Cornbread and Cast Iron

by R.B. Quinn and Min Merrell

Time to pull out your seasoned cast iron skillet.

Since cornbread is such a touchstone in southern cooking, I’ve become wary of all the smug foodie chit chat about the perfect historic recipe and debates over where to find such a specimen in an area restaurant. Bo-ring! Instead, I’m elated to find people actually enjoying good cornbread in their regular lives–not just yakking about it.

That’s what I found while judging the Belle Meade United Methodist Church Chili Cook-Off. Back in the church kitchen, my new friends were making fabulous crusty cornbread in a collection of well-seasoned cast iron skillets. What a treat. More about the chili later, we’re talking cornbread. After years of work with the Martha White test kitchen, I’ve got something to say on the subject. So here are a my tips for enjoying great cornbread at home.

  • Cornmeal color preferences are purely regional. The white states are in the South, the yellow states are pretty much everywhere else, except Rhode Island where their Johnny Cakes are traditionally made with white cornmeal.
  • Southern cornbread is all about the crust. You must have a hot cast iron skillet to make the crust nicely browned and crisp. It’s also the hot fat in the skillet that fries the batter when it hits.
  • I usually use oil in my cornbread and bacon drippings to grease the skillet.
  • The most important thing about the batter is that it not be too thick, but pourable and creamy like pancake batter. THICK BATTER MAKES DRY CORNBREAD. You can either use buttermilk (it makes a moister cornbread) or sweet milk. The cornmeal needs to hydrate so don’t be afraid to add a little more liquid.

Check out this creamy batter and these fantastic skillets. 

  • Self-rising cornmeal mix is the way to go. It has the perfect balance of cornmeal, a little flour and leavening. All you have to do is add an egg, oil and the milk.
  • A bigger skillet will make a thinner cornbread with a nice crust to moist center ratio.
  • Use the same batter to make corn cakes on a hot griddle.
  • Yes, you can make it without an egg.  You’ll get a creamier, dense center. It’s fantastic. 

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