If you’ve been loving the grits over at 2 Dog in Gainesville, it’s for good reason. They’re creamy with just the right amount of salt, and when topped with shrimp that have been cooked in the restaurant's homemade barbecue sauce, the dish is gone in seconds.
Turns out, you could be getting the same fill of some of Gainesville’s favorite grits in your own home. It just takes the right proportion of ingredients, a little bit of strength and — wait for it — Quaker instant grits.
“When I got started, the only grits I could find were Quaker instant grits,” Tim Roberts, chef and co-owner of the restaurant with his wife, Tina, said of the 23-year-old business. “We just kind of stuck with it.”
Call it simplicity or call it consistency, Roberts said he’s stuck to what works. The restaurant goes through eight to 10 pounds of grits each Sunday.
“Most of the folks that have been coming to see us know we have been doing grits for 20-plus years,” Roberts said. “We hear ours are always different, which is a good thing.”
That 2 Dog has been having such success with plain-old instant grits is a testament to the staple’s place as Georgia’s official prepared food since 2002. Grits, whether out of the box or ground beneath Georgia stone, is a rock-solid favorite of the Peach State.
But Nora Mill has a good thing going, too, with its historic mill. Although Roberts sticks to mass-produced grits, Nora Mill swears by its on-site, stone-ground grits from the mill the Fain family revitalized in the 1980s.
“It’s all done in-house, so you’re getting whole-grain corn with nothing taken away, nothing added,” said Joe Vandegriff, manager at the granary. “That’s what makes our grits so good is the fact that nothing is taken out of them, it’s whole kernel.”
Though it’s not the stone ground grits from Nora Mill, Roberts uses a simple recipe for 2 Dog’s grits. Don’t be deceived by its simplicity, however. It’s a recipe that has to be followed precisely for the correct outcome. Roberts said he uses 80% water and 20% cream. The cream comes from Mountain Fresh Creamery in Clermont, and gives the grits an extra creaminess that he says makes the dish.
“One of the reasons I like the Quaker grits is I like the really small, fine grit,” Roberts said. “A lot of the stuff you find that’s big and grainy, you’re still getting the chaff in there, which is sometimes really nice. But sometimes it’s nice to have grandma’s grits that are just clean, small and they work really well. And that's not a bad thing.”
But for Vandegriff, the chaff and the whole kernel being ground is what he finds most people like.
“A lot of people like the texture,” Vandegriff said. “They like a big grainy piece of grit when they’re eating their grits … When you’re getting a good pot of our grits, it’s going to have the pieces, the chunks, and you’re going to get the texture out of it.”
In order to get the right texture in the grits at 2 Dog, Roberts brings the water and cream mixture to a boil, adds salt, then pours the grits into the pot. The smallest batch 2 Dog makes is a pound of grits. Most of the time, they’re making grits in an eight-gallon pot and stirring with a whisk that’s 3-and-a-half feet long.
“Doing grits on Sunday is not for the weak or faint of heart,” Roberts said, laughing. “You’re going to feel it. You’re going to get your workout in.”
When it comes to using that whisk, the package may say “stir occasionally,” but Roberts said the key is stirring constantly.
“They need to be stirred the entire time,” Roberts said. “You can’t just dump them in, stir them once and then walk off because what ends up happening is they clump, they will burn and they will stick to the pot.”
No matter if he’s making a smaller batch of grits or a larger batch, he said the sweet spot is eight minutes of stirring.
“What it does is it helps break down the grits,” Roberts said. “It softens them in a sense, and it makes them creamier. It's not just the cream that makes them creamier, it’s the actual stirring them that does it.”
Once they’re made, just about everything is fair game from there on out. Roberts will serve them plain sometimes, but he likes adding cheese.
“I like white cheddar just because I find that the color works well and you get a nice texture,” Roberts said. “I like feta, too, because it adds a sharpness to it, and a distinction.”
He likes parmesan but said to be careful with it because it doesn’t melt well. He likes the texture it adds for that reason. Goat cheese is another Roberts likes for the added creaminess and subtle flavor.
Vandegriff feels the same about cheese.
“I’m a sucker for cheese,” Vandegriff said. “You can add a little bacon if you’re feeling wild about it, too. That’s my ideal way. A lot of people like them with just butter and salt. My wife puts sugar in them and despite that being against everything I’ve ever known about grits, I still love her.”
Apart from cheese, Roberts said there are plenty of ways to eat grits and use grits, especially as a substitute.
“I will use them as rice or pasta in a casserole,” Roberts said. “They’re as versatile, if not more so, than pasta or rice. Anything you would do with rice and pasta, you can do with grits.”
Leftover grits that have been chilled in the refrigerator work well, too. Vandegriff said he likes to slice the grits into little cakes once they’ve hardened a little.
“Put it in the refrigerator for a little while, let them stiffen up and once you get them out and in a blob, slice them up,” Vandegriff said. “Add a little butter and throw them in a pan, that's a fantastic way to go about it.”
But it all starts with good grits. No matter what is added to them or what is done with the leftovers, grits have to be prepared properly in the first place. Without taking the time to do that, there’s no hope for a delicious bowl of the state’s official prepared food.
“I will say this, bad grits are bad grits,” Roberts said. “There is no getting over soupy, unsalted, watery grits.”