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.