[Photographs: Jillian Atkinson]

As a girl who grew up in the South, I consider groats just as much a part of my life blood as camouflage, sweet tea and salt water. I have eaten more than my weight in boiled cornmeal for breakfast, lunch and dinner as a side or entree. Relatively cheap, fast and available grains are the perfect base for a meal that sticks to your ribs and keeps you full all day. Most people are either ardent fans or they absolutely despise grits, but what it really means to me is that many have not had a good pot.

Most people have only eaten fast-cooked grains, perhaps at a dining room or a family member’s house. These cereals were probably characterless and tasted a bit like cardboard, topped with a butter flap that muffled the corn flavor, which in any case was lost in the middle of the heavy breakfast they were probably served with. Very few people – including many southerners who have ingested innumerable bowls of it – have ever had grains made from good quality corn, simmered low and slow, stirred with love and care until they formed a silk porridge; sweet, nutty and creamy, they take what looks like a whole morning to cook. These are the grains my grandmother talks so lovingly about, and the ones I want to show you how to make here.

Grits are one of the first real American foods. According to Deep South Magazine, the indigenous peoples of Muscogee were among the first known producers of what we today call groats, knocked or ground dried corn with stones to create a coarse cornmeal and then boiled it in a soup or porridge called safke. (They also added odor to the safflower as it boiled, effectively nikstamalized it as hominy, removing bran and improving corn digestibility and nutritional value. This is probably how the word “hominy” was attached to grains, although most grains today are not made from nixtamalized corn.)

When colonizers arrived in the 1600s, they were introduced to native corn and its many preparations, including cereals. Grits would become a staple in the southern colonies and form what is now known as the “grits belt” that runs from Texas to Washington, DC, where most of the country’s groats are sold.

How to cook perfect, granny-approved grits

Like making a casserole of perfectly cooked white rice, Grandma-approved cooking grains can seem like a daunting task. Common problems usually run the color scale, from the grain being too runny and undercooked until the grain becomes too dry, thick and / or full of undercooked lumps. All too often, poorly made grains are hidden behind large amounts of cream and cheese and then suffocated under sauces, spices and other intensely flavorful fillings. To really appreciate grains, all you really need is a few short ingredients (salt, butter, water and quality grains) and a good technique.

Choice of the best gravel

For a really unusual pot direction, we recommend stone-ground groats like those from Southern Queen. While we used stone-ground grain in some of our recipe tests, this recipe works with grain from most other mills and brands. The main exceptions are instant and quick groats, which are convenient products for quick cooking that require less water; these products must be manufactured using the packaging instructions.

Stone-based grains are made from whole-grain grains that have been pulverized in a stone mill to produce a more complex structure that ranges from larger bits down to a fine powder. They also have a shorter shelf life due to the inclusion of corn bran, which contains oils that become rancid over time. The shelf life of these grains can be extended by storing them in a cool, dry place, preferably the refrigerator, or freezer for longer storage for more than a month.

Correct grit technique

Cooking groats is very much like cooking polenta. You will need a sufficiently large volume of water relative to the amount of grain to guarantee that even the largest bit of dried corn is completely moisturized and softens. At home, I often start with a ratio of 4: 1 in volume of water to grains, and if the grains are not fully cooked when thickened, I add more water and bump the ratio up to 5: 1. In the following recipe, I have set the ratio from start to 5: 1, as there is no harm in starting with a little more water (in the worst case, boil it for a few more minutes to get thicker). This guarantees – even for a total beginner – a pot that boils up silky and creamy.

I also like to cook my covered groats, lift the lid every few minutes to whip thoroughly and stir and scrape to prevent lumps from forming and the bottom burning. The lid catches steam, which reduces the chances of a lumpy skin forming on top, and it will also contain any sprays of scalding grains from flying out of the pot, which can happen when the porridge thickens.

Deciding when your groats are done is a personal choice and determines your total cooking time. Some people like their grains more on the running side with a little gravelly structure still left, others want them creamy and thick but liquid, while some want them so stiff that they are able to keep their shape , when they have appeared. Feel free to cook your grains to the point you want (however, note that once your grains are fully hydrated, you can thicken them faster if you remove the lid to let the steam out).

Serving Grits

There are many ways to serve cereal in addition to this humble recipe. Shrimp and groats is a classic pairing and there are a million and one ways to change this recipe: add crab, lobster, crayfish, oysters or any other seafood you like. You can also serve them with a suffocating sauce with chicken or Turkey, or with a rig red wine-braised piece of beef.

Of course, they are the perfect side to your breakfast platter with eggs, bacon and toast, but you can also change that by adding salmon or corned beef hash (my favorites). You can let the grains cool and fry them in cereal, which is a good appetizer or a meal. Adding cheese, bacon, green onions, sausage and anything else you may have in your kitchen cabinets or refrigerators is always a good way to go as cereals can supplement most things. However, the one thing you will never find on the table with my groats is sugar. Leave it for oatmeal and other porridge.

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