I mentioned cornbread in my beef stew post, so I thought it would be beneficial to tell you how to make it. Making good cornbread is not hard, but there’s a fine line between good and bad, so there are a few steps and fundamental rules that you must follow. For Southerners, cornbread is as traditional as college football and sweet tea, so we should all know how to make it well. Bear in mind: this post is about basic Southern round cornbread. There are other varieties (e.g. Mexican cornbread, cornbread fritters, corn cakes, etc.) to which the rules do not necessarily apply.
(1) A well-seasoned cast iron skillet is essential. In my family, Aunt Dot was known as an excellent cornbread maker, and when she passed away a few years ago I was fortunate enough to inherit her cast iron skillet. This skillet produced no doubt thousands of pans of cornbread over the decades while in Aunt Dot’s possession, and continues to produce cornbread to this day under my care. It never sticks, has never been washed (I just wipe it out with a paper towel), and exists to perform only one function: produce cornbread. Many of you do not have the luxury of owning this kind of iron skillet, but even a new skillet – if properly seasoned – will produce a serviceable pan of cornbread. However, I believe it takes a minimum of ten years of consistent use before the pan will produce really excellent cornbread, so some of you may have to wait a while.
(2) White Lily Enriched Self-Rising White Corn Meal Mix is the only cornmeal that matters. I am a stickler on this point. If it was good enough for Aunt Dot, then it’s good enough for me. If you must go to another brand, then I suppose Martha White will do in a pinch. Under no circumstances, however, are you to use yellow cornmeal mix. This is heresy. You can have your yellow cornbread, but don’t serve it to me.
(3) Do not put sugar in the batter. I realize this is a controversial point, but I strongly prefer a non-sweet, tangy cornbread. If you are on the pro-sugar side, then at least keep it to a scant amount, and save the rest for dessert. I will grudgingly eat cornbread with a little bit of sugar in it, but please don’t serve me cake with my meal.
(4) Buttermilk is the secret weapon. Buttermilk is super-gross to drink, but makes cornbread super-delicious. Even better is Bulgarian buttermilk if you can find it – it’s so thick and disgusting you almost have to scoop it out of the carton, but boy does it make some great cornbread. Whole milk will work, but the finished product will not be nearly as satisfying. Anything less than whole milk and you may as well use water.
(5) The mix is key. Non-adherence to this rule is the culprit behind many bad pans of cornbread. Dry ingredients go in the bowl first, then wet ingredients. The egg should be beaten with a fork before it goes into the bowl. Using a large spoon, fold the ingredients together until just mixed, then stop. The batter will be lumpy, but that’s exactly what you want. Over-mixing will produce a homogeneous cornbread with a cake-like texture, which is not what you want.
Now that you know the rules, the process is fairly simple:
(1) Put a couple tablespoons of vegetable shortening in the cast iron skillet, and preheat in the oven on 425° for at least 15 minutes.
(2) While the pan and oven are preheating, mix together 1 fresh, large egg, 2 cups cornmeal, 1.5 cups of buttermilk, and ¼ cup melted vegetable shortening in a bowl, using the mixing method described above.
(3) Once the preheat process is complete, take the skillet out of the oven and sprinkle a small amount (no more than a tablespoon or two) of cornmeal mix into the skillet, then pour in the batter. If you have preheated properly, then the batter will be sizzling.
(4) Bake 20-30 minutes, depending on the size of the skillet and the accuracy of your oven. An 8-inch skillet will bake longer than a 10-inch because the cornbread will be thicker. I prefer a larger skillet and a thinner cornbread, but either way is acceptable.
(5) The cornbread is done when you can poke a knife into the center and it comes out clean. Invert the cornbread onto a plate, bottom-side up, cut, and serve immediately.