Nashville Skillet Cornbread

by R.B. Quinn and Min Merrell

The most disappointing aspect of the sugar epidemic in the American diet is sugar creeping into good ol’ fashioned Southern cornbread — even at some well-established Nashville meat-and-threes. As Jiffy spreads its cake-like influence across the South, it’s time to go to bat for Nashville’s true cornbread heritage.

Nashville is home to the world-famous Southern flour and cornmeal brand, Martha White. Company owner Cohen E. Williams, a marketing pioneer, brilliantly reached daily biscuit and cornbread bakers all over the rural South by sponsoring WSM’s early morning Biscuit and Cornbread Time broadcast and a Saturday-night segment on the Grand Ole Opry. The Martha White brand became synonymous with bluegrass music thanks to its legendary partnership with Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys.

So, if you want true Nashville-style cornbread, start with Martha White’s hometown self-rising cornmeal mix or self-rising cornmeal with Hot Rize. Self-rising cornmeal mix is a blend of cornmeal, a little bit of flour, leavening, and salt. Self-rising cornmeal is the blend without the flour. Mix up the cornmeal with a little oil, an optional egg, and buttermilk or sweet milk (aka regular milk), and the batter is ready to go. No sugar added (or needed, we think).

Since the best cornbread is all about the crust, you’ll need a well-seasoned iron skillet preheated with bacon drippings or oil. When the batter hits the pan, pow! It sizzles. For a moist, delicious cornbread, the batter must be creamy and pourable — just like pancake batter. Thick, dense batter makes dry cornbread. If your batter feels stiff as you stir it, just add a little more liquid. You want the batter loose enough to slide to the edges of the skillet with ease. A shot of water will quickly loosen things up. Also, if your batter sits while the skillet gets hot it might stiffen as the corn absorbs the liquids. Again, a shot of water and a quick stir before pouring into the skillet.  

Now, about the crust/thickness balance. To us, the finest cornbread is an inch thick and a mile wide. Most two-cup recipes baked in an 8- or 10-inch skillet are just too tall, denying the cornbread its rightful ratio of crust. So, for a thin, crispy cornbread from a 12-inch skillet we use about 1½ cups of cornmeal mix per batch of batter.

After baking, always serve cornbread flipped out of the pan with the beautiful browned crust face up. If you leave it in the pan, you’ll dull your knife, and that beautiful crust you created will turn soggy.

Don’t get hung up on cornmeal color. Around here, white cornmeal is the preference, but white and yellow corn each make great cornbread.

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