How to Properly Cook Southern Cornbread
Cornbread at Aunt Martha's Cotton Farm
Over Thanksgiving when I was in kindergarten, we drove up a Georgia red clay lane between fields of white cotton ready for harvest, bursting from their shriveled bolls. At the end of the lane, underneath a pair of ancient live oaks, Aunt Martha stood on the veranda. When she graciously invited us inside, we sat in her parlor, on chairs whose floral brocade looked as old and worn as Aunt Martha herself, and ate cornbread with a crust browned perfectly by the cast iron skillet. I believe that every southern-born girl emerges from the womb with a cast iron skillet clutched firmly in her right hand.
My cornbread was crumbly, falling apart before you could get it to your mouth.
After we ate, we kids ran down the aisles between rows of cotton bushes that seemed almost as tall as me. The husks tore at our sweaters as we filled paper bags full of fresh-picked cotton bolls to take home with us. My uncle led us to a semi trailer filled with harvested cotton, asking us to stand on up on the edge of the trailer and jump down into the cotton. He said it would help him by packing the cotton down, making it less likely to blow away when they hauled the trailer out of there.
Maybe. Maybe it would help him, but I think he just wanted to give us an excuse to dive into a trailer full of cotton balls, like the jumping on the ultimate bed with no parents around to stop us. It was the perfect Thanksgiving family reunion.
I can recall the dinner, and I can talk about the cornbread, but for many long years I couldn't make cornbread. Even if I used a mix, my cornbread was crumbly, falling apart before you could get a piece up to your mouth, and it was drier than those shriveled husks from Aunt Martha's cotton farm. (The cotton husks. Not the husk of Aunt Martha.)
And then one day, about the time I turned forty, I learned the secret to making good cornbread. Now my cornbread is moist, and it has a perfectly browned crust, just like Aunt Martha's. I learned it by combining what I learned from my family, with what I gained from my friends.
Here's how I did it.
It's All in the Skillet, and How You Use It
There is only one way to cook real southern cornbread, and that is in a cast iron skillet. You don't want anything plastic or wooden, because you're going to put it in the oven.
Every southern girl emerges from the womb with a cast iron skillet clutched firmly in her right hand.
Here's the secret to the crust. Grease your pan: add your bacon grease, butter it, or spray it with olive oil. Then dust it lightly with cornmeal, just a sprinkle. Slip it into the preheated oven while you mix up the batter.
When the batter is ready, remove the skillet from the oven. Be sure to use an oven mitt! That cast iron gets hot. When you pour the batter into that hot pan, it will sizzle and brown the edges almost immediately, forming a perfect golden crust. Now put the entire pan back in the oven for 30-35 minutes.
What Makes Cornbread Crumbly?
Ever have cornbread so crumbly that you have to eat it with a spoon? Cornbread that would fall apart before you could get it to your mouth?
Until I turned 40, every cornbread I ever made was crumbly. Cornbread is supposed to be a little bit crumbly—it's the nature of it. But try these ideas if yours is more crumbly than a dried-out sandcastle.
- More flour makes it less crumbly. If you're using too a high a proportion of corn meal, the bread doesn't have enough gluten to hold it together. Try using less corn meal and more flour.
- Try a different flour. I know everyone has their own favorite brand, but be bold and experiment. Gold Medal all-purpose flour works best for me. I switched to Gold Medal about the time I turned 40, which is about the time I started making good cornbread. Oh, hey! You reckon they're connected?
- Use less fat. Whether you're using butter, shortening, oil, bacon grease, or lard, try using a little bit less and see if that gives it a better consistency.
- Add an egg. The eggers and the no-eggers get along about as well as the Hatfields and McCoys, so I hope I don't offend you with this suggestion. But if you're a no-egger and your cornbread is too crumbly, try an egg. See what happens.
The Recipe Book
My favorite recipe book was never published. As I flip through its yellowed and well-worn pages, I read hand-written notes in the margin, like "I made this for George for breakfast the first day after we were married," or "I picked up this recipe for Key Lime Pie when we lived in the Keys in the 30s." That recipe for real Key Lime Pie, made by Keys natives in the days before electric refrigerators were common, is nothing like the refrigerated stuff you find in restaurants today.
What makes this recipe book so special is that those notes were hand-written by my grandmother, my aunts, my mother, my great-grandmother, by women from four generations of our family, with some of those recipes having been handed down by their mothers before them. My aunt compiled them about twenty-five years ago, copied the pages, and bound them in three-ring binders. There is no label on the cover, no table of contents, no ISBN number, and no pre-printed price, but I know that that book is more valuable than any other cookbook on my shelves.
Blending Recipes, Blending People
The cast iron skillet didn't solve all of my cornbread problems, nor did the family recipe. I needed to modify my mother's recipe, adding things I learned from friends or from online connections—sugar, soaking the cornmeal, etc. The way I make cornbread today is a combination of multiple recipes and methods.
