GRITS & POLENTA: THE DIFFERENCE
There is no labeling standard in the U.S., so the answer to the question isn’t readily apparent. Both grits and polenta are ground cornmeal, which is ground from dried maize (maize is another word for corn). The difference is in the grind: Cornmeal for polenta is ground much finer than the pellets of grits, and even cornmeal has varying textures, from coarsely ground to finely ground (also called corn flour). If you want to substitute grits for cornmeal, you can grind them to a finer texture.
We like to think of polenta as “Italian grits” and grits as “America polenta,” but, based on local cuisines, the are served in slightly different ways. Polenta is not served as a breakfast cereal, for example.
And, the types of corn used in the two countries differ. Most American grits are ground from dent corn; most Italian polenta is made from flint corn, which holds its texture better. Thus, American grits can cook up soft, like cream of wheat, while polenta can cook up more toothsome.
WHAT ARE GRITS
Grits are corn kernels that are soaked in lye or other alkaline solution to remove the casing. At this point, they are known as hominy; hence the term, hominy grits. The hominy is left to harden and then is ground to the texture of tiny pellets, the “grits.”
Grits are boiled with water into a porridge similar to cream of wheat. Grits are of Native American origin, but our modern word comes from the Old English “grytt,” meaning coarse meal.
Grits with miso-glazed shrimp. Photo courtesy Silk Road Tavern | NYC.
WHAT IS POLENTA
Polenta is coarsely-ground yellow corn, also known as cornmeal, that is slowly cooked with milk/cream, stock or water. A staple in Northern Italy, it is called cornmeal mush in the U.S. It can be served soft like grits with a sauce (mushroom ragu is our favorite) or grated cheese; or can be set into a block shape, then sliced and grilled or pan fried. Polenta can be enjoyed plain, with a sauce (tomato sauce is traditional), or topped with fish, meat, pasta sauce or vegetables. As with grits, polenta can be served sweet or savory.
HOW ABOUT MASA?
To add a third variable, there is masa, also called hominy: maize kernels that are dried and treated with a solution of calcium hydroxide, an alkaline solution also called slaked lime and wood ash. This process, which loosens the hulls so they can more easily be separated from the kernels,* is called nixtamalization. Died and ground, the kernels are called masa harina, which is used to make arepas, tamales, tortillas, among other Latin American dishes including a chocolate pudding. It is also the base of corn chips, which were originally made (in Los Angeles), by cutting and frying leftover tortillas.
*In addition, the process softens the corn. As a side benefit, the alkaline solution reacts with the corn so that the nutrient niacin can be more easily assimilated by the digestive tract.