Cornbread is simple, comforting, and somewhat ubiquitous, and stirs debate if there is a Southerner in the mix. The addition of sugar is generally the primary source of controversy but texture and ingredients bring rise to discussion as well. Food, in general, but cornbread especially, is serious to Southerners. When they were looking for a title for a volume on the best Southern food writing, Southern Foodways Alliance called the volume “Cornbread Nation”.
Cornbread was the primary “bread” in the South from Colonial times well into the 20th century. Wheat does not thrive in the South but corn grows well there. Wheat and wheat flours were for the rich table or special occasions. Cornbread was made of cornmeal and not with a mix of flour and cornmeal.
Buttermilk was and is a constant. Most people chose to bake their cornbread in an iron skillet. Consensus seems to be that the addition of sugar to cornbread recipes came when stone milling of corn gave way to more efficient steel milling. Steel milling removes the germ where much of the flavor and nutrition reside. Additionally the use of Dent corn which was completely field ripened and dried - full of sweet, corny flavor was replaced with softer corn. The softer corn was dried with large industrial air dryers to ready it for milling. The natural sweetness of locally grown corn needed to be replaced and sugar was added.
Wherever we grew up, cornbread love is universal. It is a treat on the breakfast or brunch table and happy alongside a simple bowl of cooked beans. It tastes best to us the way our mom or grandmother made it, which is the way it tastes “right". Food always tells us a story and it’s okay to like your cornbread any way you want. Notch it up and bring it into now, serve it with McEvoy Ranch Sweet Spicy Pepper Jam. These two flavors - cornbread and pepper jam - are amazing together. If you are up for another flavor combination that sounds unusual but really sings, try that combination with the addition of McEvoy Ranch Saimuun Sangiovese - you can thank me later...
Here is a recipe where sugar is optional, adapted from the food website Serious Eats.
15 ounces (3 cups) stone ground cornmeal
2 teaspoons Kosher salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon baking soda
3 teaspoons sugar *optional
2 ½ cups buttermilk
1 ½ sticks butter, melted, divided
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Preheat a 10” cast iron skillet in the oven or grease an 8” x 8” pan with 1 tablespoon butter.
Combine dry ingredients and blend: cornmeal, salt, baking powder, baking soda and sugar (if using).
Combine wet ingredients and blend: Buttermilk, eggs, melted butter (minus 1 tablespoon).
Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix until just combined.
If using cast iron skillet, pull out of oven and use a pastry brush to be sure the butter is well distributed. Pour batter into pan and smooth top.
If using buttered pan, pour batter into pan and smooth top.
Bake approximately 45 minutes. When a wooden skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean, your bread is done.
Cornbread baked in the iron pan will cook a little faster and have a crisper crust. The pan method will yield a more tender crust and take a little longer to bake.
Cool briefly but serve warm.