Cornbread – The “staff of life” in the south of my childhood.

Let me begin by stating that I LOVE cornbread! And by that, I mean the “southern” type cornbread that is not like cake, is not sweetened, and can stand up to being dunked in hearty bean soup. And, it is always baked in a cast iron skillet.

Finished cornbread

There is no mystery as to why cornbread became so popular in the south. The early English and European settlers soon learned that much of the farmland in the southern areas of the New World were unsuitable for the grain crops of their homelands. Wheat did not produce well enough for it to be both a food and cash crop, nor did oats and barley. Those crops quickly exhausted the native soil of necessary nutrients and after a few seasons had to be left fallow until the soil had recovered.
Corn or maize, being native to this continent for thousands of years, produced more per acre especially when planted with its “sister” plants, beans and squash. This “trinity” had been used by the Native Americans for centuries and they taught this to the early settlers.
Beans and corn also have a special relationship as together they provide a complete amino acid, although neither the natives or the new settlers understood the science of this, they recognized that their health was better when they combined these foods.

Corn was easy to store, once it had dried on the stalks, which were cut and formed into stooks, which allowed further drying and the placement of the broad leaves shed much of the water if it happened to rain. After they were fully dry, the cobs were stripped from the stalks and stored in airy corn cribs that had a roof to protect them from rain but slatted sides to avoid retaining moisture and creating a climate for molds. The dried corn was then “shelled” from the cobs as needed and used for food for both humans and animals. There were numerous ways of preparing the dried corn besides grinding and baking into breads or pancakes. The natives often parched the corn, which expelled some of the moisture, making it lighter and easier to carry. The heat also changed some of the carbohydrates chemically, making them easier to digest. Treating dried corn with wood-ash water, soaking and rinsing it repeatedly, had the same effect as the use of slaked lime mixed in water that originated in Mexico and Central America and moved north into Southwestern America.
The result of this treatment was hominy. Corn thus treated made available additional nutrients that could not be digested in untreated corn. Hominy could be stewed and eaten as a vegetable or with the addition of meat, fowl or fish, as a main dish. Much of the hominy was dried in huge flat pans over a very low fire.
Dried hominy was ground into grits and thus was born the most popular breakfast “porridge” in the south. This was tasty, fairly easy to prepare, even in a cauldron over an open fire and was filling. It remains so today. Just about every restaurant in the south offers grits as a side on the breakfast menu. Grits have even gained fame in films. My Cousin Vinny is one movie in which the subject of grits was featured.

A few online vendors sell heirloom varieties of corn, stone-ground cornmeal and grits and I advise that you try these. They are so far removed from the supermarket offerings as to be in another realm altogether. There are also online vendors that sell heirloom beans and support small farmers who are maintaining these rapidly dwindling resources.
At the end of this page I have listed a few vendors that have excellent products.

Now to get back to the subject of cornbread itself, here is my grandmother’s recipe.

The Recipe
My cornbread recipe is very simple. It has few ingredients. It does require one specific piece of cookware and that is a cast iron skillet.
I have tried many other baking pans and have had some success but nothing but the black iron skillet produces the crusty shell with a tender, flavorful interior.

The ingredients:
2 cups cornmeal, I recommend stone ground, medium.
2 cups buttermilk, If you don’t have buttermilk use regular milk with a tablespoon of lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt, if you use kosher salt us 1 1/2 teaspoons
2 eggs, large
1 teaspoon baking soda, (do not use baking powder)
2 tablespoons hot fat (I use bacon drippings whenever possible).
An option is the addition of 2 tablespoons (or more) flour, this can be adjusted to personal preference and you may have to add an additional tablespoon or so of buttermilk if you use three to four tablespoons of flour.

Method:
Preheat the oven to 400° F.
Measure the fat into the skillet and place it in the oven.

Mix the buttermilk with the cornmeal and salt.
– If adding flour, this is the time to add it.
Add the eggs and stir to mix, break up any lumps of dried ingredients.
It should look like porridge that has just begun to thicken.
Add the baking soda and stir to blend into the batter.
Remove the skillet from the oven – use care, the skillet and fat are very hot.
Pour the hot fat into the batter, stir to blend.
Quickly pour the batter into the hot skillet.

Place on center rack in the oven.

Bake for 25 minutes.
Test with a thin-bladed knife inserted into the center. If there is moisture on the blade leave in the oven for an additional 5 – 10 minutes, repeat moisture check every 3 minutes until it comes out clean.
Remove skillet from oven, carefully turn out onto cooling rack.

Cut into wedges and serve while still warm.

