I grew up with skillet cornbread as part of our weekly dinner rotation. My mom even occasionally made a batch for breakfast and we ate it soaked in milk and drizzled with maple syrup. The cornbread of my youth was tender with a fine crumb and lightly sweetened. Having grown up in the Northeast and Northwest, I was surprised by the crumbly savory versions of cornbread I was introduced to once moving to the South, where skillet cornbread is something of a cult experience.
My recipe for skillet cornbread falls somewhere between the two: I use a combination of cornmeal and flour for a tender texture, but the batter is unsweetened. Buttermilk and eggs moisten the mixture and then whole thing is baked in a preheated cast iron skillet for an incredibly crispy crust, ideal for eating with chili, alongside stews, or with a drizzle of maple syrup.
Buttermilk and Flour for Lighter Cornbread
Among hotly debated Southern food topics, cornbread is one of the most heated. These conversations end with one proclamation: Cornbread should only be made with cornmeal and never sweetened. While this unofficial edict pays homage to cornbread's roots, it doesn't actually make for the best cornbread, in my humble opinion.
- Flour: The addition of flour makes a loftier cornbread, which holds together better for slicing and slathering with butter, or dipping into chili or soup. It also gives the cornbread a texture similar to bread, where as a cornbread made strictly of cornmeal has an almost cake-like crumb.
- Buttermilk: The buttermilk ensures a moist cornbread, but also contributes a buttery flavor and mild sharpness that milk alone cannot deliver.
This recipe can easily be adapted for those who prefer a truly corny cornbread —just use a full three cups cornmeal. For those who prefer a sweeter corn bread, add a tablespoon of sugar to the dry ingredients.
Some Like It Sweet
Some research suggests that both Northern recipes for cornbread (cornbread with flour, sometimes with sugar) and Southern recipes (cornbread without flour, never with sugar) were being invented around the same time in these different regions.
European settlers in the North were adapting their native breads, typically made with wheat flour, with the cornmeal introduced to them by American Indians, while a sort of cornmeal porridge was being cooked by African slaves with limited culinary resources in the South. This porridge was often baked or fried into bread. While the inclusion or exclusion of sugar in cornbread points directly to access, the distinction is also agricultural: Northerners were baking with flint yellow corn, which isn't as sweet as Southern dent corn.Read more: Sweet Cornbread: Delicious Treat or Vicious Crime Against Southerners?
The Secret to Better Cornbread: Preheat the Skillet
The one universal truth of cornbread: It bakes better and tastes better from a cast iron skillet. Before you begin assembling the ingredients, put the cast iron pan in the oven while it preheats. Don't grease the pan before it goes into the oven or the oil, drippings, or butter will burn. And do use caution when adding the oil and the batter to the pan, as it will be quite hot. While I typically grease the pan and add the batter right on the oven rack, feel free to move the pan to a trivet or cooling rack to fill safely.
Read more: One Tip for Better Skillet Cornbread
Cornbread has the distinction of being one of the few bread recipes that is easily adapted to a gluten-free diet. Replace the wheat flour with cornmeal (three cups in total) and bake as directed. Be sure to look for cornmeal that is produced in a gluten-free facility. Bob's Red Mill and King Arthur Flour are good resources. You can also use a favorite gluten-free flour mix in place of the all-purpose flour as well.
How To Make Skillet Cornbread
What You Need
1 1/2 cups stone-ground yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon fine salt
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons bacon drippings, butter, or vegetable oil
Measuring cups and spoons
Wooden spoon or rubber spatula
10-inch cast iron skillet
- Heat the oven and skillet: Arrange a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 425°F. Place a 10-inch cast iron skillet in the oven while it heats.
- Mix the dry ingredients: Whisk the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl.
- Combine the wet ingredients: Lightly whisk the buttermilk and eggs together in a medium bowl.
- Add the wet to dry: Pour the buttermilk mixture into the cornmeal mixture and stir until just combined.
- Grease the pan and add the batter: Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven. Add the bacon fat, butter, or oil and turn the pan to coat the bottom with the fat. Carefully pour the batter into the center of the hot pan.
- Bake: Bake until a tester inserted into the center of the cornbread comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.
- Gluten-free option: Use 3 cups cornmeal total and bake as directed. Be sure to look for cornmeal that is produced in gluten-free facility; Bob's Red Mill and King Arthur Flour are good resources. You can also use a favorite gluten-free flour mix in place of the all-purpose flour as well.
- Storage: The cornbread can be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap or aluminum foil and stored at room temperature for up to 2 days or in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.