Cream Cheese Is the Ingredient Your Grits Might Be Missing

Don't knock it until you've tried it.

Even those of us who swear by (instead of swear at) grits must admit that they don’t look or taste like much when you don’t fix them right, but grits are full of flavor and charm in the right hands. Cooks who know how to stir up a proper pot of grits understand that it pays to start with stoneground grits that retain toasted corn flavor and to salt them generously. (Grits crave salt.) We also know that sometimes it’s appropriate to load them up with cheese.

The type of cheese changes the personality of the grits, so pick one that suits your tastes or pairs well with an accompanying dish. For example, Parmesan is subtle, extra-sharp Cheddar is bold, and Gruyere is agreeably in the middle. But no matter the cheese you chose, be sure to add some cream cheese. Yes, cream cheese. (It’s controversial among grits purists, but hear me out.) Cream cheese isn’t the star of a pot of cheese grits, but it plays a strong and compelling supporting role.

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes with Creamy Cheese Grits
Iain Bagwell; Prop Styling: Caroline Cunningham; Food Styling: Vanessa Rocchio

Cream cheese adds little flavor on its own, but it adds creaminess and melts beautifully, so adding a spoonful to a pot of cheese grits helps the other cheese(s) melt smoothly without separating. Its fat carries other flavors, enhancing the pepper, garlic, hot sauce, herbs, or any other seasoning you’ve added to your recipe. Unlike heavy cream, it won’t make your grits neither too thin nor so fatty and cloying that they don’t taste like anything at all.

Cream cheese improves the texture of grits nearly as much as it enhances the seasoning. It works so well that you might start adding some to every pot, even when you’re not adding any other cheese, especially when making grits ahead and keeping them warm or reheating them later. Because the cream cheese helps keep them thick, these grits can hold their own under toppings that are substantial and savory, such as shrimp, stews, or grillades.

So how much cream cheese does the trick? It doesn’t take much, only about 1/4 cup (2 ounces) for every 1 1/2 cups of uncooked grits, yielding about 6 servings. The secret is to use only enough cream cheese so that you notice when it’s missing, not so much that it gums up the works and masks the flavor of the grits themselves.

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