Shrimp and Grits
I’m a big fan of savory breakfasts, and Shrimp and Grits are one of my favorite breakfast foods of all time. Most recipes rely heavily on the shrimp for flavor, but I’ve loaded up my grits with umami-rich ingredients like milk, butter, cheese, and chicken stock, so this version of the southern classic has a one-two punch of flavor on flavor.
Why this recipe works
- Cooking the grits in water makes them taste… well… watery. Cooking them in milk makes them rich and creamy, but they still taste pretty bland. To really take my grits over-the-top, I like to cook them in a 50:50 blend of chicken stock and milk. Along with the cheese that gets added at the end, the chicken stock loads the grits up with umami producing amino acids like inosine monophosphate and glutamate.
- Adding a ton of cheese to the grits at the end, not only adds a cheesy flavor it also adds fat, which gives the grits a rich, creamy texture.
- Smoked paprika works with the ham to give the shrimp a smoky flavor.
- By adding the ham, aromatics, and shrimp at different times, you’re able to draw the maximum amount of flavor from each ingredient, without overcooking the shrimp.
- A squeeze of lemon added at the end, not only brings out the sharpness of the cheddar in the grits, but it also brightens up the whole dish, keeping it from getting too rich and cloying.
What are the ingredients for Shrimp and Grits?
Here are the key ingredients for making the best Shrimp and Grits, and how to pick the right one, including potential substitutes.
- Olive oil – I like using olive oil for this dish because it adds a nice flavor while being a bit healthier than other oils.
- Garlic – Garlic makes just about everything better, and it goes with shrimp, like peanut butter and jelly. The Spanish even have a dish called garlic shrimp!
- Smoked paprika – Speaking of Spain, they produce delicious smoked paprika that gives an awesome smoky flavor to anything you add it to. We’re gonna saute the shrimp with smoked ham later, but adding some smoked paprika to the marinade backs the ham up.
- Shrimp – You don’t need fancy shrimp here, I buy smallish shrimp with 26/30 pieces per pound. You can go larger or smaller, but just be aware the cooking times will change a bit, as the size of the shrimp change.
- Chicken stock – Homemade chicken stock is always best, but for grits, canned broth, or even bouillon cubes will work.
- Whole milk – Fat is flavor, so if you want creamy grits, use whole milk. By this logic, you’re probably thinking that cream would work even better. While some people might like this, using a cream is a little over the top of me, especially since there’s a lot of cheese and butter that get added in at the end.
- Grits – I used your run-of-the-mill stone-ground grits. I’m not super picky here, and if you’re in an area that doesn’t sell grits, Polenta will work just fine (though the texture is not exactly the same).
- Cheddar cheese – I used to be really particular about using aged white cheddar for grits, but my local market hasn’t carried the stuff lately, so I’ve been making cheese grits with sharp red cheddar lately, and it’s still really good. Honestly, I think you can use just about any cheese that’s got a lot of flavor and will melt here (Gruyere, Comte, Fontina, and Swiss are all good options).
- Butter – Remember what I said about fat being flavor? A pat of butter added to grits at the end not only keeps them from drying out, but it also adds a nice richness. I use cultured unsalted butter (a.k.a. European butter) because it has more diacetyl (the compound that makes butter taste like butter) than uncultured butter, but use what you have on hand.
- Tasso ham – The ham is here to add salt, smoke, and umami. Ideally, you’ll want to use Cajun Tasso ham, but this works with just about any heavily smoked cured pork, including bacon, and Andouille sausage.
- Onion – The onions caramelize as you saute the shrimp, adding boatloads of flavor, and a mellow sweetness to the dish.
- Red bell pepper – The peppers not only add color, but they also work with the paprika to add a sweet pepper flavor.
- Lemon – I like to finish my shrimp and grits off with a squeeze of lemon juice, which brightens everything up, making it all a little less heavy.
How to Make the Best Shrimp and Grits
Because you wanna give the shrimp a bit of time to marinate, I usually start by getting them in the marinade and then move onto the grits. The grits require some passive cooking time, so that’s when I go back and finish off the shrimp.
Smoky Cajun Shrimp
The first thing you need to do is clean and devein the shrimp. I’ve posted an article on How to Clean and Devein Shrimp which you can check out for more details, or just watch the video below.
Then you just need to mix all the marinade ingredients together and toss them together with the shrimp. While this marinates, you can go ahead and start making the grits, or you can prep this up to a day in advance and keep it in the fridge(but be sure to keep it in a sealed container or your whole fridge will end up smelling like garlic).
