Anytime you put the words “Southern” in front of a dish, it’s likely to stir up controversy, and cornbread is no exception. It seems like every person I’ve ever known from the South has their favorite way of making it, and every way is different.
The thing that distinguishes Southern cornbread from, say Yankee cornbread, or any other cornbread one is likely to eat outside of the southern states, is that it is savory, not sweet, and it is made mostly with cornmeal.
Northern cornbreads tend to be more cake-like, on the sweet side, with a finer crumb due to more flour in the mixture. Southern cornbread is flavored with bacon grease, and cooked in a cast iron skillet, a perfect side for barbecues, or chili.
With this recipe we experimented with all cornmeal or just three quarters cornmeal and one quarter flour. We also experimented with including or leaving out an egg. Either way works, though the version with some of the cornmeal swapped out with flour, and including an egg, holds together better and is a little more tender.
Whether to include sugar or not in a southern cornbread recipe is an issue for debate. We’ve included as an option a tablespoon which just intensifies the flavor of the cornmeal; it doesn’t make the cornbread sweet. The choice is yours as to whether or not to include it. (See this excellent article from Serious Eats on why traditional southern cornbread does not include sugar.)
You’ll notice there are bacon drippings and butter in this recipe. The butter adds needed richness to the bread itself, and the bacon drippings help brown the crust, keep it from sticking to the skillet, and add a lovely bacon flavor to the bread.
Finally, the method that works best with using a cast iron skillet is to preheat the skillet with the fat and then add the batter to the hot skillet. This helps brown the crust and with the pan already hot, the cornbread cooks more quickly.
To my fine readers from our Southern states, how do you like your cornbread? Please let us know in the comments.
White cornmeal is used in most Southern cornbreads, but we could not find any here in California, so we used yellow cornmeal. If you can find white cornmeal, by all means use it.
- 1 Tbsp bacon drippings
- 2 cups cornmeal OR 1 1/2 cups cornmeal and 1/2 cup flour
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 Tbsp sugar (optional)
- 1 egg (optional)
- 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
- 6 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 Preheat pan with bacon drippings: Put the bacon drippings in a 9 or 10-inch cast iron skillet and put the skillet into the oven. Then preheat the oven to 400° with the skillet inside. (If you don't have an iron skillet, you can use an uncovered Dutch oven or a metal cake pan.)
2 Make the batter: Whisk together all the dry ingredients (cornmeal, baking soda, salt, sugar if using) in a large bowl. In another bowl, beat the egg (if using) and buttermilk until combined, then mix that into the bowl of dry ingredients. Stir in the melted butter.
3 Pour batter into hot skillet and bake: When the oven is hot, take out the skillet (carefully, as the handle will be hot!). Add the cornbread batter and make sure it is evenly distributed in the skillet.
Bake at 400°F for about 20 minutes, or until the edges are beginning to brown and a toothpick inserted in the center of the bread comes out clean.
4 Rest bread in skillet, then serve: Let the bread rest for 10-30 minutes in the skillet before cutting it into wedges and serving.
To avoid burning your hand because you've forgotten the pan is hot, I recommend placing a pot holder on the pan's handle while the cornbread is resting, or cooling the handle down a bit with an ice cube.