When the first American colonists accepted bowls of cooked, coarsely ground maize from Native Americans, there’s no telling what their true feelings were about the dish they called “grist.” Somebody saw it as a diamond in the mush, though, and before long settlers were taking their cue from the Muskogees and cooking up their own steamy pots of what eventually became known as “grits.”
Within a couple of centuries, grits achieved staple status on Southern tables, particularly among the Gullah/Geechee who were given grits by Lowcountry plantation owners as part of their food allowance. Topped with shrimp and other shellfish harvested from the waters surrounding the South Carolina sea islands, it made a sturdy foundation of nourishment and a darn tasty one, too.
Grits love has only grown in the ensuing years and now everyone wants to try their hand at stirring up an aromatic pot. But before you toss a handful of grits into hot water, take time to consider the many different ways to achieve the perfect pot. Here are three methods recommended by some of the Palmetto State’s most expert grits cookers.
Before you experiment, note that when we talk about grits in South Carolina, we’re specifically referring to a stone-ground product, not the stripped-down instant or quick grits often seen in the grocery store. Also, chicken broth may be substituted for all or part of the water in any grits recipe to add more flavor. Now, go buy the best South Carolina stone-ground grits you can find, choose your cooking vessel and method, and go get your grits on.
Soak and Swim
Stone-ground grits are coarse and hard, so it stands to reason that some millers advise a good soaking prior to cooking. Anson Mills, based in South Carolina and respected worldwide as a grower and miller of heirloom grains, strongly recommends a long soak for their grits. Not only does this improve texture and enhance the corn flavor, but it also shortens the cooking time by half.
To try this method, begin with a heavy saucepan in which you’ll soak a cup of grits in about 2 ½ cups of water. Cover and let sit overnight. Keep covered and cook in the soaking water, stirring with a wooden spoon while bringing the water to a simmer over medium heat. In a separate pan, heat 2 cups of water and add a scoop to the grits each time you stir the pot – about every 10 minutes or so. You want those gritty bits to have plenty of water to “swim” in and absorb as they cook. In about 45 to 50 minutes, you’ll have a creamy pot of grits. Add salt to taste, a bit of butter and serve them up. You can order a variety of Anson Mills stellar grits directly from its website.
Low and Slow
“Only fools rush in” is a warning that applies not only to love, but to cooking grits, too. In that vein, Greg Johnsman, a restaurateur, Edisto Island farmer and masterful miller who produces the famed Marsh Hen Mill brand of grits, says patience is the No. 1 ingredient to a perfect pot of grits.
“The heat should be low and the cooking slow,” he told a gathering of grits-curious foodies during a panel discussion at his Charleston restaurant, Millers All Day.
While he, too, advocates a nice soaking of the grits before cooking to develop flavor, it’s not a must. But a slow simmer is non-negotiable. Use a heavy pot, bring the water to a nice steamy simmer, stir in the grits, cover, and then reduce the heat to achieve a slow, lazy bubbling. Johnsman refers to this technique as a “longevity cook”–the secret to dreamy grits. As most grits experts will attest, it’s imperative to keep that wooden spoon nearby for regular stirrings of the pot. Grits not only stick to your ribs, it will stick to the bottom of your pot, too, if you’re not attentive.
To finish your grits the Marsh Hen Mill way, hit it with a bit of milk or, for even more richness, half-and-half once the grits absorb most of the water. Then let it cook a little bit more until it’s thick and creamy. Snag your own bag of famous Marsh Hen Mill grits on the company's website or by visiting markets throughout Charleston.
Measure and Microwave
No, that’s not a typo. The microwave can be a grits guru’s favorite tool, according to former cooking show host, prolific cookbook author and award-winning national culinary star Nathalie Dupree. She lives in Charleston, where the temps are often punishing enough to cause even the most experienced cooks to swoon. Not in the mood to fire up the stovetop or stand over a hot pot of grits with your wooden spoon? Then this is the method she recommends for you.
“You’ve got to measure out your grits and water using a 4-to-1 ratio–one part grits to four parts water,” she told a rapt audience during the Millers All Day grits panel. “No matter what the recipe on the bag says, use those measurements.”
Her vessel of choice is a glass batter bowl–the kind used for mixing and pouring pancake batter. Make sure not to go overboard with the amount of grits you’re cooking at one time; leave plenty of room for the mixture to bubble without overflowing. Stop the microwave every five minutes or so to stir and check for fluid. Go ahead and add a little water as needed. Once the grits are tender and creamy, add salt, butter, cheese or whatever you please.
Skeptical about this method? Well, no need to be. They don’t call Dupree the “Grande Dame of Southern Cooking” for nothing!