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Classic Casseroles: Cheese Grits

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Grits and cheese—for a lot of Southerners, you shouldn’t have one without the other. Superfans of this combo aren’t shy about taking things to new heights with a stick-to-your-ribs casserole in which grits and cheese share top billing. The aptly named cheese grits casserole blends the tastes of sweet corn with savory cheeses to deliver a flavor punch for a knock-out meal. While cooks across the country bake up bready casseroles on Christmas morning, South Carolinians are busy stirring pots of grits in preparation for the main breakfast event. Rumor has it that Santa himself prefers a helping of cheese grits casserole over cookies and milk.

Making the best casserole requires starting with the best grits you can find. Luckily, that’s not a difficult task in South Carolina. The state is rich with grist mills—storied operations that turn kernels of dried corn into coarsely ground grain. Our millers mean business when it comes to turning out some of the finest grits anywhere, with many using heirloom grains to give their products distinctive flavor. Look for brands like Anson Mills, Palmetto Farms, Carolina Plantation, Altman Farm and Adluh when grits shopping. Important note: Resist the urge to reach for those “quick” and “instant” products in the grocery store. Though cutting corners might be tempting, the result will be a baking dish of tasteless mush. If the words “stone-ground” and “South Carolina” aren’t on the packaging, leave it on the shelf. This is not a suggestion—it’s a Southern commandment.

Now, for the cheese. Most everyone agrees a good sharp cheddar is a must. Sometimes Parmesan is mixed in as well for a more piquant touch. The only hard-and-fast rule here is to hand-grate your cheeses rather than use the pre-shredded varieties, which contain added preservatives to prevent clumping. If you want cheese that's full-bodied and melts smooth, the do-it-yourself method is called for. If you’ve just got to take a shortcut, we have two suggestions: Simply dust off that grater and recruit one of your kids to put some sweat equity into their share of the casserole or substitute a container of pimento cheese spread. 

For richness, a lot of cooks use equal parts water and milk for cooking the grits. Eggs help bind the ingredients, which include various spices that run the gamut from garlic powder to cayenne pepper to Worcestershire sauce.

But enough of all this discourse. You’re hungry and nothing but cheese grits casserole will do. Here’s a recipe that is easy to whip up and a real crowd-pleaser at gatherings. For folks who want a heartier dish, add crumbled cooked sausage or bacon—whatever the carnivores in your life prefer. Whether you serve it for breakfast, brunch or dinner, your cheese grits casserole is sure to be a winner.

 

South Carolina Cheese Grits Casserole
Ingredients
1 cup stone-ground SC grits
2 cups water
2 cups milk
½ teaspoon salt
3 eggs, beaten
¼ cup grated Parmesan
1 container pimento cheese spread (If you like it really spicy, try a jalapeño version.)
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
¾ teaspoon garlic powder
Cayenne pepper to taste

Method
Bring water and milk to a boil in a saucepan. Stir in grits and salt. Reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer, stirring often, until grits are thick and creamy, typically about 20 to 30 minutes. Carefully transfer grits to a large mixing bowl. Quickly incorporate the beaten eggs, then add desired spices. Fold in the Parmesan and pimento cheese. Pour mixture into a casserole dish that has been coated with cooking spray and bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, or until the top is crusty and brown. Remove and allow to cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.