Let’s get this out of the way upfront, I am not from the south. I am a Midwesterner who loves to bake and who is a student of baking things the “proper way.” I feel as though I must brace myself when I write recipes that are tied to as much history and passion as cornbread. I know I might ruffle some feathers, but I’m going to try my best not to!
What I can say is that I have read and tested a lot of cornbread recipes. I’ve tried ones with only cornmeal and no flour. I’ve tried ones without a drop of sugar. I’ve tried ones with equal amounts of flour and cornmeal. And I’ve tried just about every variation in between. Through all of this testing, I have developed this recipe that I believe to be the best. It is an incredibly moist cornbread recipe that uses mostly cornmeal with a little bit of flour, a good amount of butter, just a drop of sugar (stay with me, we’ll talk about it!), and definitely buttermilk!
What Cornmeal To Use
First things first, let’s talk about the cornmeal. If you want to make a truly exceptional cornbread then a really high quality cornmeal is going to be key. After all, the cornmeal is the star of the show here!
If you can find it, fresh stone ground cornmeal from a small mill is really going to give you the best results. I have made cornbread with this Palmetto Farms Stone Ground White Cornmeal and it was just fabulous! Such an incredible difference between this and the cornmeal we find in most stores.
But let’s be real, we don’t all have access to beautiful fresh ground cornmeal. Even in Chicago, I checked multiple specialty stores and all of them carried the same brand and none from smaller mills. So I tested this recipe with generic cornmeal because I want it to taste great for whoever is making it with any kind of cornmeal. Moral of the story here, this recipe will be good with any cornmeal you are able to use, but it will be better if you are able to find great cornmeal.
Does Flour Belong in Cornbread?
I have tested recipes without any flour, some with a little flour, and some with a fairly high percentage of flour. In my opinion I think a little bit of flour with a much higher percentage of cornmeal is the perfect balance. A small amount of flour really does wonders for the texture of the cornbread, especially cornbread made with average cornmeal, while still highlighting the cornmeal as the star ingredient. This recipe calls for a 4:1 ratio of cornmeal to flour which I believe is the perfect balance.
The Sugar Controversy
Talk to a true southerner and likely they will tell you sugar has no place in cornbread. I have to say, I understand where they are coming from. Traditionally, cornbread is a savory side dish and recipes calling for a great deal of sugar in the bread are taking a big deviation from the classic recipe.
It is important to note however, that access to really high quality stone-ground cornmeal that was available when the original cornbread was being made, when no sugar or wheat flour was used, is just not as readily available today. Robert Moss wrote a fascinating piece that goes more into the history of cornbread and its evolution if you care to learn more about this topic.
Corn, in and of itself, is slightly sweet. The problem is that most cornmeals today are made with corn that is not quite mature yet. This means that the corn hasn’t fully developed its flavor and sweetness. I find that a small amount of sugar really helps balance the flavor of a cornbread that is made with generic cornmeal and actually enhances the corn flavor. I promise it won’t taste sweet.
Tip: The amount of sugar called for in this recipe is not going to make the cornbread taste sweet, but I am a firm believer in cooking and baking to your own preferences. If you are a person that prefers a sweet cornbread then by all means make your cornbread sweet! You are the one eating it! The sugar in this recipe can be increased if it is what you prefer!
Buttermilk serves two purposes in this recipe: to help flavor the bread, and to react with the baking soda to tenderize and make the bread rise. The tangy flavor the buttermilk brings to this cornbread is really quite nice and rounds out the flavors.
If you do not have buttermilk on hand, then you can easily create a substitute by mixing regular milk with a bit of lemon juice or white vinegar. You can also thin out sour cream or plain yogurt with a bit of water until it is the consistency of buttermilk. See the recipe notes for exact amounts for these buttermilk substitutes.
Cast Iron Skillet
Traditional cornbread is cooked in a preheated cast iron skillet. The biggest benefit of cooking this cornbread in a cast iron skillet is that it goes into the oven while you are making your cornbread batter and gets very hot. Then, when you pour the batter into the skillet it immediately starts to heat up on the bottom and becomes very crispy. There is just nothing better than a good crispy crust on the bottom of a tender and moist cornbread.
If you don’t have a cast iron skillet then you can definitely bake this in a 9″ round cake pan or pie plate or a 9×9 square dish. Just be aware that it will not have the same iconic crispy bottom as it would if cooked in a cast iron skillet. And I highly recommend adding a cast iron skillet to your kitchen. You will not regret it!
This recipe can be made into cornbread muffins if you prefer. Grease a muffin pan or line with muffin liners and divide the batter into 12 muffins. You just want to reduce your baking temperature to 400F (204C). See recipe notes for more details on making cornbread muffins.
