Families have been passing down cornbread recipes from one generation to the next for centuries. Just about everyone has a memory tied to this historic bread and an opinion about how it should taste. Some recipes call for added sugar to create a sweetened version. Traditional Southern cornbread recipes didn’t include sugar. If you couldn’t grow the ingredients yourself, they didn’t make it into the mixing bowl. Instead of butter or oil, cooks used bacon grease. But no matter what recipe you prefer, nothing says home like fresh cornbread straight out of the oven.
Cornbread recipes are seldom complex. Sure, there are more difficult recipes, but historically, traditional cooks kept things simple. The ingredients are those that most people keep on their pantry shelf: yellow or white cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, milk, and eggs. Sweet versions call for sugar. Some recipes, especially those for Southern-style cornbread, use buttermilk instead of regular milk. Buttermilk adds a tanginess to the cornbread. If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, use regular milk, and add a bit of lemon juice or white vinegar to it to create a substitute. Some cooks use water to thin out sour cream or plain yogurt to create the same consistency as buttermilk.
Most people know that the primary ingredient in cornbread is cornmeal. It’s made from ground corn and is available in white or yellow versions. Yellow cornmeal starts with ground yellow corn, and white cornmeal starts with white corn. Some recipes call for one version or the other, but food experts say that there are only slight, if any, differences in flavor. You can substitute one for the other. The packaged cornmeal you see on the grocer’s shelves is most likely a degerminated version. It lasts for a year beyond its “best by” date if stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Some cooks store it in the freezer.
Depending on the recipe, you’ll need one or two mixing bowls. When baking, it is customary to mix dry ingredients first in one bowl and the eggs, milk and shortening together in another before combining them. A whisk is a handy kitchen tool that effectively combines ingredients, but also prevents you from over mixing. You can bake cornbread in any 9-inch square or round baking pan, a cornbread mold, or cast-iron skillet or dutch oven.
Some culinary pros and home cooks say a well-seasoned, cast-iron skillet makes the perfect cornbread. There are two reasons why. First of all, it’s traditional. Cooks have been using cast-iron cookware for hundreds of years. Cast-iron skillets, when well cared for, can last 100 years or more. Family members sometimes pass them on to the next generation. Cooking a favorite cornbread recipe in heirloom cast iron creates ties to our historical pasts. Secondly, baking cornbread in a cast-iron skillet distributes heat evenly across the pan’s cooking surfaces. The heat creates crispy edges and a soft light center, adding to the cornbread’s flavor.
Cornbread baked in a cast-iron skillet requires an extra step. First, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Then, preheat the cast-iron skillet on the stovetop or in the oven first. Melt two tablespoons of butter or one tablespoon of shortening in the preheated skillet before adding the batter. To make six to eight servings, combine these dry ingredients into a bowl:
In the second bowl, whisk together:
Combine the contents of the two bowls, and pour the mixture into the preheated skillet. Lower the temperature to 350 degrees. Bake for 20 to 24 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease the bottom and sides of an 8-inch X 8-inch baking pan. In a mixing bowl, combine one cup of cornmeal with one cup of whole milk and set aside for 10 minutes. Then add in remaining ingredients:
Whisk the ingredients well and then pour into the pan. Bake for 22 to 25 minutes. Double the recipe and bake in a 13-inch by 9-inch pan.
Prepare cornbread muffins using the same recipe you use for cornbread. You can also use a cast-iron cornbread mold or pan designed specifically for baking cornbread. First, line the cups of a muffin tin with liners or grease each cup of the muffin pan or mold. Then divide the batter between the 12 cups or sections. You may need to lower the oven temperature. Bake for about 18 to 20 minutes. Check the centers for doneness using a toothpick. If it comes out clean, the muffins are ready. Reheat leftovers for breakfast.
The most common complaint you’ll hear from cooks is that cornbread is too dry. Although most cornbread is somewhat crumbly, you should be able to slice it without it falling into pieces. In many cases, dryness has to do with the temperature of the oven or overbaking. Overmixing the batter can also cause dry cornbread. If your recipe doesn’t use flour, try adding a bit to the batter. For those recipes that include flour, increase the amount by replacing a portion of it with cornmeal. You can also try adding an extra egg yolk to the wet ingredients before mixing them with the dry.
Sugar is a hygroscopic sweetener. These types of ingredients do more than increase the sweet flavor in cornbread. When used as an ingredient in baked goods, hygroscopic sweeteners create a moister product. Other types of hygroscopic sweeteners are honey, light brown sugar, and corn syrup. Some cooks create a darker, richer type of cornbread by adding equal parts of sugar and molasses. Others use a combination of granulated sugar and applesauce, which results in a sweeter, denser cornbread.
There are a variety of ingredients you can add to change up cornbread recipes. For a true down-home, smokey flavor, add some bacon drippings into the mixture before baking. Or, add pieces of crumbled crispy bacon and scallions to the batter. For cornbread with a little kick, add minced jalapenos and sharp cheddar cheese before baking. Many home cooks replace the milk in their cornbread recipe for creamed corn. They say this results in a richer, creamier texture and allows the cornbread to hold its shape.