People tend to be polenta people or grits people. But like most great debates, we’re a lot more similar than we think.
Both polenta and grits are cereals made from stone-ground corn. When cooked, they soften and release starch into the cooking liquid, creating a soft and creamy mixture that can be topped with sweet or savory toppings.
Though both can be either finely or coarsely ground and either white or yellow, polenta is typically made using corn that stays a bit firmer when cooked, resulting in a texture that is slightly more grainy and toothsome. Grits, on the other hand, are typically made from corn that softens more when cooked, leading to a texture that is—to use an unfortunate but hard-to-replace food term—mushy. In a good way!
Otherwise, the difference between the two is mostly geographical, with grits today being popular in the southern United States. Polenta is often associated with regional Italian dishes.
When it comes to everyday cooking, though, the two are more or less interchangeable, and if shopping for recipe ingredients, you are safe buying polenta, grits, or simply coarse-ground cornmeal. Whew, that’s one more grocery store mystery solved!
Polenta and grits can take some time to properly cook and hydrate for that perfect texture, and there is an abundance of quick-cooking and convenient versions for sale.
Most of these are either very finely ground or par-cooked corn meal, and neither showcase grits to their full potential. The finished dishes will end up a bit gummy with little of the texture that makes ground corn so appealing.
For the real deal, best possible experience, look for stone-ground or coarse polenta or grits. You can find it in boxes or the bulk bin of your favorite grocery store. If you’re lucky, you may even be able to find a locally-milled version!
To cook polenta or grits, pour the ground corn into simmering water, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Classically, you can use a 4:1 ratio—that’s four parts water to 1-part ground corn. But, like anything, you may want to experiment for either a stiffer or creamier finished dish.
The cooking liquid can be water, but for more flavor, you can substitute all or part of the water for broth or milk. Adding butter and/or cheese is common in both polenta and grits, for a creamy, decadent dish.
Grits and polenta can both be sweet or savory. For breakfast and brunch, treat them like oatmeal, with brown sugar, maple syrup, chopped fruit, or even jam.
For savory versions, top your polenta or grits with anything you might put over pasta, like Bolognese, or roasted mushrooms, chimichurri sauce, or a perfectly fried egg. And yes, plenty of cheese!
They are versatile enough to pair with nearly anything and make a great add-on when you don’t have quite enough leftovers to make a full dinner.
Try a few of our favorite polenta or grit recipes: