Chef breaks down the best way to make grits

What do you think of when you think of grits? Chances are, if you're not from the South, you may not think of them at all — which is too bad, since you're missing out on an often unappreciated dish. This ground corn porridge was originally known to Native Americans and was shared with the earliest settlers in the Jamestown colonies by local tribes. While grits remained a primarily regional dish for centuries, they did experience a rise in popularity from the mid-1980s on when chefs realized that we had our own home-grown variant on polenta with which to indulge their culinary experiments.

If you are familiar with grits, either as a healthy breakfast, a side dish, or an important component of a classic Southern comfort food like shrimp and grits, it's still possible that you may not know the best method for making them. No worries, though — you're hardly alone in this, as sometimes the simplest dishes are the easiest to screw up. In order to prevent that from happening again, though, we spoke to chef Adrienne Cheatham from the Institute of Culinary Education. While she's currently based in New York, she also has ties to the South (including a bachelor's degree from Florida A&M) and has extensive experience with cooking Southern food. Oh, and if the name sounds familiar, perhaps you might have seen her on TV, as she was the runner up on Season 15 of Top Chef.

Chef-recommended tips and tricks for the best grits

Cheatham's first recommendation is to soak your grits overnight — at least if you're using stone-ground or coarse ones. The soaking, she says, will help your cooked grits have "a nice, creamy texture." Once you're ready to start cooking, you'll need to make sure the cooking liquid (water or stock) is simmering before you whisk in the grits. As Cheatham warns, "If the liquid isn't warm enough, you'll likely end up with lumps and sections of uncooked grits."

Cheatham also cautions against over-seasoning your grits, since their mild flavor can be easily overwhelmed. She recommends using only water seasoned with salt and adding just a splash of milk right at the end. She also heartily endorses the use of butter, calling it "the secret flavor bomb that will make your grits taste great," and says to finish off the dish with a tiny bit of cracked black pepper. Despite the popularity of cheesy grits, however, this is a variant that grits purist Cheatham does not favor. She specifically advises against this addition, saying "Cheese can cover up the flavor completely." 

If you've just got to have that cheese, though, you can take comfort from the fact that Georgia boy Alton Brown does give cheesy grits his seal of approval (and provides a recipe, to boot).