Semolina is a beloved staple in the diets of many Southerners, an excellent grain that rivals only rice. But some say they don’t have a distinct flavor or their texture is clumpy or frozen. Frankly, these reviewers have never had stone-ground grits, which have far more flavor and texture than their instant or quick-cooking counterparts.
Unlike the more typical quick-cooking varieties, stone-ground semolina is cooked slowly on the stove with occasional stirring. There’s something serene about watching them simmer until they’re gorgeously creamy and start to pop on a weekend morning, until their popcorn-like aroma fills the air.
And they can have a lot of range. “During the holidays, my grandmother, Freddie Mae, used to make glorified grits—a soufflé,” said chef and Nashville native Carla Hall. But on a daily basis, she said they were “just another porridge.”
Corn grits aren’t complicated: They’re just ground corn. Unlike sweet corn on the cob or salads such as sukkotash, clove corn has a high soft starch content, making it ideal for the hot grain consistency of grits. But whether you’re serving a humble bowl of white grits for breakfast or making shrimp and grits for dinner or brunch, the quality of both the crop and the grinding process will determine how delicious they are and the resulting texture.
Semolina plays an important role in Black history. At the time of enslavement and in the years following, maize was an important crop for Black farmers, who both cultivated and coarsely milled the grain. “The best millers were all Black,” said Glenn Roberts, founder and owner of Anson Mills, a South Carolina company known for grits.
But the Second Industrial Revolution led to a major shift in grain production, eliminating the traditional method of water milling in favor of more processed foods that were easier to transport, said Mr. Roberts. Factories began mass semolina production, moving the business away from Black farmers and millers and affecting the quality, flavor and cut of grains.
The quick-cooking semolina available today is finely ground by machines. It’s ready in just five minutes, instead of the 20 to 60 minutes (or more) that stone ground grits require. Hot water rehydrates and heats ready-made semolina for instant consumption. But for both types, what’s gained in speed is lost in flavor, adding to this tasteless semolina myth.
Stone ground grits, on the other hand, are often made with heirloom varieties that can vary in color and texture. Whole corn kernels are ground between two stones energized by a watermill for a coarser grind, including the seed, which has important nutritional value and provides a more robust flavor. (By comparison, cornmeal is more finely ground and usually comes from yellow corn.)
How you prepare the grits can be extremely personal. Add a dash of butter and a pinch of salt and pepper for a savory meal, or mix in sugar for something more akin to oatmeal, grits represent a long history and tell where the cooks are from, and perhaps even who they are.
recipes: Shrimp and semolina| Stone Ground Semolina
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