What's the Difference Between Grits and Polenta?

By: Muriel Vega  | 
bowl of grits
Grits are commonly served for breakfast with little more than a pat of butter on top. Lynne Ann Mitchell/Shutterstock

We often hear the terms "polenta" and "grits" used interchangeably, but are the two the same? If not, how do they differ?

First, both grits and polenta are made from ground corn, yet one is a staple of the American South (hello, shrimp and grits?) and the other comes from Italy. So how can you tell the difference between the two, beside their country of origin?


What Are Grits?

Grits are made of ground white or yellow corn, typically called dent corn. They come in several varieties:

  • Stone-ground: These are ground corn with the germ left intact; they have a coarse texture.
  • Quick cooking: These are finely milled so they cook fast.
  • Instant: These are precooked and dehydrated and require rehydration with boiling water.
  • Hominy: Hominy grits are made from corn soaked in an alkaline solution (often lime) to soften the hull. The hull is then removed, and the kernels are then dried and stone ground.

Grits may be a Southern dish today, but as a food, they're ancient. Food writer Erin Byers Murray told NPR that while researching her book "Grits: A Cultural and Culinary Journey Through the South" she discovered that corn was being milled in 8700 B.C.E. in Central America. Grits are mostly milled in the Southern U.S. — indeed states below the Dixon-Mason Line, (like Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Florida) and other places are known as the "Grits Belt."


What do grits taste like? They're savory with a subtle flavor of corn and should have a thick, smooth texture like porridge. Restaurants in the South often sell them by the bowl and people have different ways to enjoy them — just a dab of butter and salt and pepper or topped with cheese.

Grits are easy to prepare. You don't need much more than a pot of boiling water.

  1. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in large saucepan.
  2. Add dash of salt.
  3. Slowly add grits, stirring constantly. Once grits begin to thicken, turn down the heat to low.
  4. Let simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. Add 3-4 tablespoons of butter, and salt and pepper to taste.

For creamier grits, substitute 2 cups of water for whole milk and prepare the recipe the same. You can store leftover grits in the fridge for up to four days in an airtight container.

polenta cakes
Polenta is easy to fry up into cakes or even turn into french fries.
Tatiana Vorona/Shutterstock


What Is Polenta?

So now we know grits are a food fave of the American South, but polenta's roots lie in Northern Italy. Before corn was introduced to Europe following the colonization of the Americas, something similar to polenta was being made with wild grains like farro, spelt, barley and millet.

Like grits, polenta is made of corn. However, polenta is made from flint corn, not dent like grits. Flint corn has a hard, starchy endosperm that gives it more texture than dent corn. It also has a buttery, corn flavor when prepared. Polenta also is typically made with yellow corn, which gives it the warm, golden color.


Polenta's thick, creamy texture makes it ideal as the base of dishes (topped with mushrooms and cheese, for example), or as a side (like deep-fried polenta cakes).

Like grits, polenta is easy to prepare. Your grocery store probably sells it in pre-made tubes (these are perfect for those fried polenta cakes) or you can simply make your own with yellow cornmeal, water and some salt.

Here's how to cook super-creamy polenta.

  1. Bring 4 or 5 cups salted water to a boil. (You can use broth instead of water, or replace some of the water with milk.)
  2. Add 1 cup cornmeal, stirring constantly and reduce to a simmer.
  3. Once the polenta begin to thicken, turn down the heat to low.
  4. Stir the polenta occasionally, until all the liquid is absorbed and the polenta has a smooth consistency, about 45 minutes.
  5. Add butter, salt and pepper or cheese to taste.

You can add your coarse ground polenta into the food processor to pulse out any lumps and make sure it's as finely ground as possible before you cook it.