One of the most distinctive dishes of the American South, grits are hard to get wrong, but they can't be rushed. Like polenta, grits are a simple ground-corn porridge, and they feature in a broad array of dishes that are served from breakfast to dinner. The secret to good grits is a slow, low cook and a heavy pan. For the biggest rewards, skip the shortcuts offered by instant or quick grits and take the challenge of authentic stone-ground grits.
Pick Your Grind
Your choice of grits affects cooking times and, on a more subjective level, the quality of the finished product. The quickest solution is packaged instant grits, which have been precooked and dehydrated and require only reconstituting in boiling water, much like an instant soup. Also sold in supermarkets, quick and regular grits have the germ and hull removed for a quicker cook, roughly 5 minutes for fine-ground quick, and 10 minutes for medium-grind regular. Grits gourmets, however, should look for stone-ground grits, usually from health food or specialty stores. These epicurean grits retain the germ for a deep, round corn taste, but they take longer to cook, sometimes beyond the hour mark. Hipsters might enjoy grits made from purple corn, as opposed to the typical yellow or white. The taste is no different, but they do render an intriguing washed-out blueberry color.
Supermarket grits are ready to use straight from the packet, but stone-ground grits benefit from a soaking in cold water to soften them up a little. Stir them to encourage any chaff to rise to the surface and skim it away. Once they are softer, drain the water through a fine strainer. The longest but lowest-maintenance way of preparing stone-ground grits is to transfer them to a slow cooker, with 3 cups of salted water for each cup of grits. Cook them on high for 3 hours, stirring every 45 minutes, and work in some butter or shredded cheese toward the final act if desired. Once the grits are cooked, allow them to stand for a short while to consolidate flavors and texture.
In general, though, grits demand ample attention in the form of regular stirring with a wooden spoon, which will not only prevent burning at the bottom, but also build the texture by working the starches. Bring salted water to a boil in a heavy pan; then gradually stir in the grits. A 4-to-1 water-to-grits ratio yields a smooth product. Reduce the heat and cover, allowing the grits to absorb the liquid and thicken. Stir in a half cup of milk and allow it to simmer for 15 minutes, then add another half cup of milk and simmer for 30 minutes, partially covered. Throughout the process, you need to stir the grits to prevent burning, but you should end up with grits the consistency of soft mashed potatoes.
Grits can be a sweet breakfast dish or a savory side, as in the signature Southern shrimp and grits. For sweeter grits, use a half-and-half milk-and-water mix instead of just water, or combine chicken stock and milk for a savory version. Stirring in cream, butter and cheese as the grits near completion transforms grits from slightly bland to surprisingly seductive. "Southern Living" recommends cheddar and Monterey Jack for their sharpness without excessive oil, but Parmesan also has its fans. Keep grits fresh before you cook them by storing them in the fridge, and consume them as quickly as possible after you do cook them. This isn't a dish that improves at a second sitting.