Cornbread 101


For most of my single-adult years, my pantry was readily stocked with just three items: breakfast cereal, a Betty Crocker pasta salad in a box, and Jiffy corn muffin mix.

I’m guessing that if someone made up a batch of Jiffy muffins and presented them to me warm, with a pat of melting margarine (those were my pre-butter days as well), I would take a bite and be transported back to a little apartment in the Belhaven neighborhood of Jackson, Mississippi. My ad-agency-working, Dave-Matthews-listening, hot-summer-hating life would flash before my eyes in film-reel fashion. And then I’d swallow that bite, and think with a start, wait, this is not cornbread. I’d be back to present-day in a flash, wondering how a thing as sweet as cake ended up representing a bread that, in some circles, contains no sugar at all.

I know, the Jiffy box is really cute and almost demands nostalgia. But it ain’t cornbread.

So what is cornbread? The answer is likely the center of heated debates, as the contents and cooking method of the baked good are as varied as the families that crumble it over their black-eyed peas (though that action could be offensive to some).

Using The Joy of Cooking and a few other cooking tomes, I’ve outlined some guidelines in defining the bread made of corn:

  1. Like so many other things in America, cornbread is often divided by the Mason-Dixon line.
    Northern cornbread is softer and cakier in texture than its Southern counterpart. This effect is achieved by using a mixture of cornmeal and all-purpose flour (sometimes a one-to-one ratio), extra eggs, and a mixture of milk and buttermilk. In addition, the Yankee bread is often sweeter, with some recipes calling for up to a quarter cup of sweetener (a bit Jiffy-esque if you ask me, not that there’s anything wrong with that).
    Southern cornbread is heartier in texture, and dries up in a (ahem) New York minute — perfect for the aforementioned crumbling. The reason is that traditional recipes call for only cornmeal — no flour at all — sometimes only one egg, and all buttermilk. Also frequent in Southern varieties is the complete omission of sweetener.
  2. You can add just about anything you want to cornbread, and it will likely taste good.
    This is, of course, within reason. And assumes you’re not going for a traditional Southern variety. But everything from herbs to cheeses to peppers to berries can be thrown into the mix to add unique texture and flavor to your bread. Use common sense with ratios — maybe a cup of cheese or berries, a tablespoon or so of fresh herbs.
  3. The flavor and texture of cornbread can vary greatly depending on the vessel used for cooking.
    This is my favorite part. Have you tried before to make cornbread with crunchy, fried-like edges, only to find them falling short? The trick is using a preheated cast iron skillet with hot fat. I still occasionally make cornbread, especially a cakey version, in a buttered glass pan. But when you’re going for those crunchy edges, cast iron is the only way to go (directions in this recipe).
  4. Lastly, while sugar is not necessary in cornbread, FAT is.
    Don’t skimp, or your flavor and texture will suffer (many recipes call for just a tablespoon, I prefer a little more). I like a mixture of butter and home-rendered lard in mine — the lard helps with those delectable crunchy edges (is it obvious I like them?).

I’ve previously posted a recipe for bacon-cheddar cornbread (the photo will look familiar). If you’re interested in experimenting to customize for your preferences, use the following ratio guidelines for one batch:

  • 1 3/4 to 2 cups of grain (all cornmeal, or a mix of cornmeal and flour, up to 1:1 ratio)
  • 1-4 Tbsp sugar or honey (mix into wet ingredients)
  • 2 tsp leavening agents (1 tsp each of baking powder & baking soda, or mostly baking powder if using sweet milk)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/3 – 2 cups buttermilk, yogurt, or a mixture of sweet milk and buttermilk
  • up to 1 cup of add-ins, such as chili peppers, corn kernels, grated cheese, bacon, raisins, or blueberries.
  • 1-3 Tbsp fat (butter or lard)

Mix the dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, mix the wet ingredients. Add wet to dry and mix just until batter forms. Melt lard in preheated skillet or butter in the microwave or stovetop (butter will burn at high temps), stir into batter. Bake 425° for about 25 minutes.

Funny, how a thing can be limitless in version, yet so simple in concept. And, funny (read: sad) that you would have had a hard time convincing my twenty-four-year-old self that no Jiffy mix is required.


