Cornbread: Sweet Music to the Mouth - No. 116
How to make the best pan of cornbread & why it matters right now
Welcome to my new subscribers and big thanks to longtime readers! Today I dive into a subject you might have already perfected or perhaps never tried—cornbread. It’s a touchy topic, full of land mines, but also memories. Regardless of preferences—and I do have a survey for your opinions—let’s make better cornbread, shall we? Or even if you have no cornbread aspirations, listen to my Cornbread Playlist.
I WAS RAISED ON CORNBREAD with white cornmeal and no sugar or flour. If you wanted eggs in cornbread, you called it eggbread. Our cornbread was more like spoonbread inside, creamy and wet, and the outside dark and crispy because the batter was poured into a smoking-hot iron skillet and baked in an even hotter oven, then flipped upside-down so the crust didn’t sweat in the pan.
It was sliced hot into wedges and slathered with butter. It was a ritual, and we ate it with white bean soup or barbecue.
But I am learning that not everyone feels the same way I do about cornbread. I have been researching a book about Southern baking, which begins with cornbread plain and simple, and yet cornbread is complicated. People have been squabbling about the best way to make it for ages.
How can we argue about something so delicious as cornbread, so etched in our lives because it fed us and the people before us, so inflation-fighting because you make it from meager ingredients?
I don’t really care what anyone says about my cornbread. And I don’t think you have to make cornbread my way. In fact, I think you should keep on making cornbread the same way your mama made it.
It isn’t because we are from Texas or Denver or New England and bake with yellow cornmeal or from Nashville and use white, or from Santa Fe and prefer blue, or from the Carolinas and use Jimmy Red cornmeal. We make cornbread the way we ate it when we were a hungry child and could smell the scent all through the house.
Why cornbread matters even more today
I’ll venture to say that cornbread is entrenched in the lives of many of us because it knows no barriers. It just feeds. It is baked by people of different colors and stories, from humble abodes to the White House, where at least seven U.S. Presidents including Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, and Jimmy Carter put it on the menu.
With rate and price increases at every turn of the head, and with rumors of more to come, what could be more timely now than cornbread?
It’s naturally gluten-free although some people do add flour to it to bulk it up and make it less porous and more cake-like, I suppose. I can see both sides of adding flour to cornbread, honestly, because it lightens a pan of cornbread, but, on the other hand, it takes away the true taste of the corn.
And while in the United States more corn might be grown in the Midwest, the South is especially connected to cornbread because wheat would not grow in the heat or in red clay soil. People baked a daily bread from corn, whether individual corn pone (hoe cakes, Johnny cakes, ash cakes), or a big pan of cornbread to feed a family. And for many, cornbread was the main dish, crumbled into a glass of buttermilk or drenched in molasses.
How do you eat cornbread? Bake cornbread?
Here’s a one-minute cornbread survey with just five questions:
Making cornbread can get personal
Adrian Miller, the cookbook author also known as the Soul Food Scholar, was raised in suburban Denver, Colorado, and prefers the sweet yellow cornbread once made by his mother’s friend Minnie Utsey. She baked it for potlucks but also on the Sunday before Thanksgiving when the church hosted a fundraiser to cover the building’s heating expenses during the cold Colorado winter.
And Christine Gardner, a former Tyler, Texas, newspaper food editor, says cornbread in East Texas is invariably yellow. “People swear by local yellow cornmeal, and they like it sweet. They say they don’t put any sugar in their cornbread, but if they’re using a box of Jiffy, the sugar is already there!”
Over in central Kentucky, chef Ouita Michel, too, chooses yellow cornmeal for making cornbread in her restaurants because it’s more casual and humble. It’s the way her mother baked yellow cornbread when the family moved to Kentucky from Wyoming.
My friend Linda Carman, raised in Cullman, Alabama, who has lived in Nashville all her life, was the career home economist for Martha White Flour, and she traveled across the South and Midwest educating consumers on the best way to make biscuits and cornbread. She found cornbread to be deeply personal, and while she was raised on white cornmeal in cornbread back in northern Alabama, she never suggested someone change their family cornbread recipe and do it her way. She also found people added a little sugar, especially in warm climates, because the cornmeal might go rancid stored in the pantry and a little sugar disguised that off-flavor.
Yet she remembered how much Grand Ole Opry’s Tennessee Ernie Ford abhorred sugar in cornbread. And when the late Shelby Foote of Mississippi, a Civil War novelist, snuck a tablespoon of sugar into his cornbread recipe, he was mocked in newspaper editorials south of the Mason-Dixon.
Why are we so opinionated about cornbread? What’s your best cornbread secret?
Six steps to better cornbread
Regardless of your preferences when it comes to cornbread, even the little things can make better cornbread.
Cornmeal. Buy the freshest you can get. I like the fine or extra-fine white cornmeal from J.T. Pollard of Hartford, Alabama. Or the white cornmeal from Boonville Milling in Boonville, North Carolina. Also recommend Weisenberger Mills in Midway, Kentucky. Or, if you prefer a more coarsely ground unbolted, which is unsifted, yellow (or white) cornmeal, I like the Old Mill in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, or for a coarsely ground yellow, white, or blue cornmeal there is also War Eagle Mill in Rogers, Arkansas.
Buttermilk. Buy locally produced whole-fat buttermilk near you. I can find Cruze buttermilk in Nashville, and it comes from Jersey cows and is not homogenized. If the buttermilk you are using is thick, and it makes the cornbread batter thick, you need to add a little water to make the batter more pourable. In a pinch, use unflavored, whole fat yogurt in lieu of using ho-hum buttermilk.
