As Southern staples go, cornbread often takes a back seat to other favorites like fried chicken or its primary rival, the biscuit. It may be humble, but I believe this cornmeal creation deserves a move (metaphorically, at least) from the outer edges of our region’s plate to its center.
That’s an easy enough argument to make and probably won’t provoke many naysayers. But when I tell you that “real” Southern cornbread must be cooked in a cast iron skillet and that it better not be sweet, there could be some contention.
Plenty of cooks who were born and raised in the South and cut their culinary teeth on their Southern grandmothers’ apron strings make their cornbread in a pan or in muffin tins, and plenty also add sugar, maybe even eggs. That is fine. The resulting fluffy yellow domes and the thick, cakey squares, both containing cornmeal as a principal ingredient, are usually quite tasty; I’ve enjoyed both. But they are not cornbread.
Or, at least, not to me. Often, our idea of what a food item should look like and/or taste like is directly tied to our earliest memories of it, our recollections of our inaugural experience of it. In my mind, cornbread is a thin circle on a plate, its rust-brown bottom shell now on top and its steam-cracked, golden amber-speckled top on the bottom, after being flipped, topsy-turvy, without a single crumb sticking, by my granddad out of a scorching-hot, 10-inch cast iron skillet.
It was the only thing he ever cooked, his single contribution to the thousands of meals my grandmother prepared over their lifetime together. But it was always the same. Always right. Always composed of moist, pale yellow morsels loosely holding together beneath a crunchy crust. A hint of salt highlighting the taste of corn surviving in the meal. A slight tang from buttermilk. Flavorful without butter, but even better with it. The perfect accompaniment to fresh sliced tomato, soupy purple peas cooked down to soft, squishy morsels, and all manner of other Southern-style veggies.
This version of cornbread is all that will ever truly be cornbread in my mind. And while you should definitely keep making your cornbread your way, you really should try this recipe and method too, especially if you’ve not done much with cast iron before. And if you’re afraid of cast iron, don’t be. See the notes why to use it and how to care for it below.
1 cup White Lily self-rising white cornmeal mix
1 cup buttermilk (do not use low- or no-fat!)
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Pour 1 tablespoon vegetable oil into the skillet and heat for a few minutes in the preheated oven.
Mix together other ingredients and pour into skillet with hot oil.
Bake for 15–20 minutes or until top is golden brown.
COMPREHENDING CAST IRON
I cook a lot, and a quick inventory of my kitchen equipment proves it. I’ve got expensive pots and pans, a fabulous immersion blender, several sizes of food processors, a fancy peppermill, and more. But if a meteor struck my kitchen and destroyed it all, there’s only one thing I’d truly miss: my grandfather’s cast iron skillet. I love the weight of it in my hand and the memories it evokes each and every time I pull it from its resting place in a bottom cabinet.
But in truth, if a meteor did hit my home, that skillet is the one thing that would probably withstand the blast, and that’s good. A cast iron skillet is an essential piece of cookware in any Southern kitchen. Here’s why:
- It’s basically indestructible, which is why cast iron cookware can be used daily and still handed down through several generations.
- A well “seasoned” piece of cast iron is the original non-stick cookware. You can use less oil or fat when preparing everything from cornbread to creamed corn to steak in your skillet. (Seasoning refers to a layer of fat that’s baked onto cast iron cookware’s interior surface. Most cast-iron cookware made today comes already seasoned.)
- Foods cooked in cast iron have unbeatable taste and texture. Since iron is an excellent conductor, and since it heats evenly and consistently, it’s far easier to get a good sear on meat and keep those flavorful juices in. It’s also better at browning cornbread and crisping the crust on fried chicken.
If you’ve shied away from using cast iron because you’re unsure how to clean and care for it, here’s the good news: cast iron is as easy, if not easier, to clean and keep as any other tool in your culinary arsenal.
- Feel free to use metal utensils with your cast iron cookware (one more way it’s better than most non-stick pans).
- You can wash it, and yes, you can even use a bit of mild soap (but you don’t really need it). The best way to clean cast iron is to run hot water on it while it’s still warm (but cool enough to handle) and wipe it out with a dry dishcloth. If you need to give a few stuck-on food bits a nudge, use a soft brush or make a paste with Kosher salt and give it a rub.
- Dry it completely before putting it away to stave off rust, and use a paper towel to wipe a little oil on the inside at least every other time you use it.
- There is one “don’t” to keep in mind: Don’t soak or submerge your cast iron in water and don’t put it in the dishwasher.