Scratch Cornbread Three Different Ways
This time of year calls for some cornbread!
It only makes sense that cornbread is a popular dish this time of year. Gristmills are getting into their fresh stock on "new crop" of fresh field corn planted earlier in the year. In earlier times, this would be a real treat. I'm not usually nostalgic (to be honest, I'm skeptical of nostalgia). But there was good reason that not too far in the past people looked forward to the new crop of grain: The oils in the kernels would be fresh, and those oils (located in the germ of the kernels) have some of the most splendid flavors that you can experience!
If you're into your cornbread mixes in the air-filled balloon-like plastic bags inside a carboard box, you may want to stop reading now. I don't take pleasure in yucking other people's yum. But scratch baking isn't that hard, and the flavors are unparalleled.
The truth is, I didn't like cornbread when I was young. It was always dry like a sponge soaking up all of the moisture in my mouth. As I chewed, the flavor seemed weirdly sweet or absent, or stale in a way that I found weirdly unsatisfying and unappealing.
But then I gave cornbread a try with some freshly milled, whole-grain coarse cornmeal cooked up in a cast-iron skillet.
"Hold on a second." I thought to myself.
The bread had a crispy patina and a moist crumb. Some sweet corn flavor was shining through, and also a nutty corn flavor with floral notes.
Even when I misjudged the doneness and turned the cornbread only to have the bottom stick, the under-doneness was like a spoonbread.
When I opened my own gristmill, it became a job requirement to know all I could about how cornbread behaves, but in the end, what I really learned was how I like mine, and I'm sharing the iterations I've enjoyed baking and most especially eating.
I revisited my cornbread recipes many times. We would even cook up stuff just to pair with it. Chili (countless times over). Beans (of every sort: blackeye peas, navy beans, but especially fresh field peas in the summer) In cold weather it was collards, mustards, and turnip greens, often combined in varying ways.
Inevitably I would wander back into the kitchen after dinner to wreck my health by having a bit (or a lot) more of it too soon before bed.
I'd toast it up the next day and enjoy it with honey.
I am now a devout disciple of scratch baking cornbread.
Although I will share many digressions and notes with these recipes, I will only scratch the surface here. Variations in style, preparation, and uses at the table are vast (yes. I've heard cornbread is great in buttermilk, but I don't drink milk much). And I've never gotten around to making cornbread croutons scratch cornbread dressing or stuffing, but I fully intend to.
Some Helpful Tips on Scratch Cornbread Baking
My self-interest in the craft of baking cornbread has taught me quite a few very handy lessons in the scratch baking of cornbread. My first tip: NEVER be intimidated by a food or recipe because it's old-fashioned or new-fangled or whatever. Knowing is half the battle. After a couple of tries with scratch cornbread you will develop an intuition for the process that will produce few mistakes, most of which will be more of a spectrum of great to amazing with little variation.
Equipment and Preparation
I almost always use cast-iron. This may be a skillet, or it could be a "corn stick" cast-iron pan. Cast iron comes in a multitude of shapes which can create a visually stunning presentation at the table. Pyrex or a muffin tin will certainly work (See the recipe Creamed Corn Spicy Cornbread Mini Muffins recipe below) . The better the seasoning (a polymer produced by oil that has been heated on the cast iron) on your cast-iron, the easier the cornbread will separate from the skillet or pan without sticking. I won't pontificate on the care or maintenance of cast iron cookware here, but it will suffice to say that you should always keep your cast iron well seasoned, and NEVER let it sit around wet. You can always thoroughly dry your cast iron by heating it up to evaporate any residual moisture.
Cast iron is heavy. I have a few scars that I consider the price of my hard earned knowledge of cornbread cookery. You will want some good oven mitts for handling your skillets and pans and Dutch ovens. Even if you're the kind of cook who spent some time in a restaurant kitchen grabbing anything hot with a terrycloth towel, don't risk it. Get some good mitts. I have two pairs, and some leather welder's gloves at the mill for handling hot things.
When a hot skillet comes out of the oven you're going to want to have a spot ready for it to sit. I'm not here to lecture you on the way you keep your kitchen, but your skillet is definitely going to melt any plastic it touches, and it can scorch a number of other surfaces.
