In the South, where corn is king, grits are it. A gluten free grainy corn porridge, grits are served with breakfast, lunch, and supper. And they make an excellent side dish for BBQ. Especially cheese grits.
Some purists split hairs and define Southern grits as being made only from white corn hominy, which is dried corn that has been soaked, sometimes with lye, and the fertile centers, the germs, and tough exterior hulls are removed before it is dried again and ground. Some say polenta is only made from yellow corn and it is not as finely ground. And there is a minor difference between corn breeds used in Italy and the US South, and new hybrids come online every year. In the real world, either white or yellow corn, hominy or untreated, can be used to make both polenta or grits, and when you buy a bag labeled grits or polenta, it could be either. The taste diff doesn’t amount to more than a grain of corn and you can use them interchangeably.
In the old days most towns had a water or wind driven grist mill, and people brought their grain for grinding, often paying the miller with part of the finished product. Purists prefer stone ground, and never buy instant grits, which have been processed to speed cooking. Grits contain a small amount of oil so they should be used when fresh or stored in the refrigerator or else they can go rancid.
The recipe was inspired by Bronson “Bron” Smith, a South Carolina Barbecue Association (SCBA) Master Judge and as gracious a Southern Gentleman as ever bred. When I first visited Columbia in an effort to taste my way across the state he grabbed his car keys, said “jump in”, and squired me around for days showing me the nooks and crannies and the best eats. One morning we had an especially good batch of grits, and he told me how to make them “the right way” with a secret ingredient that is not on the package instructions or any cookbooks I have seen: Baking soda.
Bron likes his grits best with eggs and country ham, but often tops them with cheese and serves them with barbecue.
- 2 cups water (or use half stock or milk)
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ cup grits or polenta
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Boil water. Pour the liquid into a 2 quart saucepan with high sides and add the baking soda. I know this is a huge pan, but it can foam up with the baking soda so the high sides will keep it from foaming over and spattering. Be careful that you don't use more baking soda than the recipe calls for. Bring to a boil and keep an eye on it.
- Add grits. The moment it boils, pour in the grits slowly so each grain gets "shocked" to prevent clumping. As soon as it comes to a boil again, turn the temp down to the lowest possible temp and stir down the foam. When it is no longer foaming, put on the lid. Let it sit for 20 minutes, stirring or whisking every 5 minutes or so to keep it from clumping or sticking to the bottom. A wooden spoon is best for this task so you can get down into the corners of the pan and prevent burning. It should get thick, but not gummy.
- Add enrichments. Add the butter and stir it in until it melts and is evenly distributed. If you are adding herbs, now's the time. If you are adding cheese, now's the time. Mix it in about 1/3 at a time. If it is too thick, and it probably will be, add an ounce of liquid and stir. Add more liquid if necessary. If it is too wet, leave the lid off for a few minutes. When it has thickened but is still a little runny, season it to taste with salt and pepper. Take it off on the runny side. It will thicken by the time you serve it.
- Serve. Remove from heat and if you are using other toppings like shrimp, bacon, or ham, now's the time. Serve with butter, salt, pepper, and cream on the side in case your guests want to doctor it.