Six tips for perfect Southern Cornbread baked in a hot-hot-hot cast iron skillet. The tips are in my latest "Kitchen Lesson" column – a series of occasional recipes with extra insider tips and ideas gained from long experience in the kitchen.
"My husband declared it the best ever." ~ Cathy
"This was perfect!" ~ Kim
Now truth be told, I'm a Yankee.
But when it comes to cornbread, Southern Cornbread is my go-to recipe. The recipe starts with a big batch for a large cast iron skillet but there's also a small batch for a tiny skillet, good if you're cooking for one or two and aren't excited about leftovers. I hope y'all love this recipe: it's one of a handful of "signature" recipes, the ones I'm really known for. Enjoy!
TIP #1 – For perfect cornbread results every time, bake cornbread in a cast iron skillet. Buy one new for $15-$20 (cast iron skillet ideas here) or hunt for a bargain at a resale shop, flea market or garage sale. These days, new skillets usually come pre-seasoned – it’s the "seasoning" that makes a well-seasoned skillet nearly as "non-stick" as a non-stick pan.
TIP #2 – Invest in stone-ground cornmeal. It’s a real treat and a "whole food", nothing more than coarsely or finely ground corn, nothing added, nothing removed. Bob’s Red Mill cornmeal is easy to find in grocery stores, I’ve also ordered freshly ground cornmeal from War Eagle Mill in Rogers, Arkansas, great prices and am in love-love-love with War Eagle Mill's Organic White Cornmeal, Fine Grind. Do store stone-ground cornmeal in the freezer, double bagged to prevent freezer burn. Plan to use it within a few months.
TIP #3 – For a golden, chewy crust, heat your greased skillet in the oven until hot-hot-hot before adding the cornbread batter. What a difference this makes!
TIP #4 – For a headstart, collect the dry ingredients in one bowl and whisk the egg-buttermilk mixture in another a few minutes or a few hours before baking. But don’t combine the two until the skillet is toasty hot. If you do, the baking powder and baking soda will do all their "leavening" work (that’s the lifting which makes cornbread light) in the bowl, rather than the skillet. And that means you’ll end up with flat, tough cornbread. And that means Mama ain’t happy.
TIP #5 – Know the difference between "southern cornbread" and "Yankee cornbread", then find your happy "border state" version.
A southern cornbread usually calls for white cornmeal, a small proportion of flour:cornmeal (and some times no flour at all), buttermilk, little to no sugar, bacon fat and just one egg. There's no mistaking southern cornbread for cake, it's not in the least bit sweet.
A Yankee cornbread usually calls for yellow cornmeal, a higher proportion of flour, sweet milk (that’s regular milk, not buttermilk), a good measure of something sweet like sugar or sorghum or honey, butter and two or more eggs. My recipe for a Yankee-style cornbread is Skillet Cornbread, it stays moist and sweet for days but is a little fussy to make, especially compared to this simple recipe for Simple Cast Iron Southern Cornbread.
I have trouble finding white cornmeal so nearly always use stone-ground yellow cornmeal for both my southern cornbread and my Yankee cornbread.
TIP #6 – If you’re a fellow cornbread fiend, consult with the sage of cornbread, Crescent Dragonwagon. Really. There’s no making up such a name. She's the author of my own guide to all things cornbread, The Cornbread Gospels.
CAMPFIRE CORNBREADThe last two falls, I mixed up cornbread for a group of gourmet camp-cooks and elk hunters who (I’m told) devour the hot cornbread in minutes. Now my grandmother would say, “Hunger is the best sauce,” but me, I'm 99% sure it's the fresh bread coming off a hot fire out in the middle of the wilderness.
To make Campfire Cornbread, just mix and carry the dry ingredients in a ziplock bag. Heat the well-greased skillet in hot embers or atop a Dutch oven with coals, see the photo below. Just before cooking, use a fork to mix in the egg, oil and buttermilk right in the bag and transfer to the hot skillet. Put the skillet back into the embers, let cook until the cornbread is golden.
