GRITS AND POLENTA
Many folks ask us to define the differences between grits and polenta. As we noted, most grits, in the American South, are traditionally made from dent corn. In Italy, most polenta is made from flint corn. Italians began to cultivate flints from the Caribbean around 1500 and developed a then new European foodway, polenta di mais, or cornmeal mush.
When milled and cooked to similar forms, flint holds its particle texture longer than dent. Hence the famous beading texture and palate “grip” of properly made polenta. Flints also have different basic flavor profiles when compared in similar cookery to dents. Flints possess more mineral and floral notes, dents more “corn” flavor upfront, followed by supporting floral and mineral notes.
This contrast begets a broader discussion of polenta, grits, cornmeal, and mush. Are they just different forms of the same basic food idea? Yes and no, depending upon whom you ask. According to many food historians and the USDA, all forms of milled dry corn are some iteration of cornmeal, and all foods cooked from any of these forms are an iteration of mush.
Polenta, according to historians and the USDA, can be made from any corn and milled to any state using any milling equipment and technique from coarse “grits-like” texture to fine flour. But all of us at Anson Mills know something about 17th and 18th century European reduction milling techniques—and how that changes the game. At its introduction to Italian farming, polenta di mais was regarded as animal feed and milled in any fashion. Yes, the original forms of cooked polenta were no more than congealed porridge. But a century later, the reduction milling techniques used by Italians to make polenta di mais—when resources were available—determined polenta’s unique characteristics. In this process, corn was milled slowly to large pieces, then those large particles were passed though the mill again to make them smaller, and again to make them smaller still, until the desired uniform particle size was achieved. Reduction milling yields grist of extremely uniform particles for even cooking. And because reduction milling produces less milling heat, the flavor and texture in hard flint corn is preserved.
At the hand of Italian artisans and their quest for precision, polenta di mais evolved from multiple-pass reduction milling. American cornmeal and grits, in contrast, evolved as a contest to mill corn easily and get it into the pot with utmost speed. Nearly all corn milling in pre-industrial America was single pass, yielding grist with a wide range of particle sizes. American millers were derided in Europe for being impatient “single pass” technicians. Ultimately, when one comparespolenta di mais to grits, cornmeal, or corn flour, it is reduction milling that sets polenta apart visually, texturally, and even in terms of flavor. Predominantly made from otto file, or eight-row flint over the last few centuries, polenta di mais in Italy (and at Anson Mills) has a different flavor profile, a different finished mouthfeel, and a different textural makeup than mush made from Southern heirloom dent, coarse cornmeal, or grits. Simply, we grow Italian heirloom corns and mill them with 17th and 18th century European artisan techniques to achieve the various heritage forms of polenta di mais.
So if you were wondering whether at Anson Mills polenta, grits, cornmeal, or corn flour are all the same thing, the answer is an emphatic NO. Elsewhere, with the exception of the best farms and mills in Italy, all bets are off.
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