In the world of ground corn, there are grits, cornmeal, and polenta. All are delicious, but all are a bit different.
Stone-ground grits, like we make here at The Old Mill, are finely ground, dried, hulled white or yellow corn. We stone-grind the corn into grits using water-powered, large and heavy stones. Grits like ours are intentionally coarse-textured. They take a bit longer to cook than supermarket grits. Count on 40 to 45 minutes. But they’re worth it – full of corn flavor. They unlike ordinary grits, they taste of freshly milled corn.
Grits are a staple down South. We eat them simmered and buttered for breakfast, or served with spicy shrimp or a grilled steak anytime we can get them. We fry up cold pieces of leftover grits until crispy. We turn grits into casseroles of garlic, eggs, and Cheddar cheese. We tote these grits casseroles to potlucks, serve them at Easter, fix them when there are few provisions in the house. Grits are simple, sustaining, and very Southern.
Hominy grits, on the other hand, are made by soaking dried corn kernels in an alkali solution to remove the outer hulls. The soaked corn kernels are then dried and ground into grits. They generally have a finer texture than our stone-ground grits. Most of the grits in supermarkets are hominy grits. Or, they are instant or quick-cooking grits. These processed hominy grits take less time to cook than stone-ground grits, but they also don’t have the real corn flavor.
Compared with grits, cornmeal is any ground dried corn. We grind both white and yellow cornmeal here at The Old Mill, and we also make our own self-rising cornmeal with leavening added. Cornmeal goes into our breadings, giving a nice crunch to the exterior of fried fish, chicken and shrimp. It makes delicious cornbread and hushpuppies. In addition, we produce a jalapeno cornmeal mix with both flour and leavening added, which is perfect for making spicy cornbread.
If you study the history of baking in America, you will see that cornmeal has been used in breads, cakes, pies, and puddings for generations. Once corn was grown in early America, and especially here in the South, corn became a part of the everyday diet. Corn pone, corn dodgers, hoe cakes – these are all names for cornmeal mixed with boiling water, formed into patties and fried in whatever grease or oil you had on hand. They were the bread of life for poor settlers, and that’s why cornbread is so beloved in our region. Today the Midwest might be known as the corn belt, and that is where the corn is grown that we grind into grits and cornmeal, but here in the South, our love and need for corn and cornmeal started much earlier.
Polenta, on the other hand, is an Italian style of ground yellow corn usually simmered into a mush and served alongside grilled and roasted meat. Polenta can also be cooked, chilled and cut into serving pieces to pan-fry just like fried grits. Yet, the variety of corn in polenta is a bit different than what we use to make grits and cornmeal at The Old Mill.