For most of my single-adult years, my pantry was readily stocked with just three items: breakfast cereal, a Betty Crocker pasta salad in a box, and Jiffy corn muffin mix.
I’m guessing that if someone made up a batch of Jiffy muffins and presented them to me warm, with a pat of melting margarine (those were my pre-butter days as well), I would take a bite and be transported back to a little apartment in the Belhaven neighborhood of Jackson, Mississippi. My ad-agency-working, Dave-Matthews-listening, hot-summer-hating life would flash before my eyes in film-reel fashion. And then I’d swallow that bite, and think with a start, wait, this is not cornbread. I’d be back to present-day in a flash, wondering how a thing as sweet as cake ended up representing a bread that, in some circles, contains no sugar at all.
I know, the Jiffy box is really cute and almost demands nostalgia. But it ain’t cornbread.
So what is cornbread? The answer is likely the center of heated debates, as the contents and cooking method of the baked good are as varied as the families that crumble it over their black-eyed peas (though that action could be offensive to some).
Using The Joy of Cooking and a few other cooking tomes, I’ve outlined some guidelines in defining the bread made of corn:
- Like so many other things in America, cornbread is often divided by the Mason-Dixon line.
Northern cornbread is softer and cakier in texture than its Southern counterpart. This effect is achieved by using a mixture of cornmeal and all-purpose flour (sometimes a one-to-one ratio), extra eggs, and a mixture of milk and buttermilk. In addition, the Yankee bread is often sweeter, with some recipes calling for up to a quarter cup of sweetener (a bit Jiffy-esque if you ask me, not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Southern cornbread is heartier in texture, and dries up in a (ahem) New York minute — perfect for the aforementioned crumbling. The reason is that traditional recipes call for only cornmeal — no flour at all — sometimes only one egg, and all buttermilk. Also frequent in Southern varieties is the complete omission of sweetener.
- You can add just about anything you want to cornbread, and it will likely taste good.
This is, of course, within reason. And assumes you’re not going for a traditional Southern variety. But everything from herbs to cheeses to peppers to berries can be thrown into the mix to add unique texture and flavor to your bread. Use common sense with ratios — maybe a cup of cheese or berries, a tablespoon or so of fresh herbs.
- The flavor and texture of cornbread can vary greatly depending on the vessel used for cooking.
This is my favorite part. Have you tried before to make cornbread with crunchy, fried-like edges, only to find them falling short? The trick is using a preheated cast iron skillet with hot fat. I still occasionally make cornbread, especially a cakey version, in a buttered glass pan. But when you’re going for those crunchy edges, cast iron is the only way to go (directions in this recipe).
- Lastly, while sugar is not necessary in cornbread, FAT is.
Don’t skimp, or your flavor and texture will suffer (many recipes call for just a tablespoon, I prefer a little more). I like a mixture of butter and home-rendered lard in mine — the lard helps with those delectable crunchy edges (is it obvious I like them?).
I’ve previously posted a recipe for bacon-cheddar cornbread (the photo will look familiar). If you’re interested in experimenting to customize for your preferences, use the following ratio guidelines for one batch:
- 1 3/4 to 2 cups of grain (all cornmeal, or a mix of cornmeal and flour, up to 1:1 ratio)
- 1-4 Tbsp sugar or honey (mix into wet ingredients)
- 2 tsp leavening agents (1 tsp each of baking powder & baking soda, or mostly baking powder if using sweet milk)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/3 – 2 cups buttermilk, yogurt, or a mixture of sweet milk and buttermilk
- up to 1 cup of add-ins, such as chili peppers, corn kernels, grated cheese, bacon, raisins, or blueberries.
- 1-3 Tbsp fat (butter or lard)
Mix the dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, mix the wet ingredients. Add wet to dry and mix just until batter forms. Melt lard in preheated skillet or butter in the microwave or stovetop (butter will burn at high temps), stir into batter. Bake 425° for about 25 minutes.
Funny, how a thing can be limitless in version, yet so simple in concept. And, funny (read: sad) that you would have had a hard time convincing my twenty-four-year-old self that no Jiffy mix is required.