Is there anything more vile than poorly prepared grits? What other dish can combine the flavor of soap with the texture of tapioca balls finely dusted with popcorn hulls?
It doesn’t have to be this way.
I know that grits can be terrifying, and any time you order them in a restaurant you’re playing a dangerous game — let’s call it Southern Roulette — in which you stand a one-in-six chance of coming out on top.
A quick glance online shows why: the first ten grits recipes you find online severely underestimate the amount of liquid you need to get grits to any sort of edible consistency. A three-to-one ratio of liquid to grits is untenable (hint for food tourists: don’t order grits in a Paula Deen restaurant); a four-to-one ratio is no better (I’m looking at you, Alton Brown.) Frankly, these recipes should come with warning labels and adjusted serving suggestions. Disaster: Feeds sixteen, as nobody will be able to choke down more than a bite or two.
Many recipes writers will hedge their bets by adding the caveat of “add more water if necessary.” This is the route taken by cowards and abusive chefs. Unwilling to commit to the correct ratio in the first place, they feel no compunction in blaming you if you end up with a gelatinous, lumpy bowl of failure.
Grits need three things: Decent grits, a patient cook with some time on his or her hands, and at least a five-to-one ratio of liquid to dry grits.
Let’s take these in order.
Decent grits: When it comes to packaging, words mean little, with the possible exception of “Stone Ground:” a distinction that informs the buyer that the grits aren’t coming out of a vast industrial mill with little regard to the quality of the product. Fancy restaurants tout their Anson Mills grits, which are a safe bet — Anson Mills is widely regarded as a purveyor of quality products — but buying grits through mail-order seems wrong somehow. I’ve had good luck with Carolina Plantation (which I’ve bought at Whole Foods, because although I live in Tennessee no major chain grocery store carries even halfway respectable grits. I seem to recall their being cheaper at Whole Foods than they are at Amazon.com, in fact.) Trader Joe’s actually sells a fine product at a reasonable price — implying that there’s a major manufacturer who’s making decent grits found on most grocery store shelves (and packaging some separately under the TJ’s label.) Unfortunately, I have no idea which brand is secretly good, and I’m not about to subject myself to testing every abysmal brand of grits in Publix or Kroger until I find the one standout. My advice is to start with “stone ground” as your baseline, and test them accordingly.
BY THE WAY: Unless you have a special recipe for “rancid grits” or “grits-n-weevils,” keep your grits someplace cold. Like the freezer.
BY THE OTHER WAY: Some grits taste like chemicals. For heaven’s sake, read the list of ingredients on the label to see if there’s anything other than “corn” or “grits” on there.
A Patient Cook With Some Time On His Or Her Hands: I am not kidding here — half an hour of cooking is the bare minimum of stove time required. Ninety minutes is not unheard of. Here’s why your restaurant grits are terrible: you came in on a Sunday morning for brunch, and Joe the Hungover Line Cook showed up a mere twenty minutes earlier to start your grits.
Would a pressure cooker help? I don’t know. I don’t have a one, but I imagine you could speed things up with technology. Googling “pressure cooker grits” suggests that the answer is yes, but also wildly complicated.
A Five-To-One Ratio of Liquid to Dry Grits: You can use water, milk, chicken broth, or some combination thereof. If I’ve got milk in the fridge, I use 4 parts water to 1 part milk to 1 part grits. If I’ve got cream in the fridge, I add a splash of that when they’re done instead of butter. If your grits are too thin (unlikely,) take the lid off the pot and cook them a little longer. Just remember, as hot starchy liquids cool, they thicken up; something that seemed perfect at 212° is going to be grits Jell-O at 125° and a solid brick at room temperature.
Now that you know the three secrets of grits, here’s another: They’re a tabula rasa of flavor, so you can add whatever you please to them. Caramelized onions and blue cheese? Bacon, cheddar and green onions? Roasted garlic and smoked gouda? Franks Red Hot Sauce? French onion dip? Shitake mushroom demi-glace? Chili? You’ve got carte blanche to doctor them up any way you like, or enjoy the purity of working with butter, salt, and pepper.
4 cups water
1 cup milk
¼ cup dried bell pepper flakes
1 cup stone-ground grits
Butter or cream
In a large saucepan, bring water, milk, salt, and various peppers to a boil. (How much salt? As much as it takes to make the cooking liquid taste like seawater. How much black and cayenne pepper? As much as it takes to make it as hot as you like; start with a teaspoon of each.) When it reaches a boil, stir in grits, lower heat to maintain a low simmer, and clamp on the lid. Cook for at least a half-hour, stirring occasionally. Once it’s done (check after a half hour), stir in butter or cream and cook for another five minutes. Add cheese, or crumbled up bacon, or nothing. Serves four, or three if it’s a substantial part of breakfast, or six as a side dish.