15 thoughts on “Cornbread 101

    1. You ever had a cornbread cake? They were quite the rage down here for a while a few years ago. Someone would make a cake from scratch but subsitute about half of the flour, etc., with Jiffy. You’d bake the cake as normal and frost it, and then serve it as a surprise. Someone brought one to a “dessert day” we had once at the SOS office and we were supposed to guess the secret ingredient. I was the only one who guessed cornbread.

      I also have enjoyed some yummy cornbread muffins made with brown sugar and molasses added. I tried duplicating the recipe myself several times but never got it just like the muffins my friend’s mom had made us.

      Does all that make me a Yank?

      1. Never had a cornbread cake. But held forever onto a recipe for cornmeal cake w/ bacon — I eventually lost it.

        No, you’re not a yank. Just a southerner w/ a sweet tooth.

  1. Your Gonnie used to keep bacon drippings on top of her stove. EVERY time she made cornbread, she would add 2-3 tbs. And yes, she only made cornbread in a preheated cast iron skillet.

    These days we rarely eat bacon. I noticed you listed 3 tbs of butter as an alternative so we will try that next time, however I just don’t see that being as good as bacon drippings. I’ll let you know what I think.

    1. Dad, melted butter will be great — but unfortunately you shouldn’t melt it in the pre-heated cast-iron, because it will burn (its burning point is lower than lard). I should probably edit the post to include this tip.

      1. I realize the butter would burn. I will likely just use veg oil in the preheated skillet and just add melted butter to the cornmeal. (Don’t have lard either)

  2. haven’t always made my cornbread in a cast iron skillet but once i discovered those lovely little crunchy edges??? it’s the ONLY pan i use now . . . as for the sweetener . . . sigh . . . i am a Yankee after all so i cannot be responsible for adding 1 Tablespoon of sugar to my mix . . .

  3. Tell the truth, did my cornbread as dessert inspire this?! 🙂 Number one, there should never be sugar in cornbread. Number two, yellow cornmeal is not permitted. Number three, after the bacon grease has melted in the cast-iron skillet, sprinkle some corn meal in the fat to create a wonderful crispy dust on your cornbread. I learned number 3 from my 92 year old neighbor growing up. She wasn’t 92 then, but she is now and still cooks every day of her life. She will occasionally make my dad delicious two layer chocolate cakes with beautiful chocolate shaving curls, or pineapple upside down cakes, or whatever he mentions he likes. She is a superior cook. I will admit, though, I do make jiffy corn muffins for chili. The kids like its sweetness. But instead of the ingredients the mix calls for, I mix it with a small can of cream style corn (two of the kids can’t have eggs). It works great but, to me, it’s not really “cornbread.” I would never – ever – put it with my soup beans. Never. *shudders* Or eat it’s crust with butter and honey for dessert. 🙂

    1. I’ll admit to having cornbread w/ butter and honey for dessert ; )
      Oh, that sounds so amazing right now.

      (and I have no doubt that your previous comment, tucked away into the nether parts of my mind, must have inspired)

  4. Have you ever heard of crumbling up southern style cornbread (never is sugar allowed) in a glass, add salt & pepper, and either buttermilk or sweetmilk, and eat as a snack? This is one of my Mother’s favorites.

    1. Tonie, I’ve never heard of that! Though it seems completely logical, and somehow inherently southern. (kind of like fried bread being inherently Irish)
      I’m not the biggest fan of buttermilk, but I could totally see myself trying this w/ sweetmilk.

  5. As a transplanted Southerner, here are a few gems…

    1. I used to date a guy who referred to cornbread made with yellow cornmeal as “whitetrash cornbread”.
    2. My Grandmother used to make a treat called corn light bread. Kind of the cornmeal/flour/ sugar thing you described. We ate it as a snack cake.
    3. My family has long loved cornbread crumbled into sweet milk (aka white milk) as a delicious special breakfast.

    1. Stephanie,
      #1: hahahahahahahahaha!!!!!! that is so awesome, and I’m using it from now on.
      #2: a great name, perfect way to distinguish between the types.
      #3: I’ve *got* to try this cornbread-in-milk thing. Just as soon as I can eat cornbread again.

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