A bowl of buttered grits is an essential part of good Southern cooking. In their simplest form – with just a pat of butter and a sprinkling of salt – grits are the cozy, warm breakfast cereal that has fed generations. When dressed up with garlic, shrimp, and cheese, they are the must-have shrimp and grits we dream of.
But, what are grits? Where did they come from?
Grits are finely ground, dried, hulled corn, either white or yellow. The name “grits” comes from the word “grist,” which to early settlers in the South meant any ground cereal grain. The mills where grist was made were named “grist mills.” But while these pioneers might have been accustomed to wheat or oat cereals in their homelands of Europe, what grew best in the South was corn. So they dried corn, ground it, and cooked it into a porridge they called “grist,” which we know as “grits.”
It’s a bit of a coincidence that the word “grit” is also the name for the grainy particles found on mill stones that are used to grind corn into grits.
The Difference Between Grits, Hominy, Cornmeal and Polenta
In the world of ground corn you first have the coarse and flavorful stone-ground grits like we produce at The Old Mill. We begin with white and yellow corn, ground between water-powered heavy stones to a texture deemed just right by our miller, Chuck Childers. We sift out the fine corn flour and send it over to our distiller Keener Shanton who uses this by-product to make bourbon. And the grits that remain are packaged to be sold or cooked in our Old Mill Restaurant and Pottery House Cafe. We like their rich and authentic corn flavor as well as their coarse texture, which is unique to freshly stone-ground grits.
Hominy grits, on the other hand, which we do not produce at The Old Mill, are made by first soaking dried corn kernels in an alkali solution to remove the outer hulls. This is a technique first used by Native Americans. The soaked corn kernels are then dried and ground. And to make matters a bit more complicated, in some parts of the South – the Carolinas – people refer to all grits as just “hominy.”
Cornmeal is any ground dried corn, and some cornmeal is more finely ground than others. We grind both white and yellow cornmeal here at The Old Mill, and we also make our own signature self-rising cornmeal with leavening added. In addition, we produce a cornmeal mix with both corn flour and leavening added, which is perfect for making cornbread.
Polenta, on the other hand, is an Italian style of ground yellow corn. The variety of corn is a bit different than what we use to make grits or our cornmeal. Polenta is cooked like grits, however, simmered into a mush and served like Southerners serve grits. And polenta can also be cooked, chilled, sliced and pan-fried like we make fried grits.
Water Power Grinds Corn into Grits at The Old Mill
If you’ve visited us, you know our mill sits between The Old Mill Restaurant and the General Store. Almost 200 years ago, when Isaac Love first built an iron forge here and his son William followed it with a mill, the mill and its water wheel were situated on the banks of the Little Pigeon River for a good reason.
They needed the water current to turn the turbine and power the heavy stones to grind corn. Legend has it that passenger pigeons would flock to this beautiful area of East Tennessee, and because it was a sight to see, the river was named for those birds.
Today, 50-pound bags of white and yellow corn arrive at our circa-1830 mill from farms in the Midwest. Interestingly, the corn we use today is similar to the corn used by those first settlers here – white dent corn, often called “gourdseed” corn, and what the Native Americans knew as “maize.”
Here in our small town of Pigeon Forge, within sight of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the age-old cycle of grains begins each morning. Corn is ground between two 2,000-pound stones, only the second set of stones used in this mill since its beginning. They turn from the power generated by the current of our river and create a peaceful motion that must have seemed life sustaining in those early days. It still is!
Corn and Grits are Pillars of Southern Cooking
In East Tennessee and most of the South, corn has meant survival. Long before the European settlers arrived, Native Americans were growing corn. And had it not been for those original inhabitants, the settlers who came with oats and wheat to plant would have starved. The corn they learned to grow would flourish in newly cleared land. It provided sustenance, from the fresh or “green” corn as it was called, to the corn that was dried and milled into grits or cornmeal, to the corn fed to the hogs, or the cornmeal and corn flour distilled into whiskey.
Over the years and the centuries, corn and grits have become fixtures in the Southern diet. We love their flavor and what they add to a meal and recipes. We also appreciate their deep and lasting story.
At The Old Mill we know that grinding corn between heavy, historic stones captures the corn’s true flavor and texture. It makes grits that are far superior to anything you will ever buy in the grocery store. It is a nearly lost art that captures the very essence of the corn kernel.
While we grind both white and yellow corn into grits, we do find that our visitors have their own regional preferences. Northerners tend to prefer the yellow grits, whereas Southerners opt for the white grits.
The Health Benefits of Grits
Our gluten-free friends can rest assured that corn grits are free of wheat gluten. They are an excellent cereal or side dish for anyone needing to follow a gluten-free diet. Plus, they are high in fiber.
Stone-ground grits, made from the whole corn kernel, contain more vitamins and minerals than highly processed grits. In quick and instant grits, for example, the germ and nutrient-dense part of the corn are removed. You cannot beat stone-ground grits for flavor and healthful benefits, too.
