an added bonus, it's a lot faster to cook than bolognese, its thicker and longer-cooking counterpart

Polenta Toasts

Polenta toasts are great to make for parties because you can cook the polenta a few days ahead of time and have it cooled and ready to slice and pan fry when your guests arrive. This recipe calls for balsamic caramelized onions, roasted peppers, and feta, but you can experiment with whatever crostini toppings you usually like.

Polenta Fritta

In my opinion, polenta in the form of fries is just the right way to introduce it to French fry-obsessed Americans. They can be dipped in a variety of sauces, like marinara, and even stuffed with whatever your imagination can come up with. One popular preparation uses mozzarella to create the mozz stick hybrid of your dreams. 

Now that you know the deal with grits vs polenta, it's time to pick up a bag of each at the grocery store and get cooking. Impress your friends and family with traditional southern grits and authentic Italian polenta.