Once the grits are off the heat and steaming, I start the shrimp by browning the ham. This not only releases some delicious pork fat to fry the other ingredients in, but it also creates a bunch of flavor compounds thanks to the Maillard reaction.
The onions and peppers go into the pan with the browned ham and get sauteed until they’re translucent and just starting to get tender. You don’t want to overdo it here, or they’ll burn by the time the shrimp is cooked through.
Then the shrimp goes in along with any marinade left in the bowl. You want to make sure you spread the shrimp out into a single layer, so they cook through evenly. When they’re cooked through on one side, just flip them over and cook the shrimp through.
Cheddar Cheese Grits
Call me lazy, but I don’t want to spend my Sunday mornings stirring a sputtering pot of grits, so I’ve come up with an easy way to make ultra-creamy grits that only requires periodic stirring. This not only makes it easier, but it also frees up some time to work on the shrimp.
The first thing I do is bring the chicken stock and milk to a full boil, and then I stir in the grits. The cornmeal absorbs a ton of liquid in the next minute or so, so it’s very important to keep stirring the grits at first to keep them from forming hard clumps.
Once the mixture starts to thicken, you can turn down the heat, cover the pot with a lid, and let it simmer for ten minutes. You’ll still want to stir it about once every three minutes to keep things from burning, but it’s a lot better than twenty minutes of non-stop stirring.
Then, I just keep the pot covered with a lid and let the grits steam for another ten minutes off the heat to finish cooking it through. This gives you some time to cook the shrimp.
Then, I just reheat the grits and melt in the cheese a handful at a time. You don’t want to dump all the cheese in at once, or the fat in the cheese might separate. To finish it off, I add a pat of butter and stir it into the grits.
Grits are made from coarse ground cornmeal, which is then boiled with water, stock, or milk to make a thick porridge. They’re a common breakfast food and can be paired with savory or sweet seasoning.
The dish most likely originated from a Native American preparation of corn, where it was dried and stone ground before being cooked. The dish had a course “gritty” texture, which is where the name comes from.
There’s a bit of confusion around this since they are both course-ground cornmeal. The primary difference lies in the type of corn used to make it. Polenta is made with flint corn, whereas grits are made with dent corn. Since Dent corn contains more starch than Flint corn, Grits have a more gummy texture than Polenta.
Other Easy Shrimp Recipes
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 14 grams garlic (2 large cloves, finely minced)
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 300 grams shrimp (peeled and deveined)
- 1 1/2 cups
- 1 1/2 cup whole milk
- 85 grams grits (~1/2 cup)
- 80 grams cheddar cheese (~1 cup grated)
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 90 grams Tasso ham (or bacon, cut into 1/3-inch cubes)
- 90 grams onion (1/2 small onion, diced)
- 65 grams red bell pepper (1/2 red bell pepper, diced)
- 1/2 Lemon (to taste)
- Flat-leaf parsley (for garnish)
- Make the marinade for the shrimp by stirring together the olive oil, garlic, smoked paprika, salt, and black pepper. Add the shrimp and toss to coat evenly.
- To make the grits, add the chicken stock and milk to a pot and bring the mixture to a boil.
- Add the grits, and quickly stir them into the milk and stock. Continue stirring the mixture until it starts to thicken slightly (about a minute).
- Turn the heat down all the way and cover the pot with a lid. Let this simmer for 10 minutes, being sure to stir it every 3 minutes or so to keep it from burning.
- When the 10 minutes are up, give it one last stir, cover it with the lid, and remove the pan from the heat. Let this steam without opening the lid while you prepare the shrimp.
- For the shrimp, heat a frying pan over medium heat until hot. Add the olive oil and ham(or bacon) and fry it until it starts to brown.
- Add the onions and bell peppers and saute the mixture until the onions are soft and translucent.
- Add the marinated shrimp along with any remaining marinade and spread the shrimp in a single layer in the pan.
- When the shrimp is half cooked, toss the shrimp to flip them over and then flip over any shrimp that got missed.
- Let these fry until the shrimp is cooked through and the onions have started to brown.
- To finish the grits, turn the heat back on and then add the grated cheese in 3 additions, stirring until the cheese is fully incorporated after each addition.
- When the cheese is incorporated, stir in the butter.
- Serve the shrimp and grits in a bowl and then garnish with chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon.