Is there a winner in the contest of iconic ground corn products?
In spite of having grown up in the South, I was never a big fan of grits. My family didn’t really eat grits (we were oatmeal people), so my initial encounters with this Southern staple were limited to poorly made instant versions served in greasy spoon diners that even Guy Fieri would evict from Flavortown.
For nearly a decade, I thought all grits were virtually flavorless, grainy, paste-like globs of aquarium substrate, and I would shamelessly deride anyone who dared an attempt at convincing me otherwise. Then I tried polenta.
My first bite of polenta was prepared by a chef at one of Atlanta’s finest Italian restaurants. It was smooth and creamy, served with shiitake mushrooms, roasted peppers and tomato filets with a garlic lemon sauce. But most importantly, it was stunningly flavorful and delicious.
I had heard of polenta prior to that first taste so many years ago, but I was floored at how I could have been missing out on such a wonderful addition to my personal food roster.
I asked, “What is polenta?” and my date immediately responded, “It’s Italian grits.” I was shocked and incredulous.
What relationship could this beautifully saporous bite of food have to the painfully awful grits I had tried in the past? It turned out that while my date may have oversimplified the similarities, grits and polenta have more in common than not and this revelation caused me to rethink my own relationship with all things grit-related.
Polenta has been milled in Italy for centuries. It’s made from dried kernels of corn that have been ground until they reach a fine, course consistency. Once milled, the corn is separated into two parts: the flour and the grain.
In the past, the flour was left for the owner of the mill in exchange for the use of the grindstone while the remaining grains were taken home and cooked as polenta. This rustic dish is as much a part of Italian food culture as grits are to the Southern US—maybe even more.
The Italians are so serious about their polenta that around the end of the 18th century, a gastronomic society was created just to protect the dish’s use and to celebrate its place in Italian culture. Then in the 19th century, the Prima Patria Poi Polenta Society was formed under the slogan “First the homeland, then the polenta!”
Polenta is traditionally made from flint corn, a vastly different type of corn from the dent corn that grits are typically made from. Flint corn holds its texture better than Southern dent corn, making polenta more toothsome than the mushier texture of its Southern cousin. Additionally, corn for polenta is usually more finely ground, making even coarse-ground polenta finer in texture and more naturally flavorful than medium stone-ground grits.
Like polenta, grits start as dried kernels of corn, which are then ground to a course meal, but the main difference between the two is that grits are typically converted to hominy and then re-dried before being ground into the final product. Hominy is essentially dried corn that has gone through nixtamalization, a process in which the corn is soaked or cooked in a mineral lime bath, lye or wood ash.
Nixtamalization loosens the hulls from the kernels and softens them as well as bringing out the distinct corn flavor and aroma of the grain. In a process almost identical to polenta, the kernels are then milled, the flour and grain are separated; and the grain is what we know as grits.
But all of the similarities and differences between the two are simply academic hair-splitting compared to the real question—taste. Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to the question of “Which tastes better?” The answer partly depends on which you grew up eating and partly on which best suits the meal you are preparing.
Since polenta is more finely ground, it has a smoother flavor that pairs well with rich tomato sauces, hearty meats and umami-packed ingredients like mushrooms. Grits, on the other hand, have a more robust and less subtle flavor that holds up well against bold cheeses, shrimp and lots of creamery butter.
I’ve begun to enjoy grits, now that I’ve experienced the beauty of a skillfully prepared bowl of stone-ground grits with shrimp and fresh goat cheese, and I still love polenta too. Don’t ask a Southerner or an Italian to choose between these two iconic dishes. Instead let’s celebrate the similarities…and just eat.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants, and singlehandedly increased Chattanooga’s meat consumption statistics for three consecutive years. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits