Monday, June 29, 2009

The Great Southern Cornbread Debate

A Southern Born and Bred Southerner's Take on the Cornbread Debate

The truth is ... in my little ole humble opinion, the two things that make cornbread Southern is 1) using a cast iron skillet to make it, and 2) pouring the batter into a very hot cast iron skillet that has been coated in some kind of fat. That's the secret that makes cornbread Southern - that yummy, crunchy bottom. Believe it or not, it's less about the recipe than the method itself. Gasp! Did she really just say that??

Why yes, I did.

And listen, don't you go lettin' people tell you that it's not Authentic Southern Cornbread if it's got sugar or flour in it. That's a myth and you know what I say about that?


If you like the texture flour adds, use it. If you like sugar, add it. If you don't, leave it out. If somebody tries to tell you that it's not "the real deal" with sugar, they are just being haughty, bless their hearts. Ignore them. It's just simply not true.

I can tell you that I know plenty of Southern cooks from waaaaaay back that like at least a little bit of sugar in their cornbread, even if they don't tell anybody about it - and Jiffy cornbread mix, one of the best selling mixes in The South, absolutely has sugar in it - so just don't listen to the naysayers and add some sugar if you like. Personally I think it's just a myth that has been perpetuated over the generations, while all the while Southern cooks were sneaking a bit of sugar in their cornbread when no other eyes were around.

Besides that, corn absolutely loves sugar, and cornmeal is no different. By the way, I'm not talking making cake here folks, so just a couple of teaspoons, maybe even a tablespoon, is plenty.

Likewise for those who say to be Authentic Southern Cornbread it must be made with white cornmeal, not yellow.


Most everybody - and possibly everybody I know - who has grown up, and lived their lives in the vicinity of The Deep South where I am - which quite frankly is just about almost as far south as you can get - uses yellow cornmeal. Walk in the grocery store and you will see hundreds of bags of yellow cornmeal and you'd be hard-pressed to find white, except in a cornbread "mix," so if we use white, it's usually because for some crazy reason, the store was out of yellow cornmeal and we had to resort to a mix.

Which means very simply one thing. How you make cornbread is, of course, completely regionally based. You probably make it the way your mama made it, or the way your neighbors, or your home ec teacher made it. If you're from the part of the Deep South where I am from, you likely use a little flour, a pinch of sugar, and only yellow cornmeal - not white. But then there's this.

When I discovered stone ground cornmeal and it's beautiful texture, I knew that was another element of what made up a real southern cornbread. It really doesn't need much of anything else except a little fat, buttermilk and leavening. No sugar, because the corn is sweet. No flour because the grind gives the cornbread body. It's a secret the mountain regions have known for years and it produces an incredible, delicious, tender, flavorful cornbread!

But... and it's a big but, you ain't finding no good stone ground cornmeal 'round these parts. Nope.

No mills here in South Mississippi, so you have to order stone ground cornmeal in, which isn't cheap. I tried a few different brands and I really love the Great Smoky Mountains Corn Meal. I buy two bags at a time and freeze one. The other must be stored in the fridge. I really like that purchases from their store help to support the park too.

Or... you're just more likely to use what you have available to you, which is the standard milled white or yellow, grocery store shelf cornmeal. Totally different, but not a thing wrong with that either, except that it needs some help with a little flour and yes, maybe even a small bit of sugar.

So in other words, if you are a Southerner, don't be trying to throw down a Southern Shame Card on me or any other Southerner about what you think is or is not right or wrong. I get some Southerners who have said to me that "a real Southerner would [or wouldn't]..." do something that I have done in my recipes, as if I am not a "real" Southerner! Sugah, please stop!! Frankly I think it's just silly to waste energy gettin' all up in arms over things like that anyway, but for some reason certain myths keeps getting perpetuated across the generations and people still feel a need to insist they are the only ones who do something "right." It's a silly fight, so let's just stop it, shall we? It's just food and cooking and your way is always the right way when it comes to your kitchen, but not anybody else's.

Frankly all that matters is finding the perfect for you cornbread, and the three biggest secrets to Southern cornbread is 1) find a good stone ground cornmeal, if you can, otherwise, 2) use a cast iron skillet and 2) pour the batter into hot fat, and, that, is what makes cornbread "Authentic, Real Southern Cornbread."

So now, I don't know about you but I am seriously craving some cornbread, so let's go make a skillet! Right here on my site you can find a more traditional, classic savory version made with bacon fat, a bit of flour and no sugar, or what I call a Southern light version that has just a bit more flour and a tad bit of sugar. I've also got some corn muffins, an amazing honey jalapeno cornbread, and a sour cream version that includes the fabulous Mexican cornbread version too. Why not just try them all?
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  1. Hi!! I love this!! I'm a Southern Gal myself and I just recently found your site and I must say... I love it.

