Sometimes, it’s fun to eat things that challenge us: the almost-too-sour pickles that make our mouths pucker, the mapo tofu that makes our tongue and lips and cheeks tingle, the bowl of curry or chili that’s so spicy that it causes us physical pain but we can’t stop eating it because if we do the pain becomes slightly too unbearable, etc. And then sometimes, it’s nice to eat adult baby food. Enter the world of dried-and-ground corn, the stuff that when simmered with water or milk or stock becomes a gruel-like porridge has been soothing people for millennia. But what’s the difference between cornmeal, grits, and polenta? Is there even a difference at all? Let’s get into it.
Both grits and polenta fall under the heading of cornmeal, which is essentially a coarse flour, or “meal,” made from dried corn. Cornmeal can be yellow or white, fine, medium, or coarsely ground, each with its own distinct purposes; fine cornmeal, for example, is best used for baking, as its texture won’t interfere with the rest of the dish. Conventional cornmeal—most of the stuff you’ll find on the grocery-store shelf—is “degerminated,” which means the hull and the germ have been removed from the kernels; this creates a shelf-stable product with a somewhat uniform texture. Stone-ground cornmeal, on the other hand, is whole grain; it still has the hull and the oil-rich germ attached, making it more perishable (and artisanal) than the standard stuff.
Grits are made from coarse-ground or coarser-than-coarse-ground cornmeal, and the term can refer to both the ingredient and the finished dish, most popular in the South. Like most of the cornmeal you’ll find in the United States, grits are typically made from dent corn: a variety with a low sugar content, a soft, starchy center, and a particularly pronounced “corn” flavor. Grits can be white or yellow, both of which are traditional; historically, white grits were popular in the urban ports of the South, while yellow were more popular in the rural, inland areas.
The word “polenta,” like “grits,” can refer to both an ingredient and a finished dish—though polenta, in Italy, can be made with any type of ground grains or starches, not just corn. The corn the Italians do use, however, is historically different than the corn used for most cornmeal and grits in the United States; instead of dent corn, true polenta is made from a varietal called flint corn, or otto file. This type of heirloom corn holds its texture a bit better than dent corn, giving it a slightly different texture than grits. Purists and nerds: this one’s for you.
Although we delight in these nitpicky, hair-splitting differences, let’s be honest: you can use coarse-ground cornmeal for any of these dishes, and they will taste just great. Just stay away from anything labeled “instant” or “quick-cooking,” whether it’s grits, polenta, or anything else in the category; that stuff is dried, par-cooked, and then dried out again, and it tastes like sawdust. Stick with the real stuff—whatever it is—and you’ll be good as gold.