Ground Corn 101: Cornmeal and Grits

Ground Corn 101: Cornmeal and Grits

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The importance of corn in the Southern diet cannot be overstated. Corn was eaten fresh in the summer, and dried and ground into meal for boiling and baking in the winter. Cornmeal has also played a major role in Northern foodways and while grits are far more popular down South, cornbread is a universally American dish. However, all ground corn is not the same.

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Grits and Cornmeal

I am a grits missionary. Comments like, “I don’t like grits” get me seriously riled up. If the only grits you have ever had came out of a packet and were cooked in a microwave, of course you don’t like grits! Grits are ground corn, and like many porridges, such as oatmeal or rice, the ultimate comfort food. The term “grist,” meaning grain for milling, became “grits.”

Cornmeal is ground corn, as well – simply a much finer, flour-like grind. In an artisan grits mill, very often when the grits are ground, the larger pieces are sifted and labeled as grits and the smallest, finest grind that falls to the screen below is reserved as cornmeal. 

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Types of Corn

Both grits and cornmeal are ground from “dent” corn, a type of corn with low sugar content and a soft, starchy center. Dent corn gets its name from the slight dent in the center at the top of the kernel. Flint corn is the type of corn used for polenta in Italy and for masa harina in Latin America.  Flint corn gets its name from being “hard as flint.” Regardless of being made from two different types of corn, grits and polenta are almost universally interchangeable. 

Ground yellow corn results in yellow cornmeal and grits and ground white corn results in white cornmeal and grits. The grits seen in the photo below are an heirloom corn that is white, yellow, and red. Masa is made from corn that has been treated with lime and water to loosen the hull in a process known as nixtamalization. It cannot be used interchangeably with grits or cornmeal.

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Types of Grits

Grits are further defined by how they are prepared and ground. There are hominy grits, stone-ground grits, and various grades of commercially ground grits.

Hominy is made from corn kernels soaked in an alkaline solution of water and lye to remove the kernel’s outer hull. When hominy is dried and coarsely ground, the result is hominy grits.

 Stone-ground grits are made from dried whole corn kernels ground between two stones, just as it has been for centuries, which guarantees their corn flavor. The same stone-ground corn can vary in flavor depending on the size of the grind. Stone-ground grits are more perishable and should be refrigerated or frozen. They must also be simmered very slowly for 45 minutes to an hour to coax out their tender, creamy texture. Examples of these grits include Anson Mills,McEwen & Sons, Logan Turnpike, and Hoppin John’s. Bob’s Red Mill corn grits are widely available in grocery stores and while the grind is not quite as large, the grits are not degerminated (how’s that for a word?!) and they maintain a good corn flavor.  

In commercially ground grits, the germ and hull are removed to prevent rancidity and improve the product’s shelf life. The grits are finely ground and produce a smooth, bland porridge without a whole lot of corn flavor.  Also, artisan stone-ground corn varieties are traditionally left in the field to dry completely, a practice known as field ripening. Commercial milling typically demands that the corn be harvested unripe and dried with forced and sometimes heated, air. Instant grits also have the germ and hulls removed and are cooked; then the paste is spread into large sheets. These are then dried and reground. They are virtually a pot of starch with no flavor. They have no soul. They are zombie grits. 

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Make Cornbread, Not War

Long before Europeans arrived in the New World, Native Americans used ground corn in their cooking. Early American and cookbooks refer to cornmeal as “Indian meal.” In many colonial recipes cornmeal was cooked with water into a porridge or mush, then shaped into cakes and baked. Colonists would have been seen cornmeal as inferior to wheat flour, but wheat production was difficult in New England and in much of the South, making wheat flour too expensive for regular use. Also, the high transportation costs were cost prohibitive to shipping in wheat flour from wheat-growing regions. Colonists turned to other crops, especially corn. The high cost of wheat flour was not the only factor favoring cornmeal breads. Most baking took place either in Dutch ovens or in reflector ovens placed in the fireplace until the invention of the wood-fired cook stove in the 19th century. For those cooking in the hearth, it was easier to prepare cornbread as baked-hearth flat breads.

Johnny Cakes and Hoe Cakes

Cornbread was for many years the basic bread of the rural South, the very poor South. Skillet cornbread, johnnycakes, hoe cakes, corn pone, corn dodgers, cornmeal griddle cakes  — are all forms of bread made with corn meal or flour. Cornmeal griddle cakes are the most basic of Southern breads. Biscuits require expensive dairy products, while cornmeal griddle cakes can be made with little more than meal, a bit of oil, and water. Cooks started adding additional ingredients as wealth increased and additional  products became easier to obtain such as butter, eggs, yeast, milk, buttermilk, sugar, and molasses. Then, in the mid-1800s chemical leaveners such as baking powder and baking soda became available allowing for the bread to be much less dense, effectively changing how cornbread was consumed.

