How we tested
Many people see corn grits, a dish that’s strongly identified with the American South, as merely a vehicle, a neutral-tasting base that gets all its flavor from the lavish amounts of butter and cheese that are typically stirred in. So does it matter which brand you buy? To find out, we gathered four brands and called 21 editors and test cooks to the tasting table. We sampled each cooked in water with just a dash of salt and in our recipe for Creamy Cheese Grits.
Just what are corn grits? Corn grits are ground-up corn, period. But to confuse matters, that’s also what Italian polenta is made from and that’s the definition of cornmeal, too. So is there any difference among these three? Cornmeal is usually (but not always) a finer grind. Corn grits are usually (but not always) cooked more quickly than polenta. Also, grits are typically prepared with milk and cheddar cheese while, classically, polenta is more likely to be cooked in stock or water and flavored with Parmesan cheese. Many brands of grits include a recipe for polenta on their packaging.
The term “hominy grits” adds to the confusion. It can simply mean corn grits. But if you’re visiting the region around Charleston, South Carolina, “hominy grits” will probably mean freshly milled corn grits (which you must store in the refrigerator or freezer). Finally, the term can refer to grits that are made from actual hominy. What’s hominy, you ask? Hominy is corn kernels that have been soaked in an alkali solution before grinding so that their coarse outer shells slip off (this is the part that gets stuck in your teeth when you’re eating popcorn.) Got all this straight?
In our lineup, we include two brands that call themselves grits, one that’s labeled hominy grits (but is really just ordinary grits) and one freshly milled brand. We narrowed our scope to old-fashioned and standard grits, and we excluded any brands labeled “quick” or “five-minute” grits, which are often precooked to speed up the process of cooking.
Enough Already. So Who Won?
In the plain tasting, one brand stood out from the rest, proving that grits are no mere carrier for butter and cheese. This brand had a “sweet, complex corn flavor somewhere between corn on the cob and lightly buttered popcorn.” The delicious flavor improved the Creamy Cheese Grits, too: “Deep corn flavor adds dimension that others don’t have.” Our top brand is not for cooks who are short on time (or money). These grits require an overnight soak and take 45 to 90 minutes on the stove. (And did we mention you have to mail-order them?) According to the company, the overnight soak improves both texture and flavor (and makes the nutrients more available). Unlike mass-produced corn products, these grits are decidedly not uniform; for our tasting, for instance, we received one batch with a notably coarse grind. While the company assured us this was a traditional interpretation of grits, a few tasters preferred a creamier texture.
These beautiful heirloom grains are well worth the price and time. But like most Americans in 2012, our lives are hectic and overscheduled, and we’re usually pressed for time. That’s when we reach for our best buy. This brand also scored very well, and its smaller grains cook in just five minutes (although longer cooking improves them). These grits have a “lovely soft texture” and pack “potent” corn flavor, plus you can find them in your supermarket.