Fluffy, Buttery Johnny Cakes

updated Sep 1, 2023

A traditional cast-iron cornmeal flatbread griddled to golden-brown perfection in rich pork fat.

Makes12 to 15

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The first time I ate a johnny cake, I was at my grandmother’s house. I was probably six or seven years old at the time. I reached toward the back of the stove, where she kept all of her meals, and grabbed what I assumed to be a pancake. I took a bite and stood in the kitchen in a state of shock. “Why in the world does this pancake taste like cornbread?” is probably what I was thinking.

I remember being extremely confused and curious. I didn’t finish the medium-size pancake, which was fluffy and not very sweet. Instead, I placed it back on the plate half-eaten. My mother threw a fit!

In my defense, I didn’t know any better. What I know now is that those pancakes are johnny cakes, which are a reflection of the significance corn has, not only to Black American culture, but to Indigenous and Caribbean culture as well. Across the African diaspora, corn and cornmeal are staple ingredients in many dishes.

Credit: Brittany Conerly

What Is a Johnny Cake?

Johnny cake, also known as hoe cake, is essentially a cornmeal flatbread. Some say the name hoe cake is a reference to cooking the cakes on the blades of a garden hoe; others believe it’s because the griddle used to cook the cakes was called a “hoe.”

Regionally, this bread is known by many names: ashcake, jonny cake, journey cake, Shawnee cake, and jonakin. It is believed that the name johnny cake came from the name Shawnee cake, derived from the Shawnee tribe in New England, but changed over time due to differing languages and pronunciation. 

Ingredients in Johnny Cake

  • Flour and cornmeal. While some recipes call for only one ingredient or the other, my version includes both, along with baking powder and salt.
  • Eggs and buttermilk. The eggs act as a binder, and the buttermilk helps make the cakes fluffy.
  • Cooking fats. For the batter, this could be bacon grease, lard, or vegetable oil. In more recent times, johnny cakes are cooked in butter in a cast iron pan, but you could also cook them in lard.
Credit: Brittany Conerly

Other Variations of Johnny Cakes

When researching johnny cakes, you’ll find that there are many variations — not just in name, but also in ingredients and preparation. Take my grandmother’s johnny cakes, for example: They were fluffy, not very sweet, and medium in size, perhaps a quarter size of a standard breakfast pancake.

But there are recipes that omit flour altogether and call for sifted cornmeal, boiling water, and pork fat. And if you venture into the Caribbean, you will find a version that’s more like a fried dumpling made of flour, baking powder, sugar, butter and water. Similar to the stories of johnny cakes in America, the flatbread was called journey cakes because of their durability during the long journeys often taken by enslaved peoples. 

Connecting History Through This Recipe

If anything, johnny cakes speak to the beauty of how food holds history, tells stories, and connects Black people throughout the diaspora. Throughout all its names and preparations, the spirit of the johnny cake remains true and is a testament to perseverance, ingenuity, and survival.

My grandmother is now an ancestor, so I deeply cherish the memories we made together. Although she is gone, I feel connected to her and to my history through this recipe. Whenever my kitchen fills with the smell of bacon grease and cornmeal, I am transported back to the moment I laid eyes on that golden pancake. The difference between then and now? I understand and appreciate johnny cakes — and they never go half-eaten.

Johnny Cakes Recipe

A traditional cast-iron cornmeal flatbread griddled to golden-brown perfection in rich pork fat.

Makes 12 to 15

Nutritional Info


  • 1 cup

    all-purpose flour

  • 1 cup

    yellow cornmeal

  • 2 1/2 teaspoons

    baking powder

  • 1 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 2

    large eggs

  • 3/4 cup

    whole milk or buttermilk

  • 1/4 cup


  • 1/2 cup

    pork fat, rendered lard, bacon grease, or vegetable oil

  • 2 tablespoons

    unsalted butter


  1. Place 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 cup yellow cornmeal, 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, and 1 teaspoon kosher salt in a medium bowl and whisk to combine.

  2. Beat 2 large eggs in a small bowl until broken up. Add the eggs, 3/4 cup whole milk or buttermilk, and 1/4 cup water to the flour mixture and stir to combine.

  3. Heat 1/2 cup pork fat and 2 tablespoons unsalted butter in a cast iron pan over medium-high heat until melted and shimmering. Use a 1/4-cup measuring cup to drop two portions of the batter into the pan. Cook until crisp and golden brown, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and repeat with the remaining batter.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to 4 days. Reheat in a low oven until warmed through.