What Are the Differences Between Polenta, Grits, and Cornmeal?
Whether you're enjoying polenta or grits, the process for making them—and the final dish—are similar. Ground corn becomes uber creamy and rich when cooked in water or stock, and finished with butter and cheese. But the types of corn used to make polenta or grits—and cornmeal—are entirely different. For starters, southern grits are generally made with white corn, while Italian-style polenta is made from yellow corn. Cornmeal is similar to polenta, but rather than being turned into a rich, savory side dish, it's used as an ingredient for baked goods like cornbread and corn muffins. Ahead, we're explaining what you need to know about each type of grain and how to prepare them.
Polenta, which refers to any hulled and crushed grain, is both a specific type of corn and a creamy northern Italian dish. It is more consistent in particle size than grits, and is generally milled to a fine or medium-coarse texture. It's made from flint corn, which has a hard, starchy endosperm that offers more texture than softer dent corn. Polenta is usually made with yellow corn, which is what gives this ingredient its golden hue. Serve it as a creamy base alongside braised short ribs, chili, or Parmesan Pork, or even in the form of French fries. In the grocery store, you'll find instant, quick-cooking, and traditional polenta; as the labels indicate, the first two are speedier and require less hands-on cooking because they're par-cooked, whereas traditional polenta offers the best texture and flavor, as the corn slowly releases its starches and sweetness in about 45 minutes.
Grits are sold in both coarse and medium-grinds, and can be made from white, yellow, or blue soft dent corn, which creates a silkier texture compared to polenta (but don't worry—grits still offer plenty of texture). According to Sarah House, food innovation chef for Bob's Red Mill, grits are made by removing the germ of the corn, which creates the signature smooth and creamy texture we associate with this southern-style dish. Corn on the cob is completely dried before the kernels are shucked and milled to a medium-grind consistency. During this milling process, the germ breaks off from each kernel and is separated by an aspirator, which separates the heavier, oil-filled germs from the lighter bits of corn.
When preparing grits, Catherine Horton, partner at Anson Mills, recommends not adding dairy such as butter or cheese to the grits too early in the cooking process, as the dairy will compete with the corn starches and cause the grits to take significantly longer to cook.
Cornmeal can be made from any color of dent corn—for example, yellow, white, or blue. What differentiates cornmeal from grits and polenta is the grind. "Corn can be ground into various textures, including coarse, medium, and fine. You can find cornmeal in all grinds, though fine is the most common," says House. Cornmeal may be stone-ground, which retails the hull and grain offering not only a more nutritious product, but a more flavorful "corny" one, too; otherwise, it's ground with steel rollers, which removes most—if not all—of the hull and grain, creating a product that is slightly less flavorful but more shelf-stable.
Coarse cornmeal can be used in the breading for fried chicken or crusty fish, whereas fine cornmeal is preferred for baking muffins, cakes, and cornbread. Some cooks may swap medium- or coarse-ground cornmeal in place of regular polenta in a pinch.