I'm no fan of fooling with things I don't need, so I just set my skillet on the range on top of my (gas) stove when it's hot. For those of you with glass top stoves, you're going to need a trivet. If you're cooking with other chefs, do them a favor and let them know the skillet is hot. Even better, leave a mitt on the handle of the skillet, or buy one of those silicone handle covers (I know, more gear) for your skillet.
When your (rather loose) batter goes into your cast iron, you're going to want that cast iron really hot. I like to look for that first wisp of smoke from the (copious) oil in the heated vessel (I advise care if you employ this trick). When I say oil, I also mean melted butter or whatever you're using to grease your cast iron. I've used everything from coconut oil to lard. You want a satisfying sizzle when the batter goes into the cast iron. A rubber spatula is great to make sure all of your batter turns into delicious cornbread instead of going down the drain when you wash your mixing bowl.
I don't think I've ever used an oven that was perfectly calibrated, ever. Make your first try baking cornbread a study in the behavior of your oven. You can get a thermometer if you want, but it is definitely not required. If your oven can make it up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, you can bake cornbread. A simple toothpick test will give you a solid idea of the doneness of your cornbread.
I've taken a knife to slice a piece of cornbread directly out of my skillet, and unsurprisingly it left a nasty scratch. Years ago we had a bit of a pizza baking obsession which led to the acquisition of two pizza peels. You can always turn out your cornbread onto a cutting board or butcher's block, but a pizza peel will make it easy to slice your cornbread and get your cornbread back into your skillet for warmth and a nice presentation. Firmly hold the peel over your skillet, flip it over and carefully but solidly give it a smack onto you counter. when you remove the skillet from the peel, you should be greeted by the beautiful sight of a golden brown patina on the bottom of your cornbread. After slicing (and a bit of tidying) a reverse of this process can get your sliced cornbread back into your skillet. It also turns out that a pizza cutter is a great tool for slicing up your cornbread.
Obviously, some measuring cups are required. To be honest, I recently learned that dry ingredients need their own measuring cups. It didn't stop me from successfully baking a lot of great cornbread, because the consistency of the batter is the best indication of whether the proportions are correct. The batter should be rather loose. Just a bit thicker than say, latex paint.
A good whisk and two mixing bowls are required. A rubber spatula is great for scraping all the delicious goodness out of your mixing bowl.
The two bowls are for the "dry side" and "wet" side of the preparation.
The dry side of your mixture consists of at least three ingredients: cornmeal (or corn flour), baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Often Wheat flour, sugar, and other powdery dry ingredients are added to this bowl.
The wet side has eggs and milk (always buttermilk in mine), and obviously anything else that's not powdery dry. Maple syrup, sorghum syrup (my favorite) and even molasses (don't like it) can be added on this bowl.
All cornmeal is not equal. The best cornmeal you can buy (mine, obviously) will not taste all that great after three months in a cupboard. Therefore, any whole-grain, whole kernel cornmeal needs to be frozen if it is stored for any significant duration. The oils that make freshly-ground milled goods so much more remarkable that their inferior shelf-stable counterparts are an Achilles' heel. These whole grain products are very susceptible to staleness and rancidity.
Always store your good whole-grain products in your freezer, or at least your fridge.
Corn flour works great also, but it may take a few minutes longer in the oven to cook in the center, and makes a bit heavier bread.
Baking soda is very useful for absorbing odors in your fridge. The implication here is that baking soda can become very unpalatable if stored incorrectly. Baking soda right out of a freshly opened package is best, but a plastic baggie for your open box of baking soda will buy you some more time.
I use a lot of baking powder.
Buttermilk is all I use for the milk component of my cornbread these days. You can use any milk or cream, or mix in some sour cream, curdle your milk with vinegar to make buttermilk, etc.
I've just settled on buttermilk. It lasts a heck of a long time in the fridge, and the flavor it imparts a superior flavor.
Creamed Corn Spicy Cornbread Mini-Muffins
Of course you can do this in a skillet. regular muffin tin, or Pyrex. Be sure to do the toothpick test if you have any doubts about the doneness!
