The Difference Between Cornmeal, Grits and Polenta
I eat a lot of corn and corn products. I love cornbread, corn casserole, catfish in cornmeal, grits and polenta, and consider the last two dishes to be separate dishes. As with pornography and erotica, it can be hard to tell the difference between polenta and grits, but I can tell them by their looks (or taste).
However, they are both made from cornmeal, and understanding their similarities will help you appreciate their differences.
What is corn flour?
Both grits and polenta are technically cornmeal — corn that is dried and ground to make food — but I wouldn’t take a bag of commercial cornmeal from the baking aisle and try to turn it into a bowl of grits. Cornmeal can be coarse, medium, fine, and can be made from yellow, white, blue, or red corn. It is mainly used for baking (cornbread), whipping (catfish), and frying (houshpappi), and is commonly found in the bottom of pizzas and sourdough bread , where it prevents the dough from sticking to the pan and adds a little texture.
Like most cereals, you can buy cornmeal in two forms: regular and rock. According to Eater , it all comes down to the germ:
Regular cornmeal – most of what you’ll find on the grocery store shelf – is “degerminated,” meaning the shell and germ have been removed from the grains; this creates a shelf-stable product with a somewhat uniform texture. Stone ground cornmeal, on the other hand, is a whole grain; it still has a hull and oil-rich buds, making it more perishable (and artisanal) than standard material.
Wholemeal cornmeal can technically be used to make a bowl of grits, although it’s not something traditionally used and doesn’t taste like grits to my taste (more on that in a moment). Fine to medium cornmeal is best for baking cornbread (or cornmeal tortillas), while coarse to medium regular cornmeal is ideal for making pizza crust.
Dent or flint?
Both grits and polenta are made from field corn, which is less sweet than what we gnaw on the cob. (My great-grandfather preferred field corn, complaining that grocery store produce was “too sweet.”)
Although it is considered a southern dish, Native Americans have been eating grits long before the colonizers came here. The cereal is made from coarsely ground corn, which got its name from the small dent in the grain, with a low sugar content and a high starch content. This starch is released when the corn is cooked, giving the dish a creamy texture without the addition of dairy (although you can of course add butter and cheese). Groats can be made from yellow or white toothed corn.
Polenta, on the other hand, is of Italian origin and is traditionally made from yellow flint corn. Flint corn is named for its texture (“hard as flint”) and contains less soft starch than serrated corn. This gives polenta a grainier, tastier texture that cooks just a little less creamy than a traditional bowl of grits.
Are you at least nixtalmalizing, bro?
In my opinion, real groats are made from hominy – corn soaked in an alkaline solution (a process called nixtalmization). We’ve discussed nixtamalized corn before, but to recap: soaking corn in lime, lye, or some other base liquid gives the corn a nutty, heady flavor, making it more nutritious. In an excerpt from his book Beautiful Corn , Anthony Butard explains how nixtamalization makes certain nutrients in corn more available:
Soaking the grain in an alkaline solution makes it more digestible and, most importantly, more nutritious. In unprocessed corn, the niacin (vitamin B3) it contains is bound to a large molecule that is not broken down in our intestines. Alkaline treatment breaks down this molecule, making niacin available in the human digestive tract. In addition, slaked corn has a higher calcium content than raw corn, which is especially important in pre-Columbian culture, where there were no dairy animals providing this important mineral in the form of milk and cheese.
These plump, highly corned corn (commonly referred to as “mommies” in the US) are often eaten as a side dish, used to make pozole, ground into masa for tortillas or tamales, or ground and boiled to make grits.
While you can technically make grits from non-nixtamalized corn, I don’t see the point in doing so. Hominy grits have a sweeter, nuttier, more layered flavor, and I strongly believe that hominy-free grits are responsible for their “tasteless” reputation. (Want to make corn porridge from scratch? Check out our guide .)
Think “dish” not “ingredient”
Preparation also plays a big role in whether a bowl of boiled corn should be considered groats or polenta. Aside from the nixtamalization and type of corn, it’s helpful to think of each as a finished dish rather than a single ingredient (even though technically they’re both).
Due to its high content of soft starch, grits are usually boiled in water and seasoned with butter, salt, and cheese. They can also be used as a base for shrimp and grits, baked in a casserole, or fried in bacon grease , but also serve as a hearty, flavorful side dish without much hassle when made with nixtamalized corn .
Polenta is usually cooked with broth or milk, the latter of which gives the dish a creamy texture, making up for the lack of soft starch in flint corn. It can also be stewed with herbs and cheese and then served in a bowl or allowed to steep. Once cooled, the polenta can be sliced and fried. (You can also buy hard, pre-cooked polenta in a tube, ready to fry.)
You have a lot of options, that’s what I’m talking about, and you’re free to do whatever you want with that information. No one will stop you from cooking nixtamic dented corn in broth or milk, or scolding you for nixtamed flint corn and serving it with shrimp. Both Italians and southerners are prone to a certain amount of pedantry, but how you cook corn porridge is up to you. (Don’t tell me if you add sugar to your cereal. Or use instant sugar. These decisions are between you and your god.)