Polenta vs. Grits: What's the Difference?

Transform yourself into a cornmeal connoisseur with our guide to differentiating between polenta and grits.

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Have you ever found yourself stuck in the supermarket aisle, engaged in an interior battle over what to pair with your ragu bolognese or tumble of cheese and shrimp? Is it polenta you're after? Or grits? And what is the actual difference?

Polenta vs. Grits

While they're both stone-ground cornmeal, there's plenty that separates them. For starters, they're derived from different varieties of corn that are milled to different consistencies and different textures.

Polenta comes from flint corn, which is courser and holds a firmer texture, while dent corn (or hominy) used for grits produces a finer consistency. And while it isn't the case across the board, the corn used to create polenta is generally yellow, while grits are white.

Then there's a matter of geography; polenta hails from Italy, while the American South lays claim to grits. So while there's not a hard and fast rule in terms of color (as mentioned above), you might want to think twice before trying to pass off yellow "grits" to a proud Southern cook!

The truth is a lot of the confusion comes down to labeling. Technically, "polenta" isn't an ingredient at all — it's a dish of cornmeal cooked down into a porridge. Not that the clarification helps matters, because the same is essentially true of grits. This explains why you sometimes won't find either polenta or grits labeled as such in the grocery store. If this is the case, simply look for "course cornmeal."

That said, you'll often spot polenta sold in a tube. In this case, it's been pre-cooked, shaped, and congealed, ready for slicing into rounds and heating or searing as a sort of cake. And while you won't find grits sold this way, you can certainly prepare them this way yourself. Which is to say, polenta and grits are largely interchangeable — and it pretty much comes down to preference which one you choose to use.

Looking for ways to make the most of your maize? Read on for some of our favorite brands of polenta and grits, as well as ideas on how to prepare them.

Pile of polenta, cornmeal, grits
Jason Donnelly/Meredith

How to Make Polenta

Buy it: Roland Foods Fine Grain Yellow Polenta at Amazon, San Gennaro Polenta at Amazon

The established polenta ratio is 1 part polenta to 4 parts water (or milk or stock for a richer result), although Chef John tends to measure his polenta just scant of a full cup. Here's how to make it:

  1. The polenta should be poured slowly and whisked constantly into the boiling liquid to prevent lumps from forming, then stirred over low heat for about 5 minutes, until it just starts to thicken.
  2. Cover and cook over the lowest heat for about 30 minutes (stirring every 5 minutes or so) until fully tender. Season with salt, butter, and pepper, and top with everything from fried eggs to sausage and peppers to stew.

Check out Chef John's method for How to Make Perfect Polenta

How to Dress Up Polenta

While making cheesy polenta stirring in cheese will make your polenta especially creamy and luscious. Grated Parmesan or gruyere will lend your porridge a delicate nutty quality, but don't be afraid to go for more full-flavored cheeses, such as cheddar, brie, or even blue.

Not a fan of the porridge-like consistency? When polenta is prepared using the basic method outlined above (combined with herbs, green onions, or cheese if desired) and then chilled, it firms up into a sturdy block that can be fried in wedges and used as a base for just about anything you please. Top easy polenta with tomato sauce as a delectable substitute for pasta, or create an incredible vegetarian main course, by serving pan-fried polenta with corn, kale, and goat cheese.

How to Make Grits

Buy it: Charleston Favorites Stone Ground Grits at Amazon, Geechie Boy Mill White Grits at Amazon

Now, we won't judge you for turning to instant or quick-cooking grits in a pinch. But there's no question that slow cooking coarsely-ground grains produce an infinitely more delicious result. As does soaking them overnight, which allows the hulls to soften which is good if you wanna make grits for breakfast.

Like polenta, 1 part grits to 4 cups liquid (water, milk, stock, or a mix) is the standard ratio. Although knowledgeable cooks will often up the liquid content for a creamier, lump-free consistency — some even advocate for a 1:6 ratio.

And the process for making grits is essentially exactly the same as polenta (see above). Don't forget to season with plenty of butter, black pepper, and salt, and if you desire, fistfuls of melty cheese.

How to Dress Up Grits

Like polenta, grits can be poured into containers, chilled, then cut into shapes for frying. But how's this for another noteworthy method? Cooked grits can be poured into oven-safe dishes and baked, to make rib-sticking casseroles that are deeply savory and molten within. Try studding them with sausage & cheese, or Louisiana style shrimp.

Then there's shrimp and grits, as iconic a combo as peanut butter and jelly. You'd be hard pressed to find a better topping for creamy grits than sweet, snappy shrimp (although they're a great base for anything saucy). Try Chef John's version, flavored with cream, jalapeños, and bacon, or this Low Country-inspired option, simply augmented with chopped tomatoes and garlic cheese spread.

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