Brown Butter Cornbread
Since the butter is being melted for this recipe already, might as well go ahead and brown it! You know how much I love brown butter in baked goods! Whenever you are using brown butter in place of regular butter in a baked good, you must increase the liquid ingredient by 2 TBSP per 4 oz (1 stick) of butter you browned. See recipe notes for more details on making brown butter cornbread.
Jalapeno Cheddar Cornbread
All you have to do to flavor this cornbread is to throw in anything you want at the end! Add a generous amount of shredded sharp cheddar cheese and some minced fresh jalapeno right before it goes into the skillet! See recipe notes for more details on making jalapeno cheddar cornbread.
Bacon & Scallion Cornbread
Pieces of crumbled crispy bacon studded throughout this cornbread mixed with some scallion is also an amazing idea! You could also save that rendered bacon fat to use in place of some or all of the butter if you really want to go for it! And you should! See recipe notes for more details on making bacon and scallion cornbread.
- 10 TBSP (140 gr) unsalted butter, divided (*see note for substitution)
- 2 cups (240 gr) cornmeal (good quality stone ground cornmeal preferred)
- 1/2 cup (60 gr) all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 2 TBSP (25 gr) sugar (*see note)
- 1 1/2 cup (355 ml) buttermilk, room temperature (*see note for substitution)
- 2 large eggs, room temperature
- Position your oven rack in the center of the oven and place a well seasoned 10" or 12" cast iron skillet inside. Preheat your oven to 450F (232C). This will preheat your skillet to help achieve a very crispy bottom to your cornbread. Alternatively, if you do not have a cast iron skillet you may use a 9" round or square metal or glass baking dish for this recipe, but you should not preheat them in the oven.
- Meanwhile, melt your butter. Once completely melted, divide out about 2 TBSP. This will be used to grease your skillet. The rest of the butter will go into the cornbread. Set both aside to cool slightly.
- In a large mixing bowl combine the cornmeal, all-purpose flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Whisk together until combined.
- Add in your buttermilk, eggs, and the larger amount of melted butter and stir until everything is just incorporated. You don't want to over-mix.
- Carefully remove the hot cast iron skillet from the oven. Add the 2 TBSP butter you divided out to the pan and swirl around until the bottom is coated. Pour your cornbread batter into the skillet and immediately place skillet back into the hot oven. If you are using a baking dish instead of a cast iron skillet, coat it with the reserved melted butter.
- Cook at 450F (232C) for about 20 minutes or until a tester comes out with moist crumb from the center. If you want a crispier top, put it under the broiler for 1-2 minutes, watching it very closely.
- As an optional extra step in increase the moistness of this cornbread, run a stick of butter over the top of the bread while it is still hot. The butter will melt down into the bread and keep it extra moist and delicious! Use as much as you like of the stick. I just rub it all over until it is well coated.
- Butter: If you only have salted butter, it can be used in place of the unsalted butter in this recipe, however you should decrease the amount of salt added to the recipe to 1 1/2 tsp.
- Sugar: The amount of sugar called for in this recipe will not make this a sweet cornbread. It only serves the purpose of balancing the flavors. If you prefer a sweet cornbread, you can increase the amount of sugar in this recipe to 2/3 cup and reduce the amount of salt to 1 tsp. You could also choose to just increase the sugar by a small amount for just a slightly sweet cornbread.
- Buttermilk: The acidic properties of buttermilk are necessary in this recipe to activate the baking soda. If you do not have buttermilk you can make a substitute by measuring out 1 1/2 TBSP of white vinegar or lemon juice and adding enough regular milk to equal 1 1/2 cups. Stir and let sit for 5 minutes before using. As another option, combine 1 cup plus 2 TBSP of sour cream or plain yogurt with 6 TBSP of water and use in place of the buttermilk.
- Cornbread Muffins: Grease or line a muffin tin and divide the batter between 12 muffins. Reduce the oven temperature to 400F (204C) and bake for 18-20 minutes or until cooked through.
- Brown Butter Cornbread: Melt the butter in the recipe in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir continuously until the butter starts to become brown in color and smells nutty. Proceed with the recipe, but add an additional 2 TBSP of buttermilk to the recipe.
- Jalapeno Cheddar Cornbread: After your batter is made, stir in 6 oz shredded sharp cheddar cheese and 2 TBSP minced fresh jalapeno.
- Bacon and Scallion Cornbread: Cook 6 strips of bacon until crispy. Crumble and set aside. Pour off the bacon fat to use in place of butter. Depending on how much your bacon rendered you may need to add some melted butter to make up the difference. Proceed with the recipe and stir in the crumbled bacon and 1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions. A good handful of sharp cheddar wouldn't be a bad addition to this one either!