New Southern-Style Cornbread
Cornmeal mush gives the bread a strong corn flavor and a moist, fine texture.
The challenge: Southern-style cornbread, made regularly by one of our editors who hails from the South, is traditionally made from white cornmeal, has trace amounts of sugar and flour (if any), and, perhaps most important, is cooked in hot fat in a scorching hot cast-iron skillet. We wondered if it might have something to learn from northern-style cornbread (yellow cornmeal, fair to generous portions of flour and sugar, almost more of a cake than a bread). Our southern colleague looked dubious, but we decided to try and find out.

The solution: Cornbreads made with yellow cornmeal, we discovered, consistently had a more potent corn flavor than those made with white. Acknowledging such, we edged one step closer to the Mason-Dixon line. Next we tried sugar and found that a little (but only a little) enhanced the natural sweetness of the corn. Our next experiments were with dairy products. Most southern-style cornbreads are made with buttermilk, but after trying sour cream, we were almost convinced to make the replacement. Both the shape and the flavor of the bread improved with the sour cream. With the loss of buttermilk, however, we (and especially our southern colleague) felt we had crossed the Mason-Dixon line. Given that we still wanted a predominantly southern-style cornbread, we stepped back to reconsider things.
Finally, we came upon a recipe calling for cornmeal mush, which is made by stirring boiling water into the cornmeal. Though we eventually found a mixture of half mush/half dry cornmeal to be ideal, we had hit upon a new principle in the making of our cornbread that eliminated the need for sour cream. Cornbread that started with some mush had the most potent corn flavor we’d tasted yet, and it also produced a fine, moist crumb. Buttermilk was thus restored to its place of primacy, and we all took a step back over the line.

Makes one 8-inch skillet of bread

Unlike its sweet, cakey Northern counterpart, Southern cornbread is thin, crusty, and decidedly savory. Though some styles of Southern cornbread are dry and crumbly, I favor this dense, moist, tender version. Cornmeal mush of just the right texture (see illustrations 1 to 3, "Getting the Batter Just right," below) is essential to this bread. Though I prefer to make cornbread in a preheated cast-iron skillet, a 9-inch round cake pan or 9-inch square baking pan, greased lightly with butter and not preheated, will also produce acceptable results if you double the recipe and bake the bread for 25 minutes.

4 teaspoons bacon drippings or 1 tablespoon melted butter and 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably stone ground
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup rapidly boiling water
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 large egg, beaten lightly

1. Adjust oven rack to lower middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees. Set 8-inch cast-iron skillet with bacon fat (or vegetable oil) in heating oven.
2. Measure 1/3 cup cornmeal into medium bowl. Mix remaining cornmeal, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in small bowl; set aside.
3. Pour boiling water all at once into the 1/3 cup cornmeal; stir to make a stiff mush. Whisk in buttermilk gradually, breaking up lumps until smooth, then whisk in egg. When oven is preheated and skillet very hot, stir dry ingredients into mush mixture until just moistened. Carefully remove skillet from oven. Pour hot bacon fat (or melted butter) into batter and stir to incorporate, then quickly pour batter into heated skillet. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and instantly turn cornbread onto wire rack; cool for 5 minutes, then serve immediately.

Makes 12 corn sticks or 6 muffins

Corn stick pans have anywhere from seven to 12 molds. If your pan has fewer than 12 molds, bake the sticks in two batches. If you wish, you can
also follow these directions to make six muffins
using a heavy-gauge 6-muffin mold tin (each mold measuring 1/2 cup). If making muffins, bake for 20 minutes.
Follow Master Recipe for Southern-style Cornbread, heating heavy-gauge corn stick pan instead of cast-iron skillet. Omit fat from batter. When oven is heated, remove pan from oven and generously brush molds with 4 teaspoons bacon drippings or 4 teaspoons vegetable oil. Continue with recipe, filling molds almost to rim with batter. Bake until golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes; turn corn sticks onto rack to cool. Wipe crumbs from molds, brush with more bacon fat or oil, and repeat baking process with remaining batter, if necessary.

Makes one 8-inch skillet of bread

The addition of extra sugar and cake flour moves this cornbread a small step away from its Southern roots. Though still very far removed from Northern- style cornbread, this version has a subtle sweetness and a very fine texture.
Follow Master Recipe for Southern-Style Cornbread, increasing sugar to 3 tablespoons and adding 1/4 cup cake flour to dry ingredients.

Understanding Cornmeal

Between what is claimed and what is left unsaid on a package of cornmeal, what’s inside may not be clear unless you understand the terms and know what to ask.

Steel cut: Cornmeal processed between steel rollers. This process breaks the corn kernels, resulting in a sharper-textured meal. The major brands—Quaker and Martha White—are processed this way.

Stone gound: Cornmeal ground between stones, resulting in a softer-textured meal. Most of the meals I prefer are processed in this way.

Whole grain: Cornmeal ground whole, resulting in a meal made up of the bran, germ, and endosperm. Since the germ and bran contain the oil, this meal is more flavorful and more perishable than degerminated meal. It should be refrigerated or even frozen.

Degerminated: The opposite of whole grain, this cornmeal has been stripped of its germ and bran before milling. Since the germ and bran contain the oil, this meal is drier and less flavorful than whole grain.

Organic: Cornmeal milled from corn grown in a certified organic field.

November, 2001
Original article and recipes by Melissa Hamilton and Pam Anderson


Getting the Batter Just Right