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Southern and Italian Experts Explain the Difference

When it comes to products made from versatile, globally used staple foods, you can always count on one thing: strong and often contradictory opinions!

Ground and dried corn, a staple product found on every continent, is no exception. Every culture has its own way of using corn products, and it can even differ from cuisine to cuisine. So I spoke to experts, from millers to Italian and Southern chefs, to bring them some elements of truth: what is the difference between grits and polenta?

The difference between grits and polenta

Polenta originates from Italy. Owner of popular ancient grain brand Anson Mills, Glenn Roberts, shares, “(Polenta) is very diverse in Italy; There is a large list of plants in the corn canon that identify as polenta', but what they have in common is that they are primarily flinty types of corn, a variety that is, as its name suggests, very hard and less starchy than other varieties. .

In the United States, polenta is not made with flint corn since this variety is not readily available in the United States. Instead, dent corn, a slightly sweeter and starchier variety, is most commonly used in the American South to make polenta and grits. For example, Brad Kelly, vice president of operations at Farmview Market in Madison, Ga., uses Hickory King dent corn exclusively for his grits.

The size of the ground corn is another differentiator. Drew Belline, culinary vice president of legendary chef Ford Fry's Rocket Farm restaurants, explains, “Polenta is typically ground multiple times, resulting in a finer product. »

Piero Premoli, executive chef and partner at Pricci in Atlanta, echoes this. “Real polenta is ground twice and more refined,” while real polenta only passes through the mill once to obtain a coarser product.”

You may wonder if the color of the corn makes a difference, but it's not an accurate indicator. Polenta is usually yellow, but grits can be white, yellow, or both. Miller Joann Fain Tarpley of Nora Mill Granary in Helen, Georgia, uses a mix of white and yellow corn for the mill grits.

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How do these differences affect cooking?

According to Roberts, polenta and grits should be cooked low and slow, never brought to a boil, for optimal flavor and aroma. Soaking can reduce cooking time, but in his experience, mid-round beans like those from Quaker Oats take about 45 minutes; pre-cooked quick grains take 10 to 15 minutes. Premoli says the cooking time is the same for polenta.

The most important thing to keep in mind, says Belline, is the coarseness of the grind. “That’s what’s really going to affect the amount of liquid, the cooking temperature, and most importantly, the cooking time.” A coarser product will require a longer cooking time to become tender.

When to use grits or polenta

“I love using polenta in winter for heartier dishes, like meat stew and braises,” shares Belline. Overall, polenta is most often served as a side dish to dinner.

Oatmeal is most popular in Southern-style breakfasts. Greg Johnsman, owner of Marsh Hen Mill, says, “(Grits) can be used on their own with butter or salt, (or) fried in grits cakes…But shrimp and grits are the staple in the Lowcountry ( of South Carolina). »

Although polenta and grits have similar preparations, “some people consider it heresy to use them interchangeably!” » said Roberts. Premoli is one of them, “due to variations in texture”. Belline says they can be swapped, but Johnsman warns that's not a problem. even an exchange. “It can be difficult to pass off polenta as grits and grits as polenta… But they can be replaced if necessary.

The Best Way to Store Oatmeal and Polenta

Artisan grits and polenta are more perishable than commercial brands, but Fain Tarpley's advice applies to all: “If you are not using them in the near future, they should be stored in airtight containers, preferably at refrigerator or freezer. This helps lock in nutrients and keep them super fresh.

If you love either grain passionately, chefs say it's worth seeking out ancient grains in small mills. Belline advises: “All the oatmeal and polenta in the store are not the same. When you're looking for “the good stuff,” it's all about tasting the essence of corn,” whether you're having grits with a Southern breakfast or polenta with an Italian dinner.

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