Cheesy Baked Grits

Grits are to Southern cuisine what potatoes are to Northern cuisine — a deeply satisfying staple

By Sara Moulton

A kind of carbo-licious porridge made from dried and coarsely ground corn, grits are to Southern cuisine what potatoes are to Northern cuisine — a deeply satisfying staple. Like squash, tomatoes and deep-pit barbecuing, grits came to define Southern cooking via the cuisines of such southeast American Indian tribes as the Caddo, Choctaw and Seminole.

These days we’re starting to see grits all over the country. Often they’ll show up at breakfast seasoned with salt and pepper, topped with a pat of butter and nestled alongside some bacon and eggs. They’re also a signature element in Shrimp and Grits, one of the succulent delights of the cuisine of coastal South Carolina and Georgia, which has also migrated widely.

But wonderful as they are, grits can be a chore — if not slightly dangerous — to make. I’m speaking of regular old-fashioned stone-ground grits, which trump “quick grits” and “instant grits” in both flavor and texture. Made the usual way, old-fashioned grits need to be stirred relentlessly to avoid clumping. You also have to handle with care; this hot mush has a tendency to bubble up and burn the cook.

Here’s a way to avoid those problems: Make it in the oven instead of on the stovetop. You simply combine the grits and the liquid in a ceramic pie dish (a total of 10 minutes hands-on time) and pop it into the oven for 45 to 50 minutes. Then stir in the flavorings — sharp cheddar cheese, in this case — and it’s done. How easy is that?

One note, though. The ceramic pie plate (or any shallow ceramic baking dish with the same capacity) is key. Pie plates made of metal or glass do not conduct heat as effectively.

Cheesy Baked Grits

Start to finish: 1 hour, 5 minutes (10 active)

Servings: 4 to 6

2 1/2 cups water combined with either 2 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken broth or 5 cups water

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 cup grits (not quick-cooking)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

4 ounces grated sharp cheddar

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Stir together the water, butter, grits and salt (if using salted vegetable or chicken stock, do not add salt) in a 1-quart ceramic pie plate set on a rimmed sheet pan. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven, uncovered, for 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and preheat the broiler. Stir in three-quarters of the cheese, stirring until melted. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if needed. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top and put the grits on a shelf in the upper third of the oven, under the broiler until nicely browned. Serve right away.

Sara Moulton is host of public television’s “Sara’s Weeknight Meals.” She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows, including “Cooking Live.” Her latest cookbook is “Home Cooking 101.”