Monday, June 29, 2009

Southern Skillet Cornbread

All controversy aside on preferred ingredients for cornbread, in my mind there really is only one thing that truly sets southern cornbread apart. It must be cooked in a screaming hot, cast iron skillet.

Southern Skillet Cornbread

Skillet cornbread is a southern staple. Baked in a preheated, sizzling hot oiled cast iron skillet, it produces a beautiful crunchy crust on the bottom, and that is what makes it so unique. But cornbread in The South can certainly be cause for debate, that's for sure.

The truth is ... the real secrets that make authentic southern cornbread, is 1) using a good, stone-ground cornmeal, and 2) that crusty crunch on the outside that results from fat in the bottom of a screaming hot, cast iron skillet. Believe it or not, it's less about the recipe, or whether you use white or yellow cornmeal, flour, or sugar in your cornbread, and much more about the quality of the cornbread and the actual method itself.

Gasp! Did she really just say that??

Why yes indeed, I surely did! If you've got a couple minutes you can read my thoughts as a true born and bred Southerner on The Great Southern Cornbread Debate.

Truth is, the majority of Southerners don't have access to a good stone-ground cornmeal, so they mostly use grocery store cornmeal, and believe me it makes a very big difference, so plenty of Southerners have been using a little bit of flour and even a pinch of sugar in their cornbread made from grocery store cornmeal since the beginning of cornbread in a skillet time. I know some other Southerners don't want to accept that, but from my personal research, it is true.

Flour adds body and corn just loves sugar and adding just a bit helps to take the edge off of that raw and harsh grocery store cornmeal flavor. The key there are the words "a little bit." What we down south call Yankee cornbread is heavy in both flour and sugar, making it very sweet and cake-like. Not a thing wrong with that, but it's not what we in the south call cornbread.

If you put just a bit of flour and/or sugar in your Southern cornbread, guess what? It certainly is still Southern cornbread. In fact, if you're from the part of the Deep South where I am from, you don't have easy access to stone-ground cornmeal or even white cornmeal, so you likely use a little flour, a pinch of sugar, and only yellow cornmeal - not white - so it's more of a regional thing really as to whether you use white or yellow cornmeal.

Since discovering stone-ground cornmeal, I use that and the recipe from my cookbook to make cornbread most of the time now, and the recipe formula is definitely different. There are no mills in the deep south however, so I do have to buy my stone ground cornmeal online. Since discovering this amazing cornmeal, I have ordered from several sources, but I found one sold through The Smoky Mountain Association and have been buying it from them the past few years. It's a high quality cornmeal, but also the sales through their store help the park. They have two mills in the park they use, Cable Mill and Mingus Mill, the latter still using the original stones from when it was built in 1886. Keep in mind that stone ground cornmeal must be stored in the freezer or fridge however.

So let's put that silly argument to rest until somebody can pull me out a "Southern Cornbread Bible" written by the hand of God himself that says otherwise, and remember that it's just food and cooking, and your way is always the right way when it comes to your kitchen. So let's just get cooking, shall we?

The recipe I use the most since discovering stone ground cornmeal is in my cookbook. It's totally different from the recipe here, but stone ground cornmeal makes a huge difference in both the flavor and the texture of the finished product. If you've only got grocery store cornmeal, use this recipe. The top recipe below, is a slight adaptation of the "Dixie Cornbread" recipe I found published in a 1977 Junior League cookbook called "A Taste of Georgia," and was contributed by Mrs. William F. Lee, Jr.

Yes. I have cookbooks from all over The South because I'm always on the lookout for old cookbooks at yard sales, estate sales and online to use as research when I write a new recipe. In case y'all haven't noticed, cookbooks have a very short life in the library, so you generally won't find any of the older ones there, and since I started blogging, I've come to find that there is no one, single South when it comes to many things, including cooking. Depending on what part of The South you are from, you likely cook something totally different from another part of The South. Folks in north Alabama cook far different from my region of the south and folks in Georgia or the Carolinas cook different from they do in Louisiana and Tennessee. I mean c'mon... we can't even agree on the pronunciation of the word pecan, because if you live in Georgia you probably say it totally different from how they say it in Texas and certainly from how we say it down here.

Oddly, even some Southerners still don't quite understand these regional differences and still think their way is the only right way and every other southerner is wrong. I still get told all the time that I'm not doing something "right" here on my own website. In all fairness though, I get it, because truth is, we Southerners don't usually venture all that far from that place where we were born. I guarantee the subject of any amount of sugar in cornbread, no matter how miniscule, will conjure up somebody quoting a famous Missourian, Mark Twain, who said "If God had meant for corn bread to have sugar in it, he'd have called it cake" quote. With all due respect, some would say that Missouri is more mid-western than southern, and, just like anybody else, it's really just one man's opinion.


Although this Dixie Cornbread does contain a small amount of flour, it adds body, and it is still a more classic version of southern cornbread - more dry with a more prevalent cornmeal texture and corn taste. It works best with grocery store cornmeal and I like it a lot, though the second recipe at the bottom that contains a little more flour and {gasp} a bit of sugar is also a favorite of mine. They are both equally delicious. For something a little different, try my Buttermilk Sour Cream Cornbread too sometime, including the Mexican version at the bottom of that recipe.