2 Cups Cornmeal or Corn Flour
1 Tsp Salt
1 Tbs Sugar (optional)
2 Tbs Baking Powder
1/2 Tsp Baking Soda
1 Cup Buttermilk (plus a splash more, probably)
1 Cup Creamed Corn (drained)
1 Small Jalapeno Pepper, Deveined. Diced
1/2 Cup Shredded Jack or Cheddar Cheese
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Combine 2 cups corn meal in a large mixing bowl with 1 tsp. salt, 1 tbsp. Sugar, 2 tbsp. baking powder, ½ tsp. baking soda. Whisk thoroughly to combine.
In another bowl, combine 1 cup of milk, cream or buttermilk, 2 eggs, and 1 cup creamed corn. (Optional: Add 1 jalapeno pepper, diced, with seeds for more spice, without for less. ½ cup jack or cheddar cheese.) Whisk to combine.
Add the dry mixture to the wet, whisking as you combine. If the mixture isn't rather loose, add more milk.
Coat the muffin tin with cooking oil or spray. As of late, I've been loving coconut oil spray. It works great, and adds a nice flavor. The tin should be dripping with oil to ensure the muffins come loose easily. Pour the mixture into the skillet.
Stir the contents often to distribute the corn (it likes to settle to the bottom).
Place skillet into oven on the center rack.
Bake in the oven for approximately 15 minutes, or until deep golden brown.
Can be served with butter and honey, if desired.
Sweet Skillet Cornbread
This is a brown-butter cornbread that uses maple syrup as a sweetener and a bit of wheat flour.
Note: This is a "half recipe' for smaller skillets or batches. It worked great in a 9 inch skillet. It can easily be doubled.
- 3/4 cup coarse cornmeal
- 1/4 all purpose flour
- 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/4 tsp. baking soda
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 3/4 stick butter (6 tablespoons, browned, cooled)
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- Cast iron skillet
- 2 large mixing bowls
- Measuring utensils
A Pyrex measuring cup is a useful place for the browned butter to cool off..The is melted in the skillet while you mix the batter. Be sure to let the butter cool off before it goes into the wet side. It will cook the eggs otherwise!
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- Melt the butter in the skillet over medium heat until it browns.
- While butter is melting, mix the ingredients together. The best way to make cornbread from scratch is to use two bowls and a measuring cup - compile the dry side first, then compile the wet side into another bowl. A heat-resistant measuring cup is a good place to let the browned butter cool before mixing into the wet side (5 minutes or so of cooling will do).
- Don't cook the eggs inadvertently with the hot butter. Heat up the skillet again (be careful, obviously, don't start a fire). Leave the bottom of the skillet covered in brown butter.
- Whisk dry ingredients into wet ingredients.
- Pour the batter into the hot skillet with the help of the rubber spatula. It should sizzle a good bit.
- Put it into the preheated oven and cook for 20 minutes. A toothpick should pull out clean.
Old-Fashioned Buttermilk Skillet Cornbread
Serves 6 or more. Recipe can be halved.
- 2 Cups Coarse White, Coarse Yellow, or Coarse Blue Cornmeal (fine cornmeal or even corn flour work also).
- 1 tsp. Salt
- 2 tbsp. baking powder
- 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
- 2 eggs
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Melt 1/2 tablespoon (thereabouts) of butter in a 14 inch diameter cast iron skillet on the stovetop. Use low heat on the skillet until your batter is ready to prevent scorching. Note: a muffin tin may be used instead of a skillet. A tin should not be preheated, and the cooking time is shortened.
- Combine 2 Cups Coarse White, Coarse Yellow, or Coarse Blue Cornmeal in a large mixing bowl with 1 tsp. salt, 2 tsp. baking powder, and ½ tsp. baking soda. Whisk thoroughly to combine.
- In another bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups of buttermilk and 2 eggs. Whisk thoroughly to combine.
- Add the dry mixture to the wet, whisking as you combine. If the mixture isn't rather loose, add more liquid. If the mixture is too loose and watery, whisk in cornmeal a tablespoon at a time until it thickens.
- Pour the mixture into the hot skillet. It should sizzle. Place skillet into oven in the center rack. Bake in the oven for approximately 20 minutes, or until the top turns lightly golden brown. A toothpick should come out clean and dry.
- Serve with butter, honey, or however you like!