by Ric Bohy
You can get into dangerous territory when the subject is cornbread. It is, of course, a staple Southern dish. And if you’ve ever discussed Southern cooking with those who know something about it, you’re definitely getting into holy territory when this phrase comes up in the conversation:
No self-respecting Southern cook would … The rest of the sentence varies. Would use such and such. Would do so and so. But you’ll also quickly notice that self-respecting Southern cooks use and do a variety of things that conflict with the orthodoxy of other Southern cooks. This goes for fried chicken, biscuits, gumbo, grits, greens, pork or beef barbecue, hush puppies, sausage gravy, and on and on, and man am I making myself hungry.
For one thing, it’s corn. We all love corn, even those who don’t think so, because it’s one of the most pervasive food items in this country. A real eye-opener on the subject can be found in Margaret Visser’s excellent Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos, of an Ordinary Meal. She goes into fascinating detail on just where corn and corn products show up as integral ingredients, from pop and ketchup to insecticides and packaging.
One of the oldest products is cornmeal, a true kitchen staple, whether your family favors pone or polenta. There are numerous variations of grinds or finenesses, colors (yellow, white, blue and a few more obscure hues), plain or self-rising, “gourmet” and mass-market Quaker and other brands.
One of the first points of debate on Southern cornbread is whether to use yellow or white meal. While the former seems to predominate (this is based only on my own anecdotal evidence), what the choice usually comes down to is which one your mama or gran’ma used.
Next is whether true Southern cornbread is made with self-rising cornmeal or regular with the addition of some kind of leavening. I’ve found no difference and favor using plain because it and the rest of the ingredients have many other uses — there’s pretty much only one thing you can do with a mix or doctored meal.
For the fat, do you use butter, vegetable shortening, bacon drippings or lard? That’s a matter of choice generally based on taste and/or dietary concerns. For me, butter is indispensable in cornbread. There’s less debate about whether to use milk (whole milk only) or buttermilk. I’m with the majority — buttermilk. And while there’s only a slight taste difference (in cornbread and other baked goods) between fresh buttermilk and powdered, the convenience and long shelf-life of powdered argues strongly for it.
There are only two points on which nearly every Southern traditionalist agrees — never, ever use sugar in cornbread, and bake it only in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet.
If you don’t like cast iron, rethink it. Unless you’re heavily into the Prudhomme method of blackening food in a superheated iron pan (there was cast iron cracking all over the country during that craze), it’s nearly indestructible. It’s cheap and even shows up often in thrift stores. Once seasoned, cleanup is easy. And there’s really no big trick to seasoning cast-iron cookware. When new, wash it thoroughly in soapy water, rinse well and dry completely. Brush it lightly all over — inside, outside and handle — with vegetable oil, and let it sit in a 200-degree oven for 6-8 hours. Once seasoned, never again wash it with soap; just wipe clean under running water. If it needs scouring, use salt and a little water. Always be sure that it’s completely dry before storing.
There’s a practical reason to use a cast-iron skillet instead of a cake pan. The heavy metal holds heat beautifully, distributes it very evenly and provides a wonderful, slight crunch on cornbread’s bottom crust that you can’t get with lighter gauge cookware.
What follows is a standard-form recipe for basic Southern cornbread of the sort I like best. If you want to throw in a handful of fresh or frozen corn kernels, minced jalapeño, shredded cheese, whatever, go ahead. But you can’t beat it just the way it is, buttered and drizzled with honey, or as a sop for a big bowl of Texas red chili, or slow-cooked navy beans with smoked ham hocks.
Cornbread, Plain and Simple
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups buttermilk
2 eggs beaten until well blended
3 tablespoons butter
Put a dry, 9-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven and preheat to 475 degrees.
Whisk together all dry ingredients to combine thoroughly, then stir in buttermilk and eggs, just until blended.
Once oven and skillet are pre-heated, work carefully and quickly. Using a mitt or hot pad, remove skillet from oven, add butter and swirl it in the skillet until it coats the entire inside surface. Pour any excess melted butter into the cornbread batter, stir well and pour batter into prepared skillet. You should hear a satisfying hiss as it hits the hot pan.
Bake for 35-40 minutes until top is golden brown and a clean knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool for a few minutes, then serve from the pan, or cover the skillet with an inverted plate and overturn it. If the pan is seasoned correctly, it’ll fall right out.
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