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There's grits, and then there's great grits, a Southern Food specialty. Sadly, even many Southerners have never had great grits, or at least not in years. Partly that's due to a fast-food lifestyle, and partly the disappearance of honest, good raw materials and proper preparation techniques.
I grew up eating grits, and over the years what I have been served in restaurants has slowly changed. Cooking grits at home didn't produce a much better dish, and I began to mostly avoid grits even though I loved them. Strangely enough, polenta has become very popular, and it is the same thing...
Polenta is simply boiled cornmeal. Grits are simply boiled cornmeal.
So, why are grits considered so yucky? Actually, if you just boil cornmeal from the grocery store, it IS yucky, whether it's called polenta or grits.
Grits is a food that is Native American in origin, and historically is a long-cooked dish of old-fashioned coarsely ground corn. As monocropping and hybrids took over, grits began to lose the taste and quality of the old varieties of corn. It's further complicated by the terms 'grits' and 'hominy grits' which I always thought were the same thing, although I knew hominy itself was different.
Hominy (also called nixtamel) is made by soaking dried maize (corn) kernels in an alkali to remove the clear coating on the kernel. In traditional Mexican recipes the process (nixtamalization) involves cooking the kernels in lime water (calcium chloride), which removes the hard outer shell along with the germ. In the US, a similar process involved soaking in lye-water made from wood-ash until the hulls are released.
Hominy Grits (sometimes called sofkee) is coarsely ground hominy, and masa (the dough used to make tortillas) is finely ground hominy.
Grits, on the other hand, are ground corn kernels dried without the alkalizing process. Yellow corn grits are made from whole kernel corn, and white corn grits are usually made from hulled corn kernels. (I'm not sure how they hull them.)
In earlier times in the US there were lots of local grist mills where people took their grains to be milled. Often they paid the miller with a portion of the grain as his fee. Even today in South Carolina, there is a law (South Carolina Code of Laws, Title 39 - Trade and Commerce, Chapter 29) on the books that corn meal and grits must be enriched (similar to flour) unless the grits is ground from corn where the miller keeps a portion as his fee.
So part of the secret to great grits is the type and quality of corn and how they are ground (stone-ground is best); the other part of the secret is cooking them. The best grits probably aren't in a box at your grocery store, and if you cannot find good grits locally, it is worth it to order them. Try Anson Mills, Logan Turnpike Mills or Delta Grind.
Cooking requires a long (and I do mean long!) slow cook so the grits completely hydrate and become creamy, somewhat like a risotto. That might be overnight in a slow cooker, or in a low-temp oven, or carefully watched on the stovetop. Grits need a lot of salt and I find it better to add it later in the cooking. Grits also love butter!
Anson Mills has a good recipe with excellent notes and instructions. They describe cooking to 'first starch' (a term unfamiliar to me) as "the early stage of grits and polenta cookery in which fine corn particles thicken the liquid enough to hold the larger particles in suspension" as part of the overall cooking process. You should read their recipe if you'd like to make great grits!
Grits are not just a breakfast side dish. They are used as a base for a plethora of dishes from breakfast to desserts, and can include many additives like cheese and shrimp. Shrimp and Grits is a popular and tasty dish on the Gulf Coast and coastal South Carolina. I'll try to make Shrimp and Grits soon, and post about it!