Variations: If you are adventurous and want to diverge from the “true” southern cornbread, the variables are just about endless:
One simple and tasty addition is crumbled crisp bacon – stirred into the batter along with the fat.
Chopped chiles, mild or hot, with or without grated cheese, bacon, finely chopped ham and so on, produces a result that is almost a meal in itself – and very portable, especially if baked in a muffin tin (or iron if you have one of the old ones).
My grandmother was partial to adding the crumbled bacon and finely minced green onions to cornbread muffins that were going to be served at a picnic.
Some people like a sweeter cornbread and if you prefer, you can add two tablespoons of sugar without adjusting the liquid in the recipe – or you can add honey or molasses, etc.
However that is no longer “real” southern cornbread.
Other regions have cornbread traditions, the “Indian Meal Cake” of the eastern shore, the “Johnny Cake” of the upper midwest and so on. However in my experience, none of these is as satisfying as the simple recipe I learned from my grandmother. There are also other southern type cornbreads, some made with sweet milk and some without any milk at all and no eggs. This “hot water” cornbread was probably the earliest type made in the south and while it is good, I like the more complex flavor when buttermilk and eggs are added.

Favorite Grits Cookbook
One of my favorite cookbooks that focuses on grits is “Glorious Grits” (America’s favorite comfort food) from Southern Living, authored by Susan McEwen McIntosh, published in 2009. It is an excellent cookbook for the new-to-grits cook.

Favorite Grits Web page
One of my favorite web sites is simply Grits There is probably more information about grits on this site that anyone could possibly use.

The following photos were originally posted on eGullet.org

This post was titled: Cornbread, southern type from “scratch” … Really!!!

Heirloom white “dent” corn ready to be milled in the Nutrimill.
mill
The corn milled to “medium” grind.
milled
The ingredients with the skillet ready to go into the hot oven to melt the fat.
the ingredients
The buttermilk mixed into the cornmeal and salt. If using flour, add it here.
partially mixed
Batter mixed, ready for the hot fat to be added.
hot fat stirred into the batter
The batter just poured into the hot skillet. Note the bubbling around the edges.
batter in hot skillet
In the oven, nearly done.
skillet of cornbread in the oven
A wedge of cornbread, split and buttered.
cut in wedges, split and buttered

Online vendors that carry heirloom varieties of cornmeal, grits and other foods that go well with cornbread.

Corn and Grits
Anson Mills
Falls Mill
Southern Connoisseur
Which, in addition to other difficult-to-find southern favorites, also carries boiled peanuts.
The Lee Bros., Also carries boiled peanuts and other southern specialty items as well as Guilford stoneground grits and cornmeal.

A non-southern vendor is Purcell Mountain Farms in Idaho. They carry organic whole corn and other organic grains as well as a large variety of organic beans. I like to grind my own corn and this is the vendor I most often choose for their rapid and friendly service.

Other growers and vendors sell via Local Harvest.org, which has listings by state and area. This is an excellent resource for those searching for organic and heirloom foods.
Local Harvest.org

And to go with the cornbread, BEANS!
Online vendors that carry heirloom and organic beans:
Rancho Gordo
Captained by Steve Sando
Marx Foods
Located in Washington state
And
Purcell Mountain Farms, see link under Corn and Grits.

Other Grains and etc.
Barry Farm

5 Responses to Cornbread – The “staff of life” in the south of my childhood.

  1. chez cherie says:

    Lordy, that looks good. I have a new stash of freshly roasted Hatch green chiles and some stone ground cornmeal in the freezer. I think a batch of this cornbread (with bacon, of course) will be on the kitchen agenda for the weekend!

  2. Leni says:

    It certainly does look good. I’ll have to try your recipe.

  3. asenjigal says:

    Leni, You might try Bob’s Red Mill corn meals, combining some of the medium and coarse, which will give you a nice “country-style” texture.
    Bob’s Red Mill products are widely available and I do like them when I don’t have any of the heirloom stuff on hand.

  4. Okanagancook says:

    I found your blog from your egullet reply to my question about baking bread in the BGE. I love what you have done here and have read several of your postings. Especially love the post about not wasting anything…..we had a ball of used string in our home too! In fact I have a few pieces in my draw at the moment.

    Being from Canada, we don’t eat a lot of corn bread but I do like it when I have eaten it. I am going to try your recipe because I like the idea of the two types of grind on the corn. I do have a question. I see from the picture of your bread in the oven that you are using the Cadco convection oven, yes? I bought one at your suggestion and love it. Is the 400 degrees, convection oven degrees?

    • asenjigal says:

      Yes, the 400° is Fahrenheit and I set the convection oven at that heat.
      Whenever you bake in cast iron you really don’t have to adjust the temp when using convection, it acts the same as in a conventional oven (or in a wood stove, for that matter).
      It’s only in thinner pans, like cake pans, etc., that you have to adjust the heat down 25 degrees when using convection.

      I love my Cadco oven.

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