    I especially love this post on what is/is not proper southern fixings!! It is just silly!! I read food blogs all the time and I read recipes from the North and from the South and I get so tickled at the Southern sites that are so adamant about their recipes being "the real Southern thing!!" LOL

    I agree with you and I have to say that every region of the South definitely has it's own distinct way of preparing dishes. I learned how to make cornbread from my Mom, and she from her Mom and so on and I've never lived anywhere other than the deep south and cornbread it totally different than yours! hehe But that's ok cause that's just how I was taught to make it and honestly I make mine a little different from my Mom and Gran! Shhh... don't tell! haha

    Anyway, I love all of your Southern recipes and stories!! Thanks so much for sharing!

    Have a great day,
    Kortney's Krazy Life

  2. Thanks Kortney and welcome!! It's all good, right? ;)

  3. Love this! I've been sayin for years "It don't matter how ya make it, just make it good!", lol.
    I make my cornbread with yellow cornmeal 'mix' and about a tablespoon of sugar! Completely different from my Mama!....and THAT'S the way I like it!!!!

    1. EXACTLY Donna!! I don't know why some southerners get all up in arms about silly things like this anyway. I always say please point me in the direction of who wrote the official rule book because they forgot to give me one when I was born - in the south! How is there one and only one way to make something anyway? Like I say phooey - make it the way you grew up with or the way that you have come to love it. That is really all that matters. One thing is for certain, your way is the right way for you and your way - even if it's different - certainly does not make you any less of a southerner! Phew! What just about wore me slap out LOL!! ;)

  4. Love this! MS to TX here!I've been sayin for years "It don't matter how ya make it, just make it good!", lol. I make my cornbread with yellow cornmeal MIX, and about a tablespoon of sugar! And guess what! I use a lot of black pepper in it,too! Totally different from my Mama! Cause THAT'S THE WAY I LIKE IT!!!!

  5. Great post, great blog and fantastic recipes. My husband and I are displaced coonasses, trying to raise our babies as "southern" as possible out here in the greater Seattle area. When people ask them where they are from, they answer "New Orleans" without hesitation, though none of them has ever lived there! :)

    I read in one of the Lodge cookbooks that "true" southern cornbread was made with white corn meal... in all my days of eating cornbread (from Louisiana, to Mississippi... to Alabama to the Panhandle... to Georgia and South Carolina...) we've *never* had it with white corn! Must be a Tennessee thing... and that's not really the south anyway... ;)


    1. Yay! Not sure what size skillet you used but if it was a bit larger that may be why or the baking powder/soda isn't fresh. Those are two things. On milk it's significantly thinner and depends too on whether you use whole milk or a lower fat milk, but next time try it with about a cup. It should be kinda loose but not too too thin.

  7. Agree with you on the batter poured into hot grease but cornbread made with sugar is corn cake...still tastes good, but to me it's not true cornbread. And I prefer NON-self-rising yellow cornmeal, while Mom liked self-rising white cornmeal.

    1. Well, now, here's where we have to agree to disagree again. While I respect your opinion, and of course I respect how you make your own cornbread, that doesn't mean your cornbread is the only "true" cornbread! In my little ole humble opinion, it's onlly "corn cake" or what we call "yankee" cornbread, if you use a goodly amount of both flour & sugar. If you only use a tablespoon or so, more or less, of either/or, that's not corn cake. If you use a lot, it "might" be.

      A little flour adds body to grocery store cornmeal, which is what most people use - if you don't happen to have access to good stone ground cornmeal - and a little bit of sugar adds a very subtle sweetness that takes the edge off of grocery store cornmeal. Neither one is needed if you have a good stone ground cornmeal frankly, but the addition of either sure doesn't make it cake. Doesn't mean it's not "true" cornbread either and I really wish folks would quit with that business. It's a silly debate and it's just not true.

  8. Thank you sooooo much for your help in defending proper southern cooking! I will add to the regional debate, that in Middle Tennessee, where I have spent most of my life, we mostly use white cornmeal. My biggest question that I cannot find the answer to, is how to make authentic Cold Water Cornbread. Most of our Home style/Soul food restaurants serve it, using white meal, but are very hush hush on their recipe. If you could shed any light on how to make it, I would be extremely grateful. Thanks!

  9. Alabama boy here. Growing up, there was a huge debate in my house about this very topic. Granny, Mamma's Mamma, always used fine-ground white meal. Daddy's Mamma uses medium-ground yellow meal. Nothing else other than water and salt. We've got a water mill down the road, and we buy it straight from the source (they do grits, too). The truth is, I like'em fried, and I like it with both cornmeals.

    But your recipes remind my of my Granny (the most wonderful lady ever)and my heritage. I so appreciate what you do! Thanks for sharing with everyone. You're the best, and you tell wonderful stories.

  10. You rock! Thank you for keeping it real. Headed to the store now. I'll get stone ground up here in the hills of SC. God bless and Merry Christmas.


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