After you taste enough of other people's cornbread, you come to understand that cornbread is more than food and the recipe is more than a set of directions. Through the cornbread choices we make—sugar or none, milk or buttermilk, egg or no egg, jalapenos, bacon—through our choices, our cornbread becomes a melding of the people by whom we are born, with the people with whom we associate. When we share our cornbread with our neighbors, we give them more than food. We give them ourselves, and we give them our friends and our mothers and our grandmothers.
When we share our cornbread with our neighbors, we give them ourselves, and we give them our friends and our mothers and our grandmothers.
Once you have the basic cornbread recipe, there are many potential add-ins. Just pour a few in the batter. What's your favorite?
What is your favorite cornbread add-in?
Sugar or Not?
Do you like your cornbread with or without sugar? This is a longstanding debate. I like mine sweet, but some of my fellow southerners will tell me it ain't real cornbread if it's sweet.
But who's to say? We can argue about it, and then we each make our cornbread the way we like it.
Sweetened Cornbread or Unsweetened?
I Like It Sweet
It Ain't Real Cornbread if It's Sweet
(No sweeteners) if it's sweet it's not cornbread it's corncakes there is nothing better than real cornbread a sweetener actually takes away from the true corn taste that we all love about cornbread if you think about it back in the true cornbread days not many people had the luxury of sugar in the south but all in all I know one thing I love me some good cornbread y'all - Johnny D
My family never used sugar or flour in cornbread. That simply wasn't REAL southern cornbread. Use white finely ground PLAIN corn meal & add the soda, salt, baking powder. If we cooked it in the oven in a skillet, add egg. If you're cooking a thin hoecake on the eye of the stove just use cornmeal and water. Don't cut back of skip the oil ever. Get the cast iron HOT before pouring the batter. When it's done, let it cool a bit before cutting it so it doesn't get too dry inside. - myema
From the north, love it sweet - Cindy
I use about two teaspoons with about two cups meal. Not enough to make it sweet but.... - kytory
Yes, and I added a tablespoon of honey too! - anonymous
Depends! on how I'ma feel'n at the time. grew up with it unsweetened, I didn't get my mama's recipe. I'll try more flour next time. - anonymous
I like it sweet - GigHarborHome
no...not unless I'm in the mood for cake - anonymous
I like it sweet with a hint of jalapeno peppers! Sweet and spicy... YUM - anonymous
NO. then it is corncake. - anonymous
Love sweet corn bread/muffins!!!! - anonymous
Just a tetch of sugar. No more. I do make it in a greased cast iron pan. I'm a Yankee, but even so, I think I've got cornbread downpat. It's a lot like yours. - Joan Haines
I like mine sweet AND with yellow cornmeal. But don't tell my southern friends! ;) - Margaret Schindel
Not without a gun being directed at me before I eat it! Great quote about sharing our cornbread from this Mississippian to you. No pressure but I'll be trying the recipe, Merry Christmas. CL. - Countryluthier
My husband hand grinds fresh cornmeal for our cornbread. I sweeten with honey, and bake in cast iron - I have a variety of cornstick and muffin pans, all cast iron. Sometimes I use one of our many skillets, I might put a building star or a horseshoe in the pan first to imprint the shape on the finished bread. - anonymous
A touch of sweetness brings out the wonderful flavor of the corn once you've had it sweet it's hard to go back =) - anonymous
I know some call it "cake," but I like a little sweetness in my cornbread! - SusanDeppner
I add sugar to mine. It needs to be a touch sweet, but not as sweet as cake. We like everything sweet here in the south, don't we? - Wendy Leanne
My mother told me never to put sugar in my cornbread. But what does she know? She's only my mother. ;) - ChristyMarieKent
I love sugar in my cornbread. - beckyf
What Goes With Cornbread?
A Minnesotan friend asked me what I was planning for Thanksgiving. When I mentioned cornbread, she seemed surprised, asking, "Does cornbread go with turkey?"
I'm from the south, where our rule is, if it's food, then it pairs well with cornbread.
Flour helps give cornbread a more cakey, moist, stick-together texture. I tried once to substitute potato flour into my typical recipe, and I was brave enough to do it when I had guests for Thanksgiving. Oh, my. It didn't rise and had the texture of fifteen-minute-old Elmer's glue. Why didn't I practice sometime when no one would suffer but my own family? Which would have been appropriate, because the result was something only a mother could love.
I've seen two groups of gluten-free recipes out there:
- Using substitutes for wheat flour, like the potato flour I tried with such disastrous results; or
- Removing the flour entirely, and basing it only on corn meal, with maybe an extra egg for moisture and glue.
So have any of you tried a decent gluten-free alternative? Leave a comment below.
The Cooker Cornbread
When I lived in Nashville, we used to go to lunch at a restaurant called The Cooker, at which the server would bring a bowl of fabulous rolls as an appetizer. Typically they would throw one piece of cornbread in the basket, too, which turned out to be a very bad thing. Someone could have lost an eye in the fight over that one piece of cornbread.
When we were drawing our forks to use as weapons, the waitress suggested that she could bring a basket filled with nothing but cornbread, thus averting the standoff and saving three lives.