I’m often confused by the various corn offerings since most of the time they all sort of look alike to me. I did not grow up in a family with many corn traditions. We did not make corn bread, we did not make grits, we didn’t hear of polenta until we went to Italy in 1987. But once you’ve tasted a creamy cheesy polenta under a meaty stew, or fried crispy in a patty under an egg, you want to know more. So is there really a difference between polenta, corn meal and grits, and if so, what the heck is it?
Let’s start with corn meal. Corn meal is essentially just ground dried corn, and while it comes in a variety of grinds from coarse to fine, it is a simple product. The corn is dried and then milled to create the meal. This is useful in baking, whether it is providing a sort of nonstick layer on the bottoms of breads and pizzas, or as a central focus, as in cornbread. It is also a great product to use in deep-frying foods, whether dusting fish fillets or mixed in with wheat flour to give extra crunch to your fried chicken or onion ring batter. Corn meal can be made with pretty much any type of corn, and comes in every color from white and yellow, to red and blue colors. They are all used interchangeably.
Grits, on the other hand, while they look similar to coarse corn meal, tend to be made traditionally from hominy instead of just dried corn. Hominy is corn that has been treated with lime as part of the drying process, which helps make it easier to remove the hull, which allows the softer corn to cook up a bit easier. They tend to be made from varieties of corn that have a starch content that is a bit softer than corn meal, and seems to mostly be available in white and yellow varieties, although some specialty producers are making heirloom varietals available.
Polenta is similar to grits with one key exception. Instead of the soft starch you find in the corn that they use for grits, the corn for polenta has a very hard starch, which helps it cook up creamier, much like the hard starch in the center of the rices used for risotto. This Italian product is pretty widely available at grocery stores, but if you are looking to make a polenta focused meal and cannot source them, you can actually substitute grits very successfully. Just be sure to use the yellow variety, since that is the traditional type for polenta.
If you are going to stock these products at home, I recommend keeping them in the freezer unless you go through them quickly, as corn products can go rancid in your pantry or attract bugs.