By the way... nobody's gonna take away your Southern card if you don't feel like fooling with preheating a cast iron skillet and trying to turn the cornbread out of it. It really is more than a little awkward to manage a screaming hot, heavy cast iron skillet, no doubt, and it doesn't get any easier to manage one, as you get older and suffer from things like arthritis. Just make it in an 8 x 8 inch baking pan if you like. I grease it down with Crisco so the cornbread gets that nice crust on the outside, then just add in the 1/4 cup of oil with the batter, pour it in and bake.

Kim said: I just used your [southern light] cornbread recipe, and I must say that is wonderful. It will replace the recipe that I've used for the last 20 years. Thanks so much!

For more of my favorite cornbread, bread, biscuits and roll recipes, visit my page on Pinterest!

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Recipe: Southern Skillet Cornbread

©From the Kitchen of Deep South Dish
Prep time: 10 min |Cook time: 20 min | Yield: About 8 servings

  • 1/4 cup of oil, shortening or bacon fat
  • 1-1/2 cups of all purpose white or yellow cornmeal
  • 3 tablespoons of all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon of baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon of baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon of kosher salt
  • 2 cups of buttermilk, more or less
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Add the fat to a well seasoned 10-inch cast iron skillet and place the skillet into the oven to melt the fat and heat the skillet. In a bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Using mitts, carefully remove the skillet from the oven and swirl the hot fat around to coat the entire skillet.

Pour the fat from the skillet into the cornmeal mixture; stir. Stir in half of the buttermilk and add the egg; add more buttermilk as needed to make a thick but pourable batter. Depending on the grind of your cornmeal and the type of buttermilk you use, you may not need it all. Fold ingredients and don't beat the batter. Pour the cornmeal mixture into the hot skillet. Carefully place directly into the oven and bake at 450 degrees F for about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the skillet from the oven, let rest for 5 minutes, then very carefully turn the cornbread out onto a plate or platter to preserve that nice crispy crust!

Cook's Notes: If your cast iron is not well seasoned, your cornbread may stick. Slice out of the skillet if you are unsure. Use a medium grind of cornmeal, not a fine grind. Don't beat the batter or your cornbread will be crumbly. If your baking soda is not fresh, you won't get much of a rise. For insurance I've added a teaspoon of baking powder. I store both my baking soda and my baking powder in the freezer. Can substitute milk for the buttermilk, you'll need less. Can also substitute 2 cups of self-rising cornmeal mix. Eliminate the baking soda and salt if you use a cornbread mix. I prefer White Lily brand, buttermilk, white cornbread mix.

Pan Version: If you prefer to make this in a pan, don't worry. Nobody is gonna take away your Southern card. Just grease an 8 x 8 inch baking dish with vegetable shortening. Mix all of the ingredients together and pour into pan. Bake as above.

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Sausage Cheese Cornbread: Add in 1/2 pound of browned breakfast sausage, 1/2 cup of shredded cheddar cheese and 1 can of cream corn. Add 1/4 cup of finely minced onion and 1 teaspoon of finely minced garlic if desired.

Bacon Cornbread: For bacon cornbread, cook several slices of bacon until crisp. Crumble and add to the batter along with the pan drippings.

Cracklin' Cornbread: Stir about 1/3 cup of finely chopped, fried pork cracklings into the batter before baking.

For Corn Sticks: Melt 1/4 cup of Crisco (or bacon drippings) and mix that into the batter. For corn stick pans, I find cooking spray works the best. I use two of these 7 stick pans per recipe and usually have a little bit leftover, enough for 3 or 4 more sticks after the first 2 trays come out. Spray the corn stick pans generously with non-stick spray, then stick them in the oven while it preheats. For the corn sticks I find it easier to pipe the batter into the hot pans, so I scoop the batter into a zipper bag, cut off the tip and pipe it into the hot pans. It's just easier to work fast with those hot pans that way. I also reduce the heat slightly to 425 degrees F and bake for about 10 to 12 minutes or so until they are golden brown.
Another version that many southerners enjoy, including me, contains a little bit more flour and a bit of sugar. Gasp! Ssshh.... just don't tell nobody. I hope that you'll enjoy this recipe with just a touch of sweetness and a bit of flour for body.

Recipe: Southern Light Cornbread:
From the Kitchen of Deep South Dish
  • 1-1/2 cups of white or yellow cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup of White Lily self rising flour
  • 3 teaspoons of baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar, optional
  • Up to 2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup of canola oil
  • 2 tablespoons of melted butter, optional
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a bowl, mix together the cornmeal, self rising flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, buttermilk and egg; don't beat. Set aside. Add the canola oil to an 8-inch cast iron skillet and place the skillet into the oven to melt the fat and heat the skillet. Using mitts, carefully remove the skillet from the oven and swirl the hot fat around to coat the entire skillet. Pour the fat into cornmeal mixture. For extra richness, add the melted butter. Gently blend in and pour the cornmeal mixture into the hot skillet. Carefully place into the oven and bake at 450 degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes.

Variations: Add one or two (4 ounce) cans of chopped green chilies, undrained. For bacon cornbread, cook several slices of bacon until crisp and crumbled into the batter along with the pan drippings.

Sausage Cheese Cornbread: Add in 1/2 pound of browned breakfast sausage, 1/2 cup of shredded cheddar cheese and 1 can of cream corn. Add 1/4 cup of finely minced onion and 1 teaspoon of finely minced garlic if desired.


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©Deep South Dish
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Posted by on June 29, 2009
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