Fat. It can be vegetable oil, leaf lard, butter, duck fat, or bacon grease—your choice—but put it in the batter and also a little in the pan.
The pan. Must be a cast-iron skillet. I won’t budge on this. No cake pans give cornbread the crust it gets from hot cast iron. And absolutely no glass, which bakes unevenly and won’t get as hot as an iron skillet.
Heat. You heat the pan with a little fat in it, and pour the batter into the pan, and then place it in a hot—425 to 450-degree—oven. Cornbread is not for sissies, but I think you knew that?
Extras. This is where you come in. Add a little flour for some of the cornmeal. Add an egg to give it height. Add a handful of cracklings or cheese or a minced hot pepper. And yes, some people really do add mayonnaise to cornbread, but I’m not going there and I’m not talking Jiffy…
Yes, you can make cornbread using self-rising cornmeal, which has baking powder and salt in it. And yes, a cornmeal mix, which has flour in it. But that’s all the exceptions I’m going to make. You’ve got the basics, and you’re about to get a recipe or two. So now, for the music…
The playlist! To inspire you to bake some cornbread.
No surprise as I am from Nashville, the Music City, I couldn’t talk cornbread without some good music. Songwriters have long written tunes about their loves, and from the sound of some of these songs, they were mighty fond of cornbread. Or the person who baked it for them. Or how when times were tough, the thought of cornbread took them back home.
I’m thinking cornbread love might be what we need right now. What about you?
Coming Thursday for Paid Subscribers: An Open Discussion on Iron Skillets! 🍳
Do you have questions about cooking in an iron skillet? Cleaning it? I’ll be around to answer your questions and share my favorite shrimp and grits recipe, too, which is cooked in an iron skillet. Open Discussion Threads are one of the perks of being a paid subscriber. Have a good week! - xo, Anne
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Black Skillet Cornbread
The goal is to create crisp, delicious crust on the top, bottom and sides, so that when you slice this into wedges, you will enjoy cornbread the way it was intended to be, back before Jiffy, before cheese, sour cream, and all the add-ins were piled into the batter. Back when crisp cornbread was a daily bread. I make this two ways, the first adding the leavenings and using regular cornmeal. Following the recipe is the method I included in my book, Skillet Love, and it uses self rising cornmeal and flour.
Makes 8 servings
Prep: 5 to 7 minutes
Bake: 12 to 17 minutes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (or bacon grease) for greasing the skillet
2 cups finely ground white cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 cups whole fat buttermilk
1. Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
2. Place the oil in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet, and place the pan in the oven while it preheats.
3. Place the cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl and stir to combine. Stir in the 1/4 cup oil and the buttermilk until smooth. If the batter seems too thick, thin it with a little water or milk. Remove the skillet from the oven when it is quite hot and nearly smoking, and pour in the batter. It should sizzle. Place the pan in the oven and bake until it is deeply browned, about 12 to 17 minutes.
4. Run a knife around the edges of the pan. Immediately turn it out onto a wooden cutting board, bottom-side up. Using a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut it into wedges.
Cornbread using self-rising cornmeal and flour: Use 1 3/4 cups self-rising white or yellow cornmeal and 1/4 cup all-purpose flour. (No baking powder or salt.) Use slightly less buttermilk, about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups to make the batter pourable.
Double Corn Muffins
I was inspired by a Molly Baz recipe for corn muffins using fresh corn, and I had just baked an old-fashioned corn muffin recipe for my new book. So this recipe is a hybrid of the two. It uses nearly half flour and half cornmeal, fresh corn, black pepper, but sour cream instead of buttermilk. What you get are big, plump corn muffins perfect for serving with barbecue or vegetable plates. Add a minced jalapeno pepper, if desired. They freeze well, too!
Makes 12 to 16 muffins
Prep: 10 minutes
Bake: 15 to 20 minutes
Vegetable oil spray, for the pans
1 3/4 cups yellow or white cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste, about 8 grinds
1 cup fresh corn kernels, from two ears corn
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sour cream or whole-fat plain yogurt
2/3 cup whole milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Mist a 12- to 16-cup muffin pan with vegetable oil.
Place the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Season with black pepper, and whisk to combine. Fold in the fresh corn. Make a well in the center and add the eggs, sour cream, milk, and oil. Stir with a wooden spoon until the batter is just combined.
Scoop the batter into the muffin cups. Place the pan in the oven.
Bake until the muffins are golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. Turn out while hot and serve hot, or let cool on a wire rack.
This is an excellent recipe. It looks a lot like the one I have used for probably 50 years, ever since my mother sent me to a summer cooking class in order to (a) keep me busy and (b) help me earn my cooking merit badge in Girl Scouts. My mother was an excellent cook but had 8 children and a new baby that year (#8) she didn't need me messing around in her galley kitchen. Besides, the classes were FREE! Can you imagine? Anyway. The thing I've always remembered most was that it didn't need to be stirred much. Just get everything moistened and smooth-ish and turn it into the sizzling pan. I love using bacon grease, but my husband thinks that's gross. I think he should turn in his Southerner card. I am firmly in the "no-sugar-in-cornbread" camp, but understand the appeal. It's called "cake." Ms. Byrn has written many books on the topic. ;)
That crust from cooking in cast iron in that first photo!! 🤤 Wonderful recipes and love the music to bake by! Terrific piece, Anne!