Kevin Gillespie, the former Top Chef contestant and current owner of Atlanta-based restaurants Gunshow and Revival, discovered how to make old-fashioned grits sweet and creamy purely by accident. Years ago, he was preparing grits to feed a thousand for a Slow Food event, when one of his cooks inadvertently left them in the hotbox overnight. By the time anyone noticed the mistake, the grits had turned milky brown.
“I decided to taste them, which is not what a sane person would do with food that’s been sitting in a hotbox for a whole day,” he would later write in his cookbook, Fire in My Belly. “They were amazing. They tasted 100 times creamier than our normal grits.” They also tasted sweeter, as the starch in the ground corn had slowly converted to sugar.
Gillespie loves grits so much, he says, he would eat them daily if he was good at portion control. But since he limits the indulgence to Saturday mornings, when he fuels up for college football gameday with a breakfast of grits, eggs, and sausage, he likes to make sure the dish reaches its full potential. Below, he shares his steadfast rules for great grits.
1. Use stone-ground grits. Heirloom, heritage, old-fashioned—these terms all signify coarse grains ground on stone gristmills as opposed to mechanical steel. Sourcing these types of grits means you’ll get inconsistently sized grains, which is a good thing, Gillespie says. His preference? Anson Mills.
2. Make sure they’re fresh. Even if you keep your grits in the freezer, don’t use them after a year. “They get pretty stale, and corn can go rancid,” Gillespie says.
3. Don’t skimp on liquid. At minimum, use four parts water to one part grits. “Grits are slow to hydrate, so you need a tremendous volume of liquid. You want them to be creamy, with a coarseness,” he says.
4. No dairy? No problem. “People think you need a lot of dairy for creamy grits, but that’s simply not true,” Gillespie says. “Usually, it’s more like one-to-four parts whole milk [to water]. It could be all water!”
5. Take your time. Gillespie cooks grits for at least one hour, stirring frequently. If you want to try his overnight cooking method, he recommends starting with a base of three cups of water and two cups of whole milk. Bring to a boil, add one cup of grits, and whisk continuously until smooth. Transfer to a crockpot, or cover tightly and place in an oven set to 180 degrees for eight hours. Mix in your desired butter and salt right before serving.
6. Freezing is your friend. Gillespie will often cook more than he needs and freeze it, reheating the leftovers over low heat for about five minutes. Just wait to add toppings like butter or cheese until reheating. “Some of the creamiest grits I ever made were cooked, frozen, and reheated,” he says.