There’s a bunch of recipes out there for cornbread, including several of mine, the last of which I wrote about a year ago. I guess it’s not all that strange that my go to recipe has changed again.
Cornbread is as old as fire and grain in human history. Like pretty much everyone else who’s obsessive about food, I’ve gussied up and stripped down cornbread recipes more times that I can remember.
Here in the states, in very general terms, the farther into the Deep South you go, the closer cornbread gets to its deepest roots. One of the recipes I’ll share here today, hot water cornbread, harkens back very closely indeed. Go west, into Texas, or pretty much anywhere up north, and the stuff gets sweeter and and more cake-like.
All that aside, whatever version you make will only be as good as your corn meal. No matter how pumped up or stripped down your recipe, if your meal isn’t fresh and of good quality, it’ll be impossible to make a really stellar final product. That’s especially true with hot water cornbread, where the meal used has literally nothing else to hide behind.
Fortunately, there’s a resurgence in great corn and corn meal, much of that centered in the Deep South, but not all. Do a little searching, and you’re more likely than not to find a small mill near you.
That’s good for a number of reasons – you’ll get fresh stuff, it’ll likely come from local corn, and you’ll be supporting one or more small, local businesses. With a wealth of heirloom varieties coming into cultivation, you’ll find a lot more options out there than you did in years past.
So it’s a great time to tweak your personal recipe. That may entail nothing more than a new corn variety, or it might lead to a full blown overhaul. If you love cornbread, you simply must explore all those regional twists and niche recipes – that’s where brilliance and inspiration often hides. Small mills offer variety on grind, too – which is important, I think – I love the nuttier taste of a coarse grind.
For either version shared here, cast iron is a key element. Cast iron provides excellent thermal conductivity for this dish – in essence, that’s the ability of the cooking vessel to conduct heat, or more specifically, to absorb heat from areas of higher temperature and move it to areas of lower temperature, like your batter.
For my current go to, there are a couple more key steps – Preheat your oven with a rack in the middle position, and your cast iron skillet on that.
Having your skillet oven hot is important for two reasons – first, it’ll foster a nice, crispy crust to start forming as soon as you drop batter in the skillet, and secondly, it’ll brown your butter – that’ll yield a deeper, richer smell and mouth feel, and a lovely nutty minor taste note.
What I’m doing now is more or less southern-style cornbread. There’s no sugar, it’s 50%-50% flour and cornmeal, and the way it’s built pretty much guarantees a great finish every time – Bold words, I know, but I’ll stand behind them. And for purity’s sake, there’s the hot water version too – try that when you come across some truly special cornmeal.
Flour note – I use bread flour for my cornbread. It has a little bit higher protein content than AP, a.k.a. a bit more gluten. I like that, because I get a better rise out of it while maintaining a nice overall density. You can certainly use all purpose, if that’s what you prefer.
Urban’s Go To Cornbread
1 Cup Cornmeal
1 Cup Bread Flour
2 Cups Buttermilk (Or 1 1/2 Cups Whole Milk and 1/2 Cup Sour Cream)
1/2 Cup Unsalted Butter
2 large Eggs
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda
Preheat oven to 425° F and place a rack in the middle slot. Slide your dry cast iron skillet in there too.
In a large mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder – whisk to thoroughly incorporate.
In a second mixing bowl, combine buttermilk and eggs, (or milk, sour cream and eggs if you go that road) and whisk thoroughly to incorporate.
When your oven is preheated, add the butter to your skillet – keep an eye on that, so you get it melted and browned, not burned – this should only take you a couple minutes at that temp.
Combine the wet and dry ingredients, carefully adding the browned butter.
Whisk just enough to combine things, then use a spatula to quickly get the batter into the hot skillet.
Bake for 22-25 minutes, until cornbread is golden brown, and a toothpick stuck in the middle of the skillet comes out clean.
Serve hot, then eat more the next morning, if any survived.
Hot water cornbread is the real deal in the south, or as my friend Carter Monroe puts it, ‘What we in The Provinces refer to as “The Grown Folks Method.”’
Also known variously as corn pone, hoecake, or corn dodgers, this is cornbread stripped to its roots.
When I asked Carter if folks would make different versions for kids and adults, he wrote, ‘Nah, the Northern version of what I call “cake” cornbread has permeated the south. This is old school. What those of us who are wore out grew up with.’ That’s more than good enough for this here Yankee.
When you contemplate making this version, remember what I wrote above. Hot water cornbread often was and is made from freshly ground meal, from good local corn – that’s key, frankly, because that meal is what you’re going to taste here. There’s nothing else in the mix but enough water to get to the consistency you like and a little salt to make everything pop – that’s it.
Coarse or fine ground is also up to you, but far as I’m concerned, it aughta be coarse for this.
There’s no sugar in there, so whatever sweetness you’ll taste comes from the corn. There’s no leavening, so you won’t get a rise either, albeit you can manipulate things quite a bit. Make a thicker batter with some air whipped into it, and you’ll get cornbread with a creamy, soft middle – the corn/water slurry will trap some air bubbles as it fries. Leave it thin and you can have it as crispy as you like.
Oh yes – this version is fried in oil, y’all, not baked, which adds a whole new texture, and subtle flavor notes. This brings a frying fat into play as well, so what’ll it be? Leaf lard, peanut oil, or corn oil will all do fine, and each will have a slightly different flavor profile. If you’re feeling modern, avocado oil is a great choice – it has a great, buttery taste.
This is hot water cornbread, which means the water matters too. If you have funky water, you’ll get funky cornbread. We happen to be graced with such, so we use a filtered pitcher for cooking water, and that’s what I’ll recommend to y’all if you share that malady.
Finally, although there’s not much salt in the recipe, you’ll taste it. Kosher works fine, but this is a great place for some fancier salts to express a subtle flavor note too – use ‘em if you’ve got ‘em, I say.
Hot Water Cornbread
3/4 Cup Cornmeal
1/2 to 3/4 Cup Water
1/2 teaspoon Salt
Frying Fat of your choice
Heat water to near boiling – do 3/4 cup, so you have some leeway once you see how things shake out.
In a mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, 1/2 cup water and salt and whisk to incorporate with a fork.
Adjust water ratio to your desired consistency if the initial balance is too thick for you.
In a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, add enough oil to get about 1/2 inch depth.
Heat oil, using an instant read thermometer to monitor temperature – you want right about 375° F.
Once your fat is up to temp, add generous soup spoons of batter – You can get 3 or 4 in a 12” skillet without crowding.
If you like things thin and crispy, use the back of the spoon to tamp down each dollop a bit, otherwise, let it ride for a softer middle.
These will cook quite quickly – about 1 to 2 minutes per side – when you’ve got a nice golden brown, it’s time to flip.
Transfer cooked cornbread to a paper towel lined wire rack to cool a bit.
As soon as you can grab them without burning yourself, devour with abandon.