As a girl raised in the South, I consider grits as much a part of my lifeblood as camouflage, sweet tea, and salt water. I’ve eaten more than my weight in cooked cornmeal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as a side or main. Relatively inexpensive, quick, and accessible, grits are the perfect base for a meal that'll stick to your ribs and keep you feeling full throughout the day. Most people are either ardent fans or they absolutely despise grits, but what that really means to me is that many haven’t had a good pot.
Most people have only eaten quick-cooked boxed grits, maybe at a diner or a family member's house. Those grits were likely characterless and tasted a bit like cardboard, topped with a pat of butter that muddied the corn flavor, which in any case was lost amid the heavy breakfast they were likely served alongside. Very few people—including many Southerners who have consumed countless bowls of it—have ever had grits made from good quality corn, simmered low and slow, stirred with love and consideration until they formed a silken porridge; sweet, nutty, and creamy, they take what seems like an entire morning to cook. These are the grits my grandmother speaks so fondly of, and the ones I want to show you how to make here.
Grits are one of the first true American foods. According to Deep South Magazine, the Muscogee indigenous peoples were among the first-known makers of what we today call grits, pounding or grinding dried corn with stones to create a coarse cornmeal and then cooking it into a soup or porridge called safke. (They also added lye to the safke as it cooked, effectively nixtamalizing it like hominy, which removed the bran and improved the corn's digestibility and nutritional value; this is likely how the word "hominy" got attached to grits, even if most grits today are not made from nixtamalized corn.)
When colonizers arrived in the 1600s, they were introduced to native corn and its many preparations, including grits. Grits would become a staple in the Southern colonies, forming what’s now known as the “grits belt,” running from Texas to Washington, DC, where most of the country’s grits are sold.
How to Cook Perfect, Grandma-Approved Grits
Like making a pot of perfectly cooked white rice, cooking grits that are grandmother-approved can seem like a daunting task. Common issues usually run the gamut, from the grits being too runny and under-seasoned to the grits becoming too dry, thick, and/or full of undercooked clumps. Too often, poorly made grits are hidden behind copious amounts of cream and cheese, and then smothered under sauces, spices, and other intensely flavorful toppings. To truly appreciate grits, all you really need are a few staple ingredients (salt, butter, water, and quality grits) and some good technique.
Choosing the Best Grits
For a truly exceptional pot of grits, we recommend stone-ground grits like the ones from Southern Queen. While we used stone-ground grits in some of our recipe testing, this recipe will work with the grits from most other mills and brands. The main exceptions are instant and quick grits, which are quick-cooking convenience products that require less water; those products should be made using the package directions.
Stone-ground grits are made from whole kernel corn that’s been pulverized in a stone mill to produce a more complex texture ranging from larger bits down to a fine powder. They also have a shorter shelf life due to the inclusion of the corn's bran, which contains oils that will go rancid over time. The shelf life of these grits can be extended by storing them in a cool, dry place, preferably the fridge or, for longer storage of more than a month, the freezer.
Proper Grits Technique
Cooking grits is a lot like cooking polenta. You want to use a high enough volume of water relative to the quantity of grits to guarantee that even the largest bits of dried corn will fully hydrate and soften. At home, I'll often start with a 4:1 ratio by volume of water to grits, and if the grits aren't fully cooked through by the time they've thickened, I'll add more water, bumping the ratio up to 5:1. In the following recipe, I've set the ratio from the start at 5:1, since there's no harm in starting with a little more water (worst case, you have to cook it for a few more minutes to thicken up). This will guarantee—even for a total grits novice—a pot that cooks up silky and creamy.
I also like to cook my grits covered, lifting the lid every few minutes to thoroughly whisk and stir and scrape to prevent lumps from forming and the bottom from scorching. The lid traps steam, which reduces the chances a lump-causing skin will form on top, and it will also contain any pops of scalding grits from flying out of the pot, which can happen as the porridge grows thicker.
Deciding when your grits are done is a personal choice, and will determine your total cooking time. Some people like their grits more on the runny side with a little gritty texture still remaining, others want them creamy and thick but flowing, while some want them so stiff they're able to hold their shape when dolloped. Feel free to cook your grits to whichever point you want (though note that once your grits are fully hydrated, you'll be able to thicken them up more quickly if you take the lid off to let steam escape).
There are many ways to serve grits beyond this humble recipe. Shrimp and grits is a classic pairing, and there are a million and one ways to change that recipe: add crab, lobster, crayfish, oysters, or any other seafood you like. You can also serve them with a smothering sauce with chicken or turkey, or with a rich red wine–braised piece of beef.
Of course, they are the perfect side for your breakfast plate of eggs, bacon, and toast, but you can also change it up by adding salmon or corned beef hash (my favorites). You can let the grits cool and fry them into grit cakes, which make a great appetizer or meal. Adding cheese, bacon, green onion, sausage, and whatever else you may have in your kitchen cabinets or refrigerator is always a good way to go as well, as grits can complement most things. The one thing you will never find on the table with my grits, however, is sugar. Please, leave that to oatmeal and other porridges.
Why It Works
- A higher 5:1 ratio by volume of water to grits ensures they cook through fully with no stubborn, hard bits.
- The recommended stone-ground grits offer the best flavor and texture, particularly when compared to grits made with commercial varieties with a more consistent grind.
- Covering the pot in between frequent stirrings keeps splattering contained and minimizes skin formation on the surface.
- Yield:Makes about 2 servings
- Active time: About 1 hour
- Total time:About 1 hour
- 2 1/2 cups (590ml) water
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as desired
- 1/2 cup (85g) yellow or white corn grits, preferably stone-ground (optionally rinsed, see note)
- 2 tablespoons (30g) unsalted butter
In a 2-quart saucepan, combine water and salt and bring to a boil. While whisking, sprinkle in grits, then return to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook, whisking and scraping bottom well every 2 to 3 minutes, until you reach your desired consistency: runny with some remaining gritty texture, about 30 minutes; thick and creamy but flowing, about 45 minutes; or stiff and able to hold its shape while barely flowing, about 1 hour. Whisk in extra water, a tablespoon or two at a time, at any point if your grits become thicker than you'd like. (If your grits are fully cooked but too thin, you can speed up the thickening by cooking them uncovered, which will allow steam to escape more quickly.)
Whisk in butter until fully melted and incorporated, then remove from heat. Season with additional salt, if needed.
Serve as desired.