Cornbread also rates as one of the most contentious disputes between Southerners and damn Yankees, right behind iced tea. But, in the inverse of the iced tea debate, the South is against sugar. While sugar is permissible in corn grits and corn pudding, putting sugar in your cornbread is heresy. More on that later.
Belying its simplicity as a staple food, countless recipes for Southern style cornbread abound. Southern Living has 81 Southern cornbread recipes on its website. There are variations for white or yellow cornmeal, which fat you use to grease the pan, and even which kind of pan in which to bake it. But traditionally, a cast iron skillet is the pan of choice for making cornbread with a crispy crust and moist crumb.
Do you remember the photo from my first blog post with butter melting in a cast iron skillet? I said then that skillet would be featured in this blog, and here it is already. This skillet is not only traditional, it's also from the South and had a long history of making cornbread before I was even born. A dear friend gave me this skillet because it had become too heavy for her to lift. It was perfectly seasoned and allowed me to cook better Southern food the day I received it.
Although faced with scores of recipes, I was able to whittle down the list pretty easily. After reviewing the first few pages of results from Southern Living , I noticed that most of the "different" recipes were just republished versions of an earlier one. I also wanted a basic, no-nonsense recipe: no self-rising cornmeal and no fancy ingredients. Further, while many recipes require that you combine the cornmeal with boiling water before proceeding, I wanted something easier.
Out of force of habit, I turned to Cook's Illustrated to see what they had. Heretics! Blashphemers! Cook's version of Southern cornbread had sugar in it! I couldn't possibly use sugar in my recipe, could I? Wouldn't a Southern baker be dispatched to hunt me down if someone discovered that I used sugar in a Southern cornbread? Or was it possible that sugar wasn't anathema after all?
Intrigued, I turned to the Jiffy Mix website. In case you have been hiding under a rock for the last 50 years, Jiffy Mix is the staple cornbread mix used by Southern (and Northern) households for decades. A quick perusal of the ingredient list yielded - voila! - sugar. Encouraged by this finding, I cobbled two recipes together to make my cornbread.
Perhaps it's my tainted Yankee tastebuds, but I found this cornbread to be excellent. The small amount of sugar I added boosted the corn flavor, and the texture was superb - moist, but easily crumbled into a pot of beans. My Southern husband approved, and he's a tough critic. My biscuit recipe took years before he gave it the nod. Luckily for me, this one was a hit from the get-go.
Southern Cornbread (with a Yankee twist)
Makes enough for 10-inch skillet. If using a smaller skillet, reduce recipe proportionately. Remember, area of a circle is pi times radius squared.
1 1/2 tablespoons bacon drippings (mmmm, bacon)
2 cups buttermilk or clabbered milk*
1/3 to 1/2 cup water
2 large eggs
2 1/4 cups (12 ounces) yellow cornmeal
1 heaping tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
- Heat oven to 450°.
- Coat bottom and sides of a 10-inch cast-iron skillet with bacon fat. Heat in oven for 10 minutes. (Skillet may smoke a little.)
- In a large bowl, whisk together buttermilk, 1/3 cup water and egg.
- Add cornmeal, stirring well. Stir in sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. If the batter is very thick, add additional water. It should be pourable, not scoopable.
- Remove pan from oven and pour batter into hot skillet. Enjoy the sizzle.
- Bake at 450° for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown.
- Remove from oven and immediately turn cornbread onto cooling rack. Cool for 5 minutes, then serve while still steaming. Yum.
*In a pinch, clabbered milk will suffice. For each 1 cup of buttermilk, substitute scant cup of milk and 1 tablespoon white or cider vinegar. Let vinegar/milk mixture stand several seconds until curdled.