This easy Lowcountry shrimp and grits recipe combines soft, creamy grits with perfectly cooked, saucy shrimp for a perfect Southern meal straight from the Carolinas.
All About the Best Southern Shrimp and Grits
Shrimp and grits are pretty self explanatory: This perfect Carolina Lowcountry meal is made by combining 1) shrimp, 2) grits, and 3) just the right additional ingredients to make both sing in perfect harmony.
But within this simple name lie several techniques to master — none of them hard, all of them important.
- The best shrimp and grits recipe starts with the best, creamy grits.
- Spooned over the grits must be a tasty sauce loaded with shrimp.
Below, you will learn all about shrimp and grits, how to make good grits, how to make the shrimp and grits sauce, and how to serve up the absolute best Southern Lowcountry shrimp and grits meal.
Why is shrimp and grits so popular down South?
The popularity of shrimp and grits in the South stems* from two main places: 1) the abundance and affordability of the simple ingredients, and 2) a surprisingly recent push to spread the gospel of ground cornmeal and shellfish.
Today, shrimp and grits (or at least grits) can seem as common in Southern restaurants as burgers up north. Grits can be found on Southern breakfast menus as easily as toast or eggs.
But until fairly recently, according to this Serious Eats article on shrimp and grits food history, the dish was largely confined to its origin region: the Lowcountry of South Carolina and northern Georgia.
But in 1985, the eminent New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne tasted shrimp and grits, and published a recipe in the paper. The popularity took off and spread, with multiple variations and interpretations.
*Note the singular verb; shrimp and grits is a single dish.
What is Lowcountry cuisine?
Like so much Southern cuisine, shrimp and grits originated from the food traditions of enslaved people of West African descent.
According to one article, “Originally an African dish of ground maize and shellfish, shrimp and grits migrated with people who were enslaved in plantation kitchens of the Lowcountry of the American South.”
The South Carolina and Georgia coast, collectively Lowcountry, held plentiful shrimp. Cornmeal was cheap and bountiful. Its abundance helped seal the popularity of the regional dish.
Lowcountry cuisine refers to the food developed in the coastal South Carolina and Georgia regions. Common Lowcountry food includes rice; cornmeal; seafood and shellfish like shrimp, crab, and oysters; and summer fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and peaches.
How to Make Creamy Grits
Grits are an essential part of this recipe, so it’s important to get right. Though you will technically be ok with standard supermarket grits, I strongly suggest sourcing stone-ground grits. The coarser texture and better corn flavor will be its own reward. Avoid instant grits. Many top Lowcountry chefs use Marsh Hen Mill brand grits.
To get creamy, well-made grits:
- Use good quality, stone-ground grits
- Cook your grits low and slow, stirring often. The grits should take simmer for about 45 minutes or more.
- Use a ratio of 4.5 to 1 for water/liquid to grits. This ensures that there is enough liquid for the cornmeal to absorb, neither too dry or too wet.
- Avoid instant grits. These taste grainy and bland, and are highly processed. There is a noticeable improvement with the stone-ground grits.
- Add some butter at the end. Butter makes everything better.
How to Make the Lowcountry Shrimp and Grits Sauce or Gravy
This southern shrimp and grits sauce comes together very quickly, with simple ingredients cooked in a quick pan sauce. To make the Southern shrimp and grits sauce to top the grits:
- Cook the bacon on low until rendered.
- Pour off half of the bacon grease, then use the rest of the grease to cook the shrimp, onion, and tomato paste.
- Add a little water to make a sauce.
- Season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice.
What’s the difference?: Grits vs. polenta
The grits vs. polenta question is a natural one. Both are ground cornmeal. So what’s the polenta vs. grits difference?
Polenta is usually made from yellow cornmeal. Grits are made from white corn, also known as hominy.
Lowcountry Southern Shrimp and Grits Recipe Notes
- The grits take about 45 minutes to make. The shrimp and sauce take about five minutes at the end. So start your grits first, then do your prep for the shrimp sauce. I actually wait until the grits are finished before starting the sauce and finishing, since it goes so fast.
- Stir your grits often. This will help make them creamy and smooth.
- Try to find American Gulf shrimp. Frozen is fine. It may be a little harder to find, but Thai and Southeast Asian shrimp have serious associated environmental and human rights issues.
Love this easy Lowcountry shrimp and grits recipe? You’ll also enjoy:
- Buttermilk Skillet Cornbread
- Creamy Parmesan Polenta
- Southern Tomato Sandwich
- Old Fashioned Hummingbird Cake
Lowcountry Southern Shrimp and Grits
For the Grits
- 1 cup stone-ground grits (not instant grits)
- 4 cups cold water
- 1/2 cup milk or half and half
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and to taste
- 4 tablespoons butter
- Fresh-ground black pepper
- 1 cup grated extra-sharp white cheddar cheese, optional
For the Shrimp and Grits Sauce and to Finish
- 3 slices uncooked bacon, cut into pieces
- 1 pound peeled, deveined raw shrimp, preferably Gulf shrimp
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, to dredge
- 1/2 onion, small diced
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1/2 lemon, juiced
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 scallions, green and light green parts, sliced thin
For the Grits
- Bring the water and milk to a boil with the salt. Whisk in the grits. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook, partially covered, until fully cooked and thickened, about 45 minutes. Stir frequently (scrape the bottom and sides!)TIP: The grits will develop thick, lazy bubbles.
- Stir in the butter, a few twists of fresh-cracked black pepper and cheddar cheese, if using.
For the Shrimp and Grits Sauce and to Finish
- When the grits are just about fully cooked, heat a medium-sized skillet over low heat. Cook the bacon pieces, stirring occasionally, just until rendered and light brown, about 5 minutes.
- While the bacon cooks, lightly dredge the shrimp in flour and sift off any excess.
- When the bacon is finished, pour off half of the bacon fat and transfer the cooked bacon to a paper towel-lined plate. Return the skillet to the stove, and raise the temperature to medium-high heat.
- Cook the diced onion and tomato paste for one minute, stirring often. Add the shrimp, a generous pinch of salt, pepper, and a few tablespoons of water if the pan looks dry. Cook the onion and shrimp mixture for several minutes, stirring. Add water a tablespoon or two at a time as needed. You want a nice, silky sauce. I use about 1/4 cup water total, but this may vary. PRO TIP: The shrimp is done when it turns pink and curls. Do not overcook the shrimp.
- When the shrimp is just about cooked, add the lemon juice and bacon to the skillet. Stir and cook one minute more. Taste for seasoning.
- Spoon grits into shallow bowls. Top with the shrimp and sauce. Garnish with scallions and serve.