Because of the whole grain present in our stone-ground grits, it’s best to store them for optimum freshness in the freezer until time to use them. They keep in your freezer for up to a year.
Here’s the Nitty Gritty on Cooking Stone-Ground Grits
A general rule for cooking stone-ground grits is one part grits to four parts liquid. So 1 cup of grits needs 4 cups (1 quart) of water, milk, or chicken stock. You bring the liquid to a boil, along with a little butter and salt if you like, and gradually stir in the grits. When the grits return to a boil, reduce the heat to let them simmer. Cook, stirring often, uncovered, until creamy, at least 25 minutes.
The time to cook stone-ground grits varies with personal preference. Some people think they need much more cooking time, up to one hour, so they get really creamy. If you choose to cook grits that long, make sure you continuously stir them so they don’t stick to the pot. And, you may need to add a bit more liquid as they cook. When the grits are almost done, turn the heat to its lowest setting and cover the pan. Some people like to stir in a little heavy cream at the end to make them even creamier!
For a quick grits casserole, stop cooking grits at 20 to 25 minutes, and stir in an egg, some milk, and seasonings. Turn the grits mixture into a lightly greased baking dish, and bake in a 350-degree oven until set, about 25 minutes. This is what is known as “grits casserole,” and it has been a Southern staple at potlucks, church suppers, and bridge luncheons for a long time.
Shrimp and Grits Were Born in the Low Country
In Charleston, SC, home kitchens and diners decades ago, grits teamed up with locally caught shrimp for breakfast. Eventually, this delicious shrimp and grits combination was found out and made its way onto brunch menus throughout the South. We serve shrimp and grits at our Pottery House Café, and it is one of our most popular menu items.
Variations on the shrimp and grits theme range from shrimp that poach right in the simmering grits to a bountiful sauté of shrimp, onions, peppers, and garlic spooned on top of creamy cheese grits. Either preparation, you cannot go wrong!
But two things are important: You must begin with good shrimp, and you need stone-ground grits, which have enough texture and flavor to stand up to the shrimp and bold seasonings.
Microwaving Stone-Ground Grits
Southern food writer Nathalie Dupree knows a thing or two about grits, and she is quite outspoken that one of her favorite ways to cook them is in the microwave. Yes, that what she said!
Nathalie’s ratio of cooking grits is 1 cup grits to 4 cups water, milk, or chicken stock. She heats the liquid to a boil in a pan on top of the stove, and pours it in a 2-quart heat-proof glass bowl. Then, she whisks in 1 cup grits and places the bowl in the microwave and cooks, uncovered, on high power for 5 minutes, without stirring. She adds salt to taste and stirs well to whisk out any lumps. Nathalie advises that you continue to cook at 5-minute intervals until the grits are creamy and the consistency you like.
Cooking Grits for Yourself or a Crowd
Stone-ground grits are easy enough to cook for one serving or for dozens. For a single serving, place 1 cup water and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat. When boiling, stir in 1/4 cup grits. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. If you want the grits to cook longer and be more creamy, add a little more water, and return to the heat and simmer, stirring, uncovered, until done. Season with salt, pepper, and butter to taste.
For 4 servings:
Use 2 cups water, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 cup grits.
Same method for 8 servings:
Use 4 cups water, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 cup grits.
For a crowd – 24 servings – here is how to cook the grits:
Use 3 quarts (12 cups) water, 1 tablespoon salt, and 3 cups grits. The grits will need to be stirred constantly, cooked uncovered, and they will need 40 to 45 minutes of cooking.
For Easy Cheese Grits:
Follow the cooking directions above, but cook in half water and half milk. Add minced fresh garlic to the cooking water, as well as salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper, if desired. When the grits have cooked, add a little butter and a handful of shredded sharp Cheddar cheese or any cheese of your liking. Taste for seasoning. Add and pepper and more butter and cheese as needed.
How to Store Leftover Grits and Make Fried Grits
As delicious as grits may be, it’s possible that you may have leftovers. And if that is the case, place those leftover grits in the fridge, covered. They will keep for several days. You can reheat in the microwave or in a saucepan over low heat with some more liquid to thin them out.
Or, better yet, before they go into the fridge, plan to make what Southerners know as Fried Grits.
Pour the leftover grits in a square baking dish. Lightly cover. When they are cool and the mixture has set – either at room temperature in several hours or overnight in the fridge – cut into 3/4-inch slices. Heat butter, oil or bacon grease in a cast-iron skillet and when hot, add the grits slices and cook until lightly browned on both sides. You can also dip the slices into beaten egg and dredge in finely ground cracker crumbs before frying.
No matter whether grits are leftover, then fried until crispy… No matter if grits are simmered until creamy with butter and salt, maybe even a teaspoon of sugar like you used to prefer as a child… Grits are a mainstay of Southern cooking.
Grits embody the heart and soul of corn, one of the South’s most important crops. And here are The Old Mill, grits continue to be ground with stones, powered by the rushing current of cool river water. Good things like stone-ground grits never need to change.