SIMPLE CAST IRON
Time to table: 45 minutes
- 1 tablespoon bacon grease or butter
- 1 large egg
- 3 tablespoons (33g) vegetable oil
- 1-1/4 cup (280g) buttermilk
(for a nine or ten-inch cast iron skillet, makes 8 - 12 full-size slices)
- 1 cup flour, fluffed to aerate before measuring or 125g
- 1-1/2 cups (250g) stone-ground cornmeal, white or yellow
- 1 teaspoon table salt or 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon bacon grease or butter
- 1 large egg
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
- 1/3 cup (67g) buttermilk
(for a six-inch mini cast iron skillet, makes 4 large wedges or 12 mini wedges)
- 1/4 cup flour, fluffed to aerate before measuring or 31g
- 1/3 cup stone-ground cornmeal
- 1/4 teaspoon table salt or 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Heat the oven to 425F/220C. Rub a cast-iron skillet with bacon grease or butter and place the empty skillet into the hot oven for 15 minutes. (Why? See TIPS.)
In a small bowl, whisk the egg with the fork until the yolk and white are combined, then whisk in the oil and buttermilk until well combined.
In a large bowl, with a fork, stir together the flour, cornmeal, salt, baking powder and baking soda until well combined. (Stop here if mixing ahead of time. Why? See TIPS.) Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture, use the fork to gently combine.
Pour the batter into the hot skillet and immediately place in the oven. For the large batch, bake for 15 minutes; for the small batch, 10 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the cornbread is pulling away from the sides. Serve immediately hot from the oven. Best warm from the oven and should be eaten within 24 hours.
NUTRITION INFORMATION Small Batch, Assumes 12/4 Slices, Per Slice: 41/123 Calories; 2/5g Tot Fat; 0/1g Sat Fat; 18/55mg Cholesterol; 98/294mg Sodium; 5/15g Carb; 0/1g Fiber; 0/1g Sugar; 1/4g Protein. WEIGHT WATCHERS POINTS Old Points 1/2.5 & PointsPlus 1/3 & SmartPoints 1/4
WHY THE SMALL BATCH? Families grow big, families grow small, it's the ebb and flow of family life. Right now, I mostly cook for two so am always on the look-out for half-size or even smaller cooking vessels. So far I've found a half-size angel food cake pan, a half-size Bundt pan and yes, for cornbread, a miniature cast iron skillet, just six inches in diameter. It took a few tries to break down the cornbread recipe but now I never hesitate to make cornbread for dinner, knowing that the two of us can use all or most of it up. Besides, the mini wedges are just so cute alongside a small bowl of soup, a perfect "small bite" of warm bread!
MORE VARIATIONS This has been my go-to simple cornbread recipe since 2010, a new batch every few weeks. That means that more often than not, now, I "play around" with the recipe. I go back and forth between all-purpose flour and 100% white whole-wheat, both are good. After a few batches, I decided I liked a little more leavening. But if your taste leans toward a thinner flatbread-like cornbread, use half the specified baking powder and baking soda. Not everyone likes the texture of stone-ground cornmeal. To soften it, soak coarse stone-ground cornmeal in the buttermilk for about 3 hours or use fine stone-ground cornmeal. The recipe is an easy one to adapt, adding green chilies for a southwestern-style meal, fresh blueberries during berry season, toasted walnuts just because they were on the counter. Turns out? Walnuts are such a favorite, I add them every time now! When the cornbread is a little long in the tooth and dry, break it into pieces in a bowl, cover with milk, just like breakfast cereal!
Out in the wilderness, there's nothing more unexpected than just-baked bread. This recipe works great over an open fire or atop a Dutch oven, for tips, see Campfire Cornbread. Here, a stew was bubbling away in the Dutch oven below, so I just added a cast iron skillet to the top coals! Cooking like this isn't as "precise" or as "controlled" as in your kitchen but still, mighty satisfying.
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