Many people see corn grits, a dish that’s strongly identified with the American South, as merely a vehicle, a neutral-tasting base that gets all its flavor from the lavish amounts of butter and cheese that are typically stirred in. So does it matter which brand you buy? To find out, we gathered four brands and called 21 editors and test cooks to the tasting table. We sampled each cooked in water with just a dash of salt and in our recipe for Creamy Cheese Grits.
Just what are corn grits? Corn grits are ground-up corn, period. But to confuse matters, that’s also what Italian polenta is made from and that’s the definition of cornmeal, too. So is there any difference among these three? Cornmeal is usually (but not always) a finer grind. Corn grits are usually (but not always) cooked more quickly than polenta. Also, grits are typically prepared with milk and cheddar cheese while, classically, polenta is more likely to be cooked in stock or water and flavored with Parmesan cheese. Many brands of grits include a recipe for polenta on their packaging.
The term “hominy grits” adds to the confusion. It can simply mean corn grits. But if you’re visiting the region around Charleston, South Carolina, “hominy grits” will probably mean freshly milled corn grits (which you must store in the refrigerator or freezer). Finally, the term can refer to grits that are made from actual hominy. What’s hominy, you ask? Hominy is corn kernels that have been soaked in an alkali solution before grinding so that their coarse outer shells slip off (this is the part that gets stuck in your teeth when you’re eating popcorn.) Got all this straight?
In our lineup, we include two brands that call themselves grits, one that’s labeled hominy grits (but is really just ordinary grits) and one freshly milled brand. We narrowed our scope to old-fashioned and standard grits, and we excluded any brands labeled “quick” or “five-minute” grits, which are often precooked to speed up the process of cooking.
Enough Already. So Who Won?
In the plain tasting, one brand stood out from the rest, proving that grits are no mere carrier for butter and cheese. This brand had a “sweet, complex corn flavor somewhere between corn on the cob and lightly buttered popcorn.” The delicious flavor improved the Creamy Cheese Grits, too: “Deep corn flavor adds dimension that others don’t have.” Our top brand is not for cooks who are short on time (or money). These grits require an overnight soak and take 45 to 90 minutes on the stove. (And did we mention you have to mail-order them?) According to the company, the overnight soak improves both texture and flavor (and makes the nutrients more available). Unlike mass-produced corn products, these grits are decidedly not uniform; for our tasting, for instance, we received one batch with a notably coarse grind. While the company assured us this was a traditional interpretation of grits, a few tasters preferred a creamier texture.
These beautiful heirloom grains are well worth the price and time. But like most Americans in 2012, our lives are hectic and overscheduled, and we’re usually pressed for time. That’s when we reach for our best buy. This brand also scored very well, and its smaller grains cook in just five minutes (although longer cooking improves them). These grits have a “lovely soft texture” and pack “potent” corn flavor, plus you can find them in your supermarket.
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its “big olive aroma, big olive taste” with a “buttery” flavor that is “sweet” and “full,” with a “peppery finish.” One taster said: “It’s very green and fresh—like a squeezed olive.” Another simply wrote: “Fantastic.”
|Spain||$19 for 17 oz|
Tasters noted this oil’s flavor was “much deeper than the other samples,” describing it as “fruity, with a slight peppery finish,” “buttery undertones,” and a “clean, green taste” that was “aromatic, with a good balance.” “It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have,” said one admiring taster.
|Italy||$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed “round and buttery,” with a “light body” and flavor that was “briny and fruity,” “very fine and smooth,” and “almost herbal,” with “great balance.” “Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it,” approved one taster. In a word, “pleasant.”
|Italy||$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted “overall mild” flavor and “very little aroma,” with only a “hint of green olive” and a “hint of spiciness at the end.” In pasta, it was initially “not complex,” but gradually “bloomed in your mouth.” Overall, it was “worthy of a second bite.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
While some tasters found this oil “sweet” and “buttery” with “medium body” and “slight spice at the end,” others complained that it had “zero olive flavor” and was “so floral it’s almost like eating perfume”; still others noted a “bitter” aftertaste. In pasta, it was “extremely mild” to the point of being “boring.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were “mild” and “neutral.” Some liked it on pasta (though one called it “Snoozeville”), but complaints were myriad: “metallic,” “soapy,” “briny,” “hints of dirt.” Carped one taster, “I can’t imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.”
|Spain||$13.99 for 1 liter|
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