There is definitely a lot of controversy when it comes to cornbread, this traditional bread that is now synonymous with Southern cooking.
This is the fourth and last post for our “bread around the world” feature for which we had the pleasure of visiting Algeria, Italy and Mexico, with kesra, focaccia and flour tortilla respectively. With cornbread, we will round up this theme with another bread, very different from the ones we already presented. If you like my corny humour, you will like my corny recipe!
Although cornbread is now often associated with southern cooking, it hasn’t always been the case. Indeed, cornbread was the primary bread that was eaten by native Americans well before the arrival of Europeans on US soil.
The settlers didn’t embrace it right away, but with the rarity of wheat in certain regions and its associated high price, wheat-based bread was reserved for special occasions in richer families.
At the turn of the twentieth century, wheat became more pervasive but corn remained the staple grain in the south as wheat crops were affected by heat and humidity in the region.
Corn production is still heavy in places like the Midwest, and Americans all around the country have continued to make breads, cakes, or muffins from cornmeal. However, cornbread is still associated primarily with the South of the United States.
“The North thinks it knows how to make cornbread, but this is gross superstition” – Mark Twain, Autobiography
The original recipe for cornmeal-based bread was called corn pone. It was made from a basic batter of cornmeal mixed with water and a little salt. It was traditionally cooked in an iron skillet or a Dutch oven that was greased then placed directly on hot coals. People used to place embers on top of the corn pone to allow it to cook from the top as well as the bottom for homogeneous cooking. Over time, the standard pone recipe was improved to become what we know today as cornbread.
But back to the controversy. Like any traditional recipe that has existed and evolved over centuries and across several regions, there are going to be strong opinions about the “right” way to make cornbread.
I did a lot of research for this recipe and here is what can be summarized about traditional southern cornbread, which is the recipe I chose to bake today:
Stone-milling vs. steel milling
In the old days, there was only stone milling. The introduction of steel milling changed the final result for corn. Unlike stone milling, steel milling eliminates most of the corn kernel, including the germ. Steel milling therefore makes the corn shelf stable, which is obviously a good thing as you can keep store-bought cornmeal much longer. However, this process removes much of the flavor and nutrition of the corn. Indeed, the friction of steel rollers generates a lot of heat, which erodes corn’s natural flavor.
Also, the steel milling process asked for corn that was harvested unripe and that was dried with forced air. These corns are less sweet and have less corn flavor than their field-ripened counterpart.
All of these considerations might not seem important, but it is the evolution from stone to steel milling that likely prompted cooks to start adding sugar in their cornbread, as well as wheat flour.
Which takes us to the second controversy.
Sugar or no sugar
I will be brief: no sugar is necessary in cornbread if you use stone-milled cornmeal. If you cannot find stone-milled cornmeal, then adding 1 or 2 tablespoons of sugar is totally accepted, even in southern cooking. In the northern states, sweeteners like sugar, honey or molasses are often used in the cornbread batter, where Southerners may add honey on top of baked cornbread.
Wheat or no wheat
Again, this is a matter of using the right cornmeal. Traditionally, there is no wheat flour added to cornbread. Some wheat flour has been added over time, mostly to compensate for the lack of consistency from the steel-milled flour. If you are using medium or coarse grain stone-milled cornmeal, then there should not be a need for wheat flour.
Yellow or white corn
This consideration has more to do with the region of origin for the cornbread recipe and the available products in the region. In the southern states, white corn was the most popular. In the northern regions, it was yellow corn. And in the southwest region of the United States, it is all about blue corn. If you can find white cornmeal for a traditional southern cornbread, go for it. However, after trying at least 5 different stores in the Los Angeles area, I gave up as it seems like a special order item. Based on my research, yellow cornmeal is totally fine too and also used in the South nowadays.
It is really a matter of preference here but depending on the recipe, you might find shortening, fat from bacon or lard, or even butter.
The key to making an authentic Southern cornbread is to not only use the right ingredients but also the right tools. Yes, you can bake cornbread in a muffin pan, a baking dish or even ramekins but the traditional way is in a greased black cast iron skillet preheated in the oven so it’s piping hot when the batter hits the pan, causing the edges of the bread to be crisp and brown a little bit.
I have to say that cornbread has never been a favorite of mine. Whenever I had cornbread here in the United States, I have found it to be too sweet and cake-like. Definitely not a bread I would want to eat with my meal. After all this research, I am happy to finally realize I never really had the true authentic Southern cornbread, a cornbread that gets its sweetness mostly from the corn itself and not any additional sweetener.
If you have cornmeal left, why not try the other unique international breads we featured on 196 flavors already? Like the chipa from Paraguay or lahoh from Somalia? Interestingly too, even though Johnny cake is originally a cornmeal-based bread known in some regions of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, it is made with wheat flour in Belize. I also made mchadi, a Georgian cornmeal-based bread that I served with my lobio. And if you still have leftover cornmeal, why not make this other American classic: corn dogs!
I served my cornbread with chili, another very traditional southern dish which brings with it another set of controversies like whether it should include tomatoes and beans, but that will be for another post.
For now, let’s enjoy our cornbread, whether it is authentic southern cornbread or not!
- ¼ cup shortening
- 1½ cup white cornmeal (or yellow cornmeal)
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1½ cup buttermilk
- 1 large egg , lightly beaten
Preheat oven to 425F/220C.
Add the shortening to a 10-inch (25cm) cast iron skillet.
- Place the skillet in the oven to melt the fat and heat the skillet.
- In a bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
- Remove the skillet from the oven.
- Pour the fat from the skillet into the cornmeal mixture and stir.
- Incorporate half of the buttermilk and add the egg to the cornmeal mixture. Add more buttermilk as needed to make a thick batter. Fold ingredients without beating the batter.
- Pour the cornmeal mixture into the hot skillet.
- Place in the oven and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Remove the skillet from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes. Cut in wedges.