Polenta and grits are both made by cooking dried, ground corn with water to achieve a porridge. The difference between them lies in how the corn is processed and ground.
Corn is a grain native to the Americas, and it didn't arrive in Europe until Columbus brought it back upon his return to Spain. Europeans came to appreciate field corn, a starchier variety that is ground into cornmeal and used as animal feed. Northern Italians took to it and used the meal in the grain porridge called polenta that had been eaten since Roman times.
Soaking dried corn in an alkaline solution causes the kernel's skin to burst and the grain to expand. It turns corn into hominy, which has a lovely smoky taste, very distinctive from corn. Dry the hominy and grind it coarsely and you've got hominy grits.
Many grits on the market today are not made from hominy, but from dried, untreated corn. These grits -- corn grits -- are a byproduct of cornmeal production.
Whether you're shopping for polenta, cornmeal, corn grits or hominy grits, always seek out products that are stone-ground. This more traditional method of production retains more of the germ and bran and results in a fuller flavor and richer texture.
Erica Marcus writes for Newsday. E-mail your queries to email@example.com, or send them to Erica Marcus, Food/Part 2, Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Road, Melville, NY 11747-4250.