I have no actual proof of that, but there is ample evidence in my world to say it is empirically true. We are a corn-loving people. Grits, cornbread, corn-on-the-cob, corn casserole, succotash, spoonbread, dressing — I could go on like Forrest Gump about shrimp — we just have a special love for most all things corn.
I realize the South is not alone in this. The entire country loves corn and as a nation we produce a whole lot of it: 350 million metric tons last year, about a third of all that was grown in the entire world. I understand it is plentiful and available everywhere, but cornbread is not.
Like snowflakes, every home recipe is unique, with subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) differences. Despite the countless fluctuations among them all, the vast majority have two things in common: an iron skillet and bacon grease. Drippings is perhaps the more elegant term, but grease is what is written. You can make “good" cornbread without either, but there is a reason both are used in virtually every treasured family recipe.
I have lots of written copies of my family’s cornbread recipe. A few look ready to be framed, but most are in my mother’s hand on all sorts of scraps and notecards where she evidently jotted the recipe down in haste many times over many years. I have one from 1967. The date is among all the doodling at the bottom of the page. I imagine she called her mother — just like years later I would call on her — yes, I have it written down somewhere . . . I just want to make sure I remember how much baking powder . . . I need to put my book where I can always find it!
And so history repeats itself. None of us were ever very organized; I am still not. But in this case, I am glad. These written out versions of our cornbread recipe — my grandmother’s, my mother’s and mine — are like diaries of our lives. You can surmise so much just by our penmanship: stressed and rushed (mostly mine during my college years), relaxed and happy; it’s all there, our curves and loops changing as we aged.
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In light of it being almost 2024, I cannot imagine there is anyone who has not tasted cornbread as the world is so small and cultural cuisines now cross every geographical boundary, but you might not have had good cornbread. No, I am not asserting that mine (my family’s) is the best, but it is without a doubt “good.” Sort of like “pretty” shrimp, “good” cornbread is a mark of excellence. And if the cornbread you have eaten was light and cake-like, remarkably sweet, or taken out of the oven in a anything other than an iron skillet, there is a chance you haven not had “good” cornbread and need to sample more.
I have to address the sweet cornbread deal and I don’t want to sound hypocritical, because there are only a few things any better than a warm piece of cornbread slathered in butter and honey (or syrup). But — and it is a big but — your entire batch of cornbread just should not be sweet. The little lean towards salty is what makes the “dessert-piece” you create with honey so perfect. Like salted caramel or chocolate, you need a little yin-yang or push and pull.
There are lots of people who sweeten their cornbread quite a lot and . . . honestly, I need to leave it at that. It is not a dealbreaker necessarily. I understand it is simply a matter of preference, like iced tea, and you can have good cornbread that is a little sweet, I really should leave it at that. (But it really just should not be sweet-sweet.)
All the best cornbread is moist and soft on the inside, crispy on the bottom, crusty on top and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. It is served with a generous amount of butter and is the perfect accompaniment for most any meal, but especially greens, peas, beans or anything with pot liquor to soak up, as well as most soups and definitely chili. It should be made with a medium to coarse grind cornmeal, not corn flour.
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Aside from enjoying it sliced hot and right out of the oven, my grandmother, Frannie, and many of her generation, loved nothing more than to crumble leftover cornbread into buttermilk and eat it with a spoon. For all I know, that is brilliant, but I have never tried it. She certainly loved it.
Most of the time, I make “plain” cornbread with no add-ins, in large part because my husband customizes the leftovers for breakfast toast or a sweet snack with honey, but I will include some options for when you want to change it up. Two of my favorites are Mexican Cornbread with cheese and fresh jalapeños and Herbed Cornbread with a variety of fresh snipped herbs. Broccoli & Cheese Cornbread is a popular add-in, but not in my family. I have enjoyed it that way on numerous occasions, but never enough to make a whole batch of it.
You can add pretty much anything you like as long as you adjust your wet and dry ingredients. As a rule, you want your mixture to be on the wet side when it goes into the oven. There is nothing worse than dry cornbread. It tastes raw and a little like sawdust, so if what you have tried in the past was anything like that, you are in for a real treat.
This is my family’s original recipe, but check out the Cook’s Notes sections for optional add-ins as well as tips for making it vegetarian and/or gluten-free.
1 1/2 cups medium to coarse grind cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
Hefty pinch of sugar
**1 cup milk or buttermilk, plus more (see below)
Optional: a heaping spoonful of mayonnaise
1 large egg
2-3 tablespoons bacon grease (or butter), enough to coat and slightly pool in bottom of skillet
Preheat oven to 425F
Mix dry ingredients and set aside.
**Using a large measuring cup, quart size will do, pour in 1 cup of milk or buttermilk. Then add egg. Either add more milk or buttermilk to make 2 cups, or add a heaping spoonful of mayonnaise (as much as you like) and then top off with more milk or buttermilk to total 2 cups.
Whisk wet ingredients until egg is fully combined before adding to dry ingredients.
Do Not Over Mix! It should be well blended but use mostly a folding-in method rater than a hard, aggressive stirring.
Place bacon grease or butter in skillet and put in hot oven for 4-5 minutes or until really, really hot.
Pull out skillet, pour in cornbread mixture (it should sizzle quite a lot) and quickly return to the oven.
Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until a deep golden color. A wooden skewer should come out clean once done.
Serve from the skillet with lots of butter.
Do not double this recipe!
Bacon Grease: You can substitute butter or other fat of choice. It must be able to handle high heat.
Gluten-free or Dairy options: If you choose to make this gluten-free, make sure to use a “fat” dairy or dairy substitute like whole milk or buttermilk, or a fat dairy free version. If you choose to use a thin milk like almond milk, consider using more of the mayonnaise option in the recipe to keep it from drying out as it bakes.
For Mexican Cornbread: Grate 1 1/2 cups of cheddar cheese of choice and chop fresh jalapeños, the amount is up to you. Add green onions or onion powder, garlic powder, etc. Fold it all into the batter before baking. You can also layer it in by pouring half the batter, then half the add-in mixture, then the rest of the batter and topping it with the last half of the add-in mixture.
For Herbed Cornbread: Add up to 4-5 teaspoons of a variety of fresh snipped herbs of choice, I like to include sage and chives with additional herbs that complement what I am serving.