Say the word “grits” to most people and they’re likely to think of the creamy cornmeal dish from the American South, traditionally made with lots of butter and milk…often topped with cheese and served with accompaniments like sausage, ham, or shrimp. But do grits really need to be made (and served) with animal products to taste good? Here’s what you need to know if you're a vegan who loves this classic Southern comfort food dish.
All About Cornmeal Grits
The dish we know as grits is actually Native American in origin, a kind of porridge made from boiling coarse, stone-ground corn in water. Unlike many other grains which originated in the Old World, corn is a New World plant that was first cultivated in Mexico around 7,000 years ago. Corn spread throughout the Americas and became a widely-consumed food crop for many Native American populations.
When the early European settlers saw Native Americans preparing the cornmeal porridge that came to be known as grits, they recognized it as something familiar…simply another form of grain porridge eaten in many other parts of the world.
Before the introduction of corn into Europe and other parts of the world, dishes similar to grits were prepared with other ground grains like oats, wheat, rice, and barley. (The popular Italian cornmeal dish known as polenta was developed after the arrival of corn in Italy.) The word grits comes from the Old English word “grytt” which means coarse meal. This name was given to the Indian cornmeal dish first seen by the early American colonists.
Are Grits Vegan?
Grits do not have to be made with any animal products. In fact, you can boil cornmeal in water, add a little salt, and call it done! But most people like their grits to be more on the creamy side, and also with a little more flavor. So can you get that classic creamy consistency and rich taste with all vegan ingredients? The answer is a definite yes!
What are good substitutes for milk, butter, and cheese when making vegan grits? There are actually quite a few, depending on your taste. Options include replacing animal fats with vegan add-ins like these:
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil or coconut milk
- Vegan shortening or vegan butter
- Vegetable stock
- Almond milk or cashew milk
Make Your Own Vegan Grits
Ready to whip up your own homemade grits? Don’t worry, you don’t have to stand over a stove constantly stirring a pot for an hour. Grits are very quick and easy to make. Here’s a traditional creamy Southern grits recipe that’s been “veganized” with yummy coconut milk:
When shopping for grits, check the bulk bins at your grocery store first. When buying packaged grits, look for a label that says cornmeal grits and/or polenta, which is pretty much the same thing. Grits can be made with yellow or white corn, so don’t be confused if you see different colors. Grits are sometimes also made with hominy, which is corn that has been soaked in alkali to soften the kernels.
What’s the difference between instant, quick, and “regular” grits? Food experts advise you to steer clear of instant grits, which are precooked and then dehydrated. Quick grits are a good choice if you’re short on time. The cornmeal is finely ground so it cooks in just a few minutes. Your go-to choice should definitely be regular, coarse-ground cornmeal grits for the best flavor and texture in the finished product. The total cooking time for regular grits is longer than quick grits, but still well under half an hour.
Grits are often served as part of a traditional Southern breakfast, but there’s no need to serve them with eggs or meat. You can top a bowl of grits with anything you’d use to top hot cereals like oatmeal or farina. Breakfast grits are great topped with all kinds of things:
- Fresh or dried fruit
- Peanut butter
- Maple syrup
…whatever you like!
Think shrimp and grits is the only way to do grits for dinner? Think again!
Vegan grits are great topped with vegetables for a quick and easy dinner. You can go full Southern chef and serve them with traditionally Southern veggies like collard greens, black eyed peas, or okra…but grits work really well with any vegetables you have on hand. Try making your dinner grits with vegetable stock for a little extra savory flavor. Top the grits with things like:
- Sautéed mushrooms
- Roasted Brussels sprouts, beets, or kohlrabi
- Black beans
- Broccoli or cauliflower
…the list is only limited by your imagination!
Do you have a favorite vegan grits recipe to share? Let us know, we’d love to hear from you!