Grits are a beloved staple in many Southerners’ diets, a quintessential grain rivaled only by rice. But some say that they don’t have any defining taste, or that their texture is clumpy or congealed. Clearly, those detractors have never had stone-ground grits, which have way more flavor and texture than their instant or quick-cooking counterparts.
Unlike more typical quick-cooking varieties, stone-ground grits are cooked slowly on a stovetop, with an occasional stir. There’s something serene about watching them simmer on a weekend morning until they turn gorgeously creamy and start to pop, their popcorn-like aroma filling the air.
And they can have so much range. “For holidays, my granny Freddie Mae would make glorified grits — a soufflé,” said Carla Hall, the chef and Nashville native. But on a day-to-day basis, she said, they “were just another porridge.”
Corn grits aren’t complicated: They’re just milled dent corn. Unlike the sweet corn that is eaten off the cob or in salads like succotash, dent corn has a high soft-starch content, making it ideal for the hot-cereal consistency of grits. But, whether you are serving a humble bowl of white grits for breakfast or making shrimp and grits for dinner or brunch, the quality of both the crop and the milling process will determine how flavorful they are and the resulting texture.
Grits play a significant role in Black history. During enslavement and in the decades after, corn was an essential crop for Black farmers, who both grew and coarsely milled the kernels. “The best millers were all Black,” said Glenn Roberts, founder and owner of Anson Mills, the South Carolina company known for its grits.
But the Second Industrial Revolution prompted a major shift in the production of grits, stamping out traditional water milling in favor of more processed foods, which were easier to transport, Mr. Roberts said. Factories began mass-producing grits, shifting business away from Black farmers and millers, and affecting grains’ quality, flavor and cut.
The quick-cooking grits available today are finely ground by machines. They’re ready in just five minutes instead of the 20 to 60 minutes (or more) stone-ground grits require. Hot water rehydrates and warms instant grits so that they can be consumed immediately. But, for both types, what’s gained in speed is lost in flavor, contributing to that myth of flavorless grits.
Stone-ground grits, on the other hand, are often made with heirloom varieties that can vary in color and texture. Whole corn kernels are ground, including the germ, which has significant nutritional value and provides a more robust flavor, between two stones energized by a water mill for a coarser grind. (Cornmeal, by comparison, is ground more finely and often comes from yellow corn.)
How you prepare grits can be deeply personal. Whether you add a pat of butter and a dash of salt and pepper for a savory meal, or stir in sugar for something closer to oatmeal, grits represent a long history and speak to where cooks are from — and maybe even who they are.
Recipes: Shrimp and Grits | Stone-Ground Grits
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