Fine Cooking (October/November 2010)
Like all good Southern boys, we both grew up eating a lot of buttermilk cornbread. It's classic Dixie fare, and you'll find it on the dinner table all year long. (Or the dessert table: To this day, Zach's grandfather's favorite after-dinner treat is a half-glass of buttermilk with cornbread crumbled into it, topped with a spoonful of sorghum. To each his own.)
But what's not to love? Moist, golden, Southern-style cornbread hot out of the iron skillet -- with that distinct buttermilk tang -- topped with a little sweetcream butter? It's perfect!
One point of clarification before we continue, though: This ain't Southern cornbread.
Yep, Southern cornbread has no sugar at all. Yankee cornbread, thanks to the flour and sugar, ends up more like a cake: Dense and sweet. In the South, cornbread is crumbly and not at all sweet. It's less like cake and more like, well, bread.
Not that we're complaining. This Classic Cornbread Recipe bridges the Mason-Dixon line for the perfect blend of North and South. Cooking it in a hot iron skillet means toasty, crunchy edges. And the 2 tablespoons of sugar add just enough sweetness to make it tasty without becoming dessert.
The recipe also includes a couple innovations that are really smart: To keep the cornbread from being too dry, you first make a cornmeal mush from boiling water. The addition of a little sour cream also keeps the cornbread nice and moist.
Oh, side-note: If you don't have buttermilk, no worries. It's super easy to make your own proxy buttermilk. Just add a tablespoon of white vinegar (or lemon juice) to a cup of milk, and let it sit at room temperature for 5 minutes. It's a fantastic substitute for buttermilk (and, truth be told, we're not sure we could even tell the difference once it's cooked in a recipe).
Anyway, this is pretty much the perfect cornbread. Sure, it may not be exactly what we grew up with. But honestly? We'd have to say it's better.
Why, we might just crumble some up in a glass of buttermilk and sorghum...
9 oz. (1-3/4 cups) medium-grind stone-ground yellow cornmeal, such as Bob’s Red Mill
2-1/4 oz. (1/2 cup) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 Tbs. granulated sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. table salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup sour cream
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1-1/2 oz. (3 Tbs.) unsalted butter, cut into a few pieces
Position a rack in the center of the oven and put a 9- to 10-inch cast-iron skillet or a 9-inch heavy-duty square or round metal baking pan (not nonstick) on the rack. Heat the oven to 425°F.
In a small saucepan, bring 1/2 cup water to a boil over high heat. In a large bowl, combine 1/2 cup of the cornmeal and the boiling water. Stir to blend—the mixture should become a thick mush.
In a medium bowl, whisk the remaining 1-1/4 cups cornmeal with the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda to blend.
Add the buttermilk, sour cream, and eggs to the cornmeal mush and whisk to blend.
When the oven and pan are fully heated (after about 20 minutes), add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon until just blended. Do not overmix.
Remove the hot pan from the oven and add the butter pieces, tilting the pan to swirl the butter around until it’s melted and the pan is well coated. (The butter may brown; that’s fine.) Immediately pour the melted butter over the mixed batter and stir to combine—a half-dozen strokes with a wooden spoon should be plenty. Scrape into the hot pan.
Bake until the cornbread pulls away from the sides of the pan and is golden on top, 18 to 20 minutes. Immediately turn the bread out onto a rack. Cool for 5 minutes. Serve hot.
Cornbread Mix-ins: While this classic cornbread is delicious in its own right, these simple additions add a little pizzazz:
- Sauté 1/3 cup diced chorizo until crisp and fold into the batter along with the melted butter.
- Add 1 cup of grated extra-sharp Cheddar to the wet ingredients.
- Toast 1/4 cup pine nuts and add to the batter with the melted butter.
- Mix 4 thinly sliced scallions with the wet ingredients.
- Add 1 cup of sautéed thinly sliced leeks to the batter with the melted butter.
- Add 3 Tbs. minced fresh jalapeño to the wet ingredients.
- Add 1 cup fresh corn to the wet ingredients.
- Add a few slices of cooked, crumbled bacon to the batter with the melted butter. You can also substitute 1 Tbs. bacon fat for 1 Tbs. of the butter.