What's The Difference Between Polenta and Grits?
Many of our weeknight dinners are usually composed of a few essential elements: a meat, a vegetable, and a grain. This basic formula takes many forms and can be traced in a diversity of dishes. In its most transparent fashion, it's a one-pan dinner, like our Chicken Bog or Simple Whole Chicken with Roasted Broccoli-Mushroom Rice. Slightly more dressed up, it can be a dinner party-worthy meal, like our Italian-Style Grits and Greens with Pulled Pork and Mushrooms. It often assumes regional flair; in New Orleans, you're sure to find Shrimp and Okra Gumbo, served over a generous bed of basmati rice. Change out the protein based on the week or swap out vegetables based on the season; these thoughtfully-composed meat, veggie, and grain dishes are utterly customizable.
At least in the South, one can't help but imagine that this meal structure descends from the much-loved tradition of the meat-'n'-three, where your choice of meat and three comfort-food sides, served buffet-style, require little dress-up. The very concept of the meat-'n'-three embodies the Southern dedication to serving a balanced meal, where the sides are given equal weight and consideration as the main. And in the South, there's no grain that earns more attention than grits.
From savory to sweet, from breakfast to dinner, Southerners have dreamed up a myriad of ways to serve this simple grain. Often written off as bland or mealy in other parts of the country, grits have found a unique home in the South, where chefs and home cooks alike treat their grits with the utmost love and care—and often lots of butter.
Because grits and polenta are both made from ground corn, it can be confusing to determine the difference between the two. Here is a guide to grits, polenta, and what makes them distinctive from one another.
What Are Grits?
A maize similar to hominy was ground into a porridge by the Muscogee tribe, whose original homelands were based in the Southeast part of the country, in regions now known as parts of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Colonists learned how to create the meal from Native Americans, leading it to become one of the South's favorite dishes. Three-quarters of all grits sold in the United States are purchased in the South, in a region known as the "grits belt" that stretches from Lower Texas to Washington, D.C. Georgia has even designated grits as its official prepared dish.
As we said, grits are made from ground corn, and you can find this grain in many different varieties. You'll find yellow grits and white grits; instant grits and quick grits; stone-ground grits and hominy grits, which are made from corn that has been nixtamalized—soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution. Overall, grits have a thick, coarsely-ground texture, as opposed to cornmeal, which is often used in baked goods.
What is Polenta?
So what is the difference between grits and polenta? The answer to this question is rooted in heritage and culture. While Italians have claimed mastery over polenta, Southerners call grits all their own. Aside from this cultural distinction, there are two factors that differentiate grits from polenta: the type and texture of the corn.
While grits can be made with yellow corn, white corn, or hominy, polenta is typically made with yellow corn. In terms of texture, ground corn can vary greatly in consistency. Cornmeal has the finest texture, making it a popular choice for baked goods like cornbread. Grits vary in consistency—instant grits have a finely-ground texture, while stone-ground grits are thicker and toothier—but generally, grits have a slightly thicker texture than cornmeal, yet are still loose enough to form a porridge-like consistency when cooked. Polenta, however, is much coarser than grits, often cooked to a thick, risotto-like texture or even formed into cakes.
Polenta certainly earns its spot in our culinary rotation—like casserole dishes with baked polenta crusts—but grits claim a special place in our Southern hearts. Cooking breakfast for a crowd? Grits, whether sweet or savory, are a sure-fire crowd-pleaser alongside the bacon, eggs, and biscuits. Cooking a weeknight family dinner? Hearty shrimp and grits are an all-time favorite. No matter the meal or the occasion, you'll likely find grits on any Southern table.