Some purists, myself included, like to keep cornbread simple. There’s a joke that cornbread with sugar in it is called cake. It’s actually not quite that straightforward. Kathleen Purvis wrote a brilliant piece in the Charlotte Observer titled, “Why does sugar in cornbread divide races in the South?”  And, typically Northern cornbread recipes call for a small amount of sugar, along with regular milk and equal parts cornmeal and flour for a lighter texture.

Flour and Sugar in Cornbread

I feel as strongly about flour in my cornbread as I do sugar and feel that neither belong. Even the grand Gray Lady, the New York Times errs, offering a modification of Sean Brock’s typical Southern-style skillet cornbread stating, “Sean Brock of Husk restaurant in Charleston, S.C., uses a specific grind and brand of cornmeal to create a fluffy texture, though similar results can be had by using a blend of cornmeal and flour.” Which, I am sorry, is simply not true.

How to Make Cornbread Muffins

Clearly, I have strong feelings about cornbread. I love cornbread and make it often. It’s super easy, can be whole grain, may be made with indulgent fats like bacon grease or butter, as well as more heart-healthy fats like canola and olive oil. Here’s a short video that I shot with Craftsy on how to make Cornbread Muffins.

Let me know if you have any additional questions about grits or cornmeal — shoot me an email to info@virginiawillis.com.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
Virginia Willis

PS here’s a bonus recipe for Shrimp and Grits on my column Down Home Comfort on FoodNetwork. 

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Buttermilk Cornbread

Makes one 10 1/2-inch skillet bread or 12 muffins
Prep Time5 mins
Cook Time25 mins
Course: bread
Cuisine: American, Southern
Keyword: cornmeal, grits
Servings: 12

Ingredients

  • 2 cups white or yellow cornmeal, not cornmeal mix or self-rising cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, bacon grease, canola, or olive oil

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 450°Place the butter in a 101/2-inch cast-iron skillet or ovenproof baking dish and heat in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the cornmeal, salt, and baking soda. Set aside. In a large measuring cup, combine the buttermilk and egg. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir to combine.
  • Remove the heated skillet from the oven and pour the melted butter into the batter. Stir to combine, then pour the batter back into the hot skillet. Bake until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes.
  • Variation: Instead of baking in a skillet, this batter may be prepared as muffins. Preheat the oven to 425 F (218 C). In a medium bowl, combine the cornmeal, salt, and baking soda. Set aside. In a large measuring cup, combine the buttermilk and egg. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir to combine.Pour the melted butter into the batter. Stir to combine, then spoon the batter into a 12-cup standard muffin tin, filling each cup no more than two-thirds full. Bake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes.

Notes

Use this basic recipe and add different ingredients to mix things up such as chopped jalapeno, herbs, cheese, and bits of cooked bacon or sausage.

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Classic Grits

Serves 4 to 6
Prep Time5 mins
Cook Time45 mins
Course: Side Dish
Cuisine: American, Southern
Keyword: cornmeal, grits

Ingredients

  • 2 cups 2-percent milk
  • 2 cups water or stock
  • 1 cup stone-ground grits
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter or to taste, optional
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  • Bring the milk and water to a boil over a medium heat. Whisk in the grits. Season with 1 teaspoon of coarse salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until tender and creamy, 45 to 60 minutes. Add the butter and taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Notes

The ratio for cooking stone-ground grits is 4 cups of liquid to 1 cup of grits. You can use all water, but I find using all milk overpowers the taste of the corn. Generally, I like using a combination of milk and water or stock. When making shrimp and grits I often use shrimp stock and when making savory grits to serve with roasted chicken I will use chicken stock.

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Copyright © 2020 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Please note that this post may contain affiliate links. (That means I make a commission if you use my affiliate link to buy the product.)

Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has made chocolate chip cookies with Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, foraged for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and beguiled celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Bill Clinton, and Julie Chrisley with her cooking -- but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Virginia is a chef instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen and author of Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South, Lighten Up, Y’all, Bon Appétit, Y’all, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, Okra, and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome received a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence. She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree; has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants; and traveled the world producing food stories – from making cheese in California to escargot farming in France. She has appeared on Food Network's Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. She’s been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. The Chicago Tribune praised her as one of "Seven Food Writers You Need to Know." Her legion of fans loves her down-to-earth attitude and approachable spirit. Learn more about Virginia and follow her traveling exploits at www.virginiawillis.com.

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