Everyone has their go-to cornbread recipe. The thing is, most of those recipes are probably for corn cakes or corn muffins and not cornbread. Say it with me, folks, real-deal cornbread does not need wheat flour or sugar (refined sugars, syrups, whatever). It just needs really good cornmeal that will shine through on its own.
Today’s “classic” cornbread is a simple mix of really good — naturally sweet — medium-to-coarse cornmeal (not corn flour), eggs, and buttermilk with a little salt, fat, and leavening agent (but even that last one is a matter of debate with hardcore purists). If you want to go back further, the cornbread we know today stems from Indigenous American culinary cultures across what’s now the Northeast, Southwest, Midwest, and South of the United States. Course cornmeal was mixed with salt, water, and fat and baked in hearth ovens for millennia before Europeans arrived on these shores (and Africans were abducted and brought here) and adjusted the recipe to suit their own cultures/palates/times.
For the recipe below, I’m adhering to the Sean Brock method because, well, he’s one of the foremost stewards of these types of recipes. Plus, Brock’s recipe feels like a good middle ground between the “historic” Indigenous cornbread of the past few thousand years and the “classic” cornbread of today’s American South. Moreover, this is a very straightforward recipe that only requires a little bit of skill, patience, and good timing. When you get it right, it’s wonderful.
Let’s get baking!
- 3 cups medium-coarse yellow cornmeal
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 2 large eggs
- 1 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1/4 cup lard plus 2 tbsp.
Get good buttermilk and eggs. Organic is fine, but if you have a farm store/farmer’s market near you, go with that. The fresher the better on that front.
As for the cornmeal, I go with a medium-coarse mill. I actually mix white hominy and yellow together for a half-and-half vibe. I’ve also done this with blue cornmeal to really amp up the sweetness. If you’re looking for real-deal and naturally sweet cornmeal, check out Anson Mills or Marsh Hen Mill for some serious cornmeal.
Lastly, if you want to make this without the lard, you can easily use either vegetable oil or white Crisco. Just keep an eye on the smoke point when you’re heating the skillet in the oven.
What You’ll Need:
- Stand mixer or bowl, wooden spoon, and some elbow grease
- 9-inch Cast iron skillet
- Mixing bowl
- Oven mit
- Add the lard to the cast iron skillet and place it in the oven while you preheat it to 500f.
- Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix with your fingers until integrated.
- Once the lard is fully melted, remove the skillet from the oven while it continues to preheat.
- Add the buttermilk and eggs to the mixing bowl and combine with the cake paddle attachment of your stand mixer (or your wooden spoon).
- Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until just integrated. If you’re adding crumbled bacon or diced jalapenos or anything, do it at this step.
- Add 1/4 cup of melted lard from the cast iron skillet into the cornbread batter while mixing it. Make sure to keep at least two tablespoons of lard in the skillet.
- Place the skillet with the lard back in the oven until it just starts to smoke.
- Fold the cornbread batter into the super-hot skillet. Gently but quickly even out the top of the cornbread batter. The lard should sizzle pretty loudly as it creates a fried edge to the cornbread. The hot oil/fat should come up above the edge of the cornbread batter but not over the edge of the skillet.
- Place the skillet in the oven and bake for about ten to 12 minutes or until the cornbread is just set and the edges are brown and crisp. (Mine took ten minutes)
- Remove from the oven as soon as a toothpick comes back clean from the middle of the cornbread. Let sit for five minutes and then flip the cornbread in the skillet so that the crispy bottom is upward-facing.
- Serve with butter and honey, beans, pulled pork, chili, whatever.
This is cornbread. The crust is so crispy and luscious with that fat layered into the sweet cornmeal. It helps to create a textural masterpiece.
The body of the cornbread is light and almost airy, which is wild for something made with a milled grain as dense as cornmeal. The crumb is smooth yet has great peaks and valleys for butter or chili to get into. Take a look at it!
The flavor is a mix of bright sweet corn with a hint of buttermilk tang and plenty of grassy graininess. But, it really all comes back to that textural vibe. The crispy edge is just wonderfully crunchy with that semi-grainy, semi-soft interior with a truly natural sweet edge. I ate two pieces with butter immediately and I regret nothing.
All of that said, if you’re used to “Yankee cornbread” — or the kind made with loads of wheat flour and sugar — this might be a big departure for you. Fear not, you’ll love it. By trying it this way, you’ll get to the essence of the corn at the heart of this dish. And you’ll have a great recipe to share when everyone is raving this BBQ season!