My journey with “shrimp and grits” all started with the shrimp and grits that I ate growing up in North Carolina. It is well known in food circles that the legacy of Bill Neal, the chef founder of Crooks Corner (restaurant) in Chapel Hill, NC, was far and wide.
Chef Bill Smith took over for Neal in 1993 and kept Neal’s classic dish on the menu until 2019 when he retired. Young cooks who worked for Neal also took his version of shrimp and grits to their next restaurant jobs and many eventually opened their own restaurants where it was also served.
Neal’s version of shrimp and grits featured a base of cheese grits, sautéed shrimp, bacon, mushrooms and scallions. As chefs are want to do, the chefs who worked in his kitchen added their own touch including shrimp stock, andouille sausage, tomatoes and brown gravy among other things.
Today, ‘Shrimp and Grits’ is ubiquitous in the South and beyond, but most of the dishes are a far cry from it’s humble fisherman’s roots. You can easily trace shrimp and grits to the low country but like most food, there is an origin story that happened before the low country. (You can read more about the history in this article by Erin Byers Murphy.)
The recipe as I understand it was a simple mix of corn grits, maybe some butter and shrimp [that was caught by the fisherman] all cooked up in one pot. The dish was most often referred to as Breakfast Shrimp and Grits or Shrimps and Hominy. The earliest recipe that I could find is from the 1930 edition of “Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking” cookbook, and the shrimp are sautéed in butter and added to hot grits.
It was at the home of cookbook author and the OG southern food expert, Nathalie Dupree where I first had a variation of this simple dish. It is also where I learned to cook the peeled and deveined shrimp directly in the hot steamy grits. I wrote about that version—accented with wilted baby spinach and cherry tomatoes—about 10 years ago. Since that time, I have streamlined my version of shrimp and grits, and not only do I think that it is the tastiest version but it is the easiest as well.
I start with coarse-ground grits. I prefer local white or speckled stone-ground grits but as long as they aren’t quick cooking or instant grits, they will be great!
Now that I have a rice cooker, I actually cook the grits in a rice cooker, using 2 cups of water, 1 cup of cream (or half and half) and 1 cup of grits. I stir them together and set the rice cooker on the “quick” cycle which on my rice cooker is 39 minutes. You can cook them old-school over low heat in a Dutch oven for about the same time, keeping the lid on and stirring occasionally.
Once the grits are cooked but still have a bite to them, like al dente pasta, it’s time to add the seasonings and a little extra water if they are too stiff. If you cooked the grits in a rice cooker, transfer them to a Dutch oven.
I use a wheel of Boursin to season the grits as well as 1/3 cup of grated Parmesan-Reggiano and some salt and fresh ground black pepper. Make sure the grits are simmering and add the raw shrimp directly to the grits. Give it a good stir, making sure the grits cover the shrimp, and put the lid on the pot.
The shrimp will poach in the hot grits. Cooking the raw shrimp in the hot grits is the technique that I learned from Nathalie Dupree. Not only is it a real timesaver, but the shrimp juices deepen the flavor of the dish as they cook in the grits. Best of all, the shrimp do not get overcooked which is easy to do if you sauté the shrimp.
One-Pot Low Country Shrimp and Grits
My technique of poaching the shrimp in the hot grits came from long-time Charleston resident and Southern cooking expert, Natalie Dupree. I understood from her that this is the way that shrimpers would make their shrimp and grits breakfast. Regardless, it is superior for the texture of the cooked shrimp as they are perfectly cooked, plump and juicy with a satisfying snap.
Note that I find that people eat more shrimp when it is poached in the grits and they are peeled and deveined. I estimate that you need at least ½ pound of jumbo shrimp per person.
1 generous cup coarse-ground grits, white or speckled.
2 1/2 cups spring water, divided
1 cup heavy cream or half and half
1 5.2 block Boursin Garlic and Fine Herbs cheese
3-5 shakes Tabasco
1/3 cup grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese
1 tablespoon French or Kerrygold butter
Kosher salt and Fresh ground black pepper
2-3 pounds raw Jumbo shrimp, deveined and peeled—count on at least ½ pound of shrimp per person
- Add grits, 2 cups of water and 1 cup of heavy cream to a 5 quart Dutch oven.
- Cook grits covered on low heat for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally (or use a rice cooker and set on the quick setting but that will make it a 2-pot dish). They should be very creamy and still have some bite to them.
- About an hour before you want to eat make the grits by boiling the water in a large saucepan or the top of a double-boiler (the double boiler insures against scorching). Slowly add the grits by sifting them through one hand while whisking with the other. Cover the pan and simmer on a low heat for 30-40 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent scorching. Add half and half, cheese and butter and stir well. Continue cooking if grits are undercooked or watery. When they are “just right” season to taste with nutmeg, salt, pepper and Tabasco. Set aside, but keep warm.
- Stir grits and add remaining 1/2 cup of spring water, a block of Boursin cheese, pinch of salt, ground black pepper and Tabasco and bring back to a simmer.
- Keep pot on a low heat so you don’t scorch the bottom of the pan but the grits will be very hot and just below a boil.
- Stir again and add the Parmesan cheese and butter. Mix well and cover for 1-2 minutes or until grits are hot and steaming. Taste grits and adjust salt and pepper, if necessary. Remember that the cheeses are already salty and seasoned. At this point, you can refrigerate the grits and reheat them just before you want to serve them.
- About 20 minutes before you want to eat, re-heat grits covered over low heat. When the grits are popping and steaming, add shrimp and stir well so that they poach in the hot grits. Place the lid on the pot and cook for 4-6 minutes in 2 minute increments, stirring and placing the lid on the pot after each interval.
- When the shrimp are pink and white and curled, they are done.
- Ladle into shallow bowls and serve immediately.