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How Do You Like Your Cornbread? With a Slice of History, Thanks

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 35 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
More from "Libby Wiersema"
Baking dish of cornbread dressing
Cornbread batter is the foundation of Southern dressing.

Cornbread is more than a mere sponge for gravy, the main ingredient of savory holiday dressing or the finishing touch on a meat-and-three plate. When you bite into a square of cornbread, you're actually tasting the origins of a nation.

Long before explorers began staking their claims in North America, Native Americans were growing and grinding maize for gruel, dough, alcoholic beverages and more. The Europeans built on the basics, devising recipes they found more palatable. But, as with many foods, it was Southerners that took a good thing and elevated it to greatness. If you've ever faced a steamy, buttery corn muffin dripping with molasses, you have an intimate understanding of this concept.

Cornbread Cookery

Plate of hushpuppies with butter and beer
Warm, crunchy cornbread hushpuppies are bite-sized treat.

The hot, humid climate of the South might not be prime for wheat, rye and other grains, but corn likes it just fine. Abundant corn crops in Colonial times meant plenty of meal for the most basic interpretations of cornbread. Simple corn pone - a mix of cornmeal, water and salt cooked over hot coals - evolved when Southern cooks added leavening agents, eggs and buttermilk.

The combo produced lighter results while cast iron skillets and muffin pans helped maintain the tender middle/crispy outside integrity of the cornbread. Think of it as the forerunner of corncakes and hushpuppies - every Southerner's favorite fish accompaniment. 

 

Cornmeal is Key

Ear of corn, ground corn, ground cornmeal
Mills like Marsh Hen grind heirloom corn into cornmeal.

So, it stands to reason that great cornbread begins with great cornmeal, and we've got plenty of that in South Carolina. For authentic taste and texture, try heirloom varieties such as Jimmy Red and Sea Island Blue from South Carolina millers such as Marsh Hen Mill and Anson Mills. And don't forget the other "main ingredient" - a hot, well-seasoned cast iron skillet or pans for that signature crispy crust.

Never made cornbread? Here's a basic recipe to get you started. Note that it calls for self-rising meal - a time-saver as it already contains the right amounts of leavening. You may use yellow or white cornmeal interchangeably, according to your preference. This recipe also makes great muffins or cornsticks. If you prefer a thinner, crispier cornbread, omit the egg.

Iron Skillet Cornbread

Hot cornbread with melted butter in iron skillet
An iron skillet is the baking dish of choice for Southern cornbread.

Southern Skillet Cornbread

Ingredients:

2 cups self-rising cornmeal
1 egg
1¼ cup of full-fat buttermilk
¼ cup of melted butter

Directions:

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Mix egg, buttermilk and butter, then add to the dry ingredients. Pour the batter into a hot, greased 9-inch iron skillet, or scoop into muffin pans or cornstick molds, filling about 2/3 full. Immediately pop into a preheated oven. Bake 15 to 20 minutes.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 35 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.