Grits vs. Cornmeal vs. Polenta: What’s the Difference?

They all look alike, so what's the deal with grits vs. cornmeal? And where does polenta fit into the mix? Here's the scoop.

Most of us are pretty familiar with sweet corn: pull back the husk, remove the silk and use it to make your favorite fresh corn recipe. Field (or dent) corn, on the other hand, is a whole different thing. This corn is starchier than its sweet cousin, so you can’t eat it straight off the cob (but livestock can!). When it is grown for people, it’s either treated with lye to create hominy or masa harina for corn tortillas, or ground up to make cornmeal, grits and polenta.

All of these items are ground corn products, but is there actually a noticeable difference between them? We take a deeper look at each one to determine when it’s best to opt for grits vs. cornmeal, and whether you can substitute grits for polenta.


If you’re looking to make a killer batch of cornbread, cornmeal is your best bet. Cornmeal is made by milling dried corn. It can be ground fine, medium or coarse, although the fine-ground varieties are the most common at the grocery store. It’s usually yellow or white (the two most common colors of field corn), but it can also be blue or red, depending on the type of corn used.

Although cornbread and corn muffins are the most popular use of cornmeal, it does have other cooking applications. You could use it instead of grits or polenta in recipes, but the resulting dish will turn out smoother. We also love using it instead of flour to bread fish fillets or dusting the bottom of bread or pizza with cornmeal to keep it from sticking in the oven. If you want to do something different, try making Kentucky Spoon Bread or use it to make a sweet dessert cake.


Grits are a staple in Southern cuisine. They might look very similar to cornmeal, but they go through an additional treatment process called nixtamalization. Before it’s ground, the corn is treated with lye (sodium hydroxide) to make hominy, the main ingredient in posole. After an overnight soak, the alkaline solution loosens the corn’s hull and softens the kernels. The process also makes the corn more nutritious, releasing the corn’s niacin so it’s fully digestible by our systems. Then, the hominy is dried and ground up to make grits.

In the end, the softening of the corn kernels makes grits softer and creamier than polenta. At the grocery store, you’ll find two varieties of grits: stone ground and instant, usually available as white or yellow corn. Instant grits are partially cooked before they’re dried, so they cook up in as little as 10 minutes. Stone-ground grits, on the other hand, are a whole-grain product, so they’re more nutritious, but they take longer to cook (30 to 45 minutes).

Most people cook grits with water but add lots of butter and cheese to improve their somewhat bland flavor. You can eat them in the traditional way, or whip up a grits casserole, enjoy them for breakfast or turn them into dessert pie.


Last but not least, polenta is similar to grits with one notable exception: the dried corn isn’t treated before it’s ground. Unlike American dent corn, polenta comes from Italian flint corn. That means the starches in polenta are harder and tend to have a slightly grittier texture (don’t worry; they still cook up creamy and porridge-like).

Most polenta recipes use stock or milk instead of water and contain herbs and other savory flavors. You can find dried polenta in the grocery store, but cooked polenta is also available in tubes. Slicing cooked polenta is a favorite way to serve this grain, frying or grilling the slices to create a tasty appetizer or side dish.

If you can’t find polenta at the store, you can definitely substitute grits. We recommend using yellow grits when making this swap, as polenta is traditionally a yellow corn product.

Can’t decide which one to make? Try them all! Explore the wide world of corn with our top cornmeal recipes.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay has been writing for digital publications for seven years and has 10 years of experience working as a professional chef. She became a full-time food writer at Taste of Home in 2023, although she’s been a regular contributor since 2017. Throughout her career, Lindsay has been a freelance writer and recipe developer for multiple publications, including Wide Open Media, Tasting Table, Mashed and SkinnyMs. Lindsay is an accomplished product tester and spent six years as a freelance product tester at Reviewed (part of the USA Today network). She has tested everything from cooking gadgets to knives, cookware sets, meat thermometers, pizza ovens and more than 60 grills (including charcoal, gas, kamado, smoker and pellet grills). Lindsay still cooks professionally for pop-up events, especially if it provides an opportunity to highlight local, seasonal ingredients. As a writer, Lindsay loves sharing her skills and experience with home cooks. She aspires to motivate others to gain confidence in the kitchen. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her cooking with fresh produce from the farmers market or planning a trip to discover the best new restaurants.