How to Make Cornbread

Cornbread is among the most well-known and widely made quick breads. And, like most dishes that are steeped in tradition, there's some ongoing debate about how to make cornbread-Northern or Southern, with or without sugar, buttermilk or whole milk-but no matter which side of the debates you fall on, there's one point on which most everyone agrees: home-baked cornbread is easy to make, a treat to eat and the perfect accompaniment to almost any meal.

Basic Cornbread
The first people to make cornbread were the Native American tribes who resided in what's now the Southern United States and parts of Central America. Corn was a primary source of food for these people and the most basic cornbread consisted of cornmeal, water and salt.

Like other grains that lack gluten, cornbread won't rise unless it's leavened. With quick breads, leavening is the result of the chemical reactions caused by the addition of baking powder, baking soda or cream of tartar versus a leavening agent like yeast.

Today, the simplest corn bread recipes begin with a combination of some or all of the following ingredients:

  • Corn meal
  • All-purpose flour
  • Sugar
  • Baking powder
  • Salt
  • Milk or buttermilk
  • Vegetable oil
  • Eggs

Sweet or Savory?
What accounts for the differences among various cornbread recipes is driven primary by taste. In the North, a certain degree of sweetness is achieved by using yellow cornmeal and adding sugar, honey or molasses to the recipe.

In the South, where cornbread appears more often on menus at home and in restaurants, you'll find more savory recipes that call for white cornmeal and the use of bacon lard or other flavorful fats, while leaving sugar out altogether.  The amount of cornmeal is generally more than you'll find in Northern cornbread. The amount of flour is less or may be replaced entirely with cornmeal.

In the Southwest, you'll find the list of basic cornbread ingredients often includes the use of whole corn or creamed corn, fresh chili or jalapeno peppers and various spices used in Mexican cooking. These recipes may call for either yellow or white cornmeal and some may even call for blue. The color cornmeal used will affect the cornbread's flavor (yellow is sweeter than white, for example).

Baking Cornbread
Just like cornbread recipes are influenced by different regions of the country, so too are the baking methods. In the North, cornbread is most often baked like other quick breads: the batter is poured into a square baking pan, loaf pan or muffin tins and baked in the oven. Cornbread made this way is light in texture, but you can alter the texture of any cornbread recipe by using a finer or coarser ground cornmeal.

In the South, you're more likely to find skillet cornbread. With skillet cornbread, bacon lard or other fats are heated in a seasoned, cast-iron skillet before the batter is poured over the grease. The skillet is then placed into the oven and baked. The result is a dense cornbread with a nice crust.

If you want to ensure moistness, add a little steam to the baking process by including a small amount (about ½ cup) of water in an oven-safe container to sit alongside your cornbread while it's baking.

Cornbread Recipe Variations

Jalapeno cornbread.  Add ¼ cup of fresh, chopped jalapenos to the batter or substitute chili or banana peppers (keep in mind that the natural color of banana peppers won't give you the same visual effect as jalapeno or chili). Try mixing fresh corn and a small amount of shredded cheddar to your wet ingredients for an even more savory side dish.

Red cornbread. Mix sweet or hot paprika, chili powder or your favorite Cajun spice blend with the flour before combining with wet ingredients.

Curry cornbread. Add 1 ½ tbs of curry powder or garam masala to your flour mixture before combining with wet ingredients.

Rosemary parmesan cornbread. Add fresh rosemary and grated fresh parmesan to your wet ingredients (if using dried rosemary, add to the flour mixture).

Sides Dishes and Other Uses
For most of us, cornbread fresh from the oven and unadorned is the best way to serve (and eat) it. If you favor sweeter, lighter cornbreads then you might also serve it with unsalted butter or your favorite jam. More savory cornbreads round out hearty meals like barbecue, fried chicken dinners or chili and stew.

Cornbread can also be cut into cubes, left to go stale and used in cornbread dressing recipes. Alternatively, you can grind your leftover, stale cornbread into bread crumbs to use for pan frying chicken or fish or baking casseroles.

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For those who want their cornbread with a little twist, they should try Mexican cornbread. One part cornbread and other parts delicious vegetables and flavorings, this recipe works for everything, from a snack to dinner. 

Southern cornbread recipes generally do not use sugar, and many Southerners even frown on the use of buttermilk because it makes the dish sweet, but don't be afraid to make adjustments.

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Even though we live in a world of Teflon convenience, you've never tasted food unless it was cooked in a cast iron skillet. My mother and my grandmother both used cast iron skillets for frying, browning, simmering and even baking.

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