Cornbread 101

"Northern-style" cornbread

“Northern-style” cornbread

Since this is the week we observe Independence Day in the US, it seemed like an excellent time to look at cornbread — a favorite food that is totally original to this part of the New World.

A plant that was unknown to the European colonizers until they “discovered” North America in the late 15th century, corn had long been a staple of indigenous people’s cuisine – for thousands of years, in fact.

The European settlers learned the original recipes and methods for making corn dishes from their indigenous neighbors, and made adaptations so they could use cornmeal in breads similar to those made of familiar grains available in Europe. Cornmeal (the key ingredient in cornbread) is made by grinding dry, raw grains of corn.

Cornbread has been called a “cornerstone” of Southern cuisine of the Southern US, and is a favorite food of folks elsewhere around the country (including us).

A versatile quick bread that has a broad range of variations, cornbread can be baked, fried or even steamed. Cornbread sometimes takes the form of corn cakes, muffins, corn pone, “johnny cakes,” and even beer-battered hush puppies.

For our purposes, we’ll focus on baked cornbread (it’s our favorite, and the type we’re most familiar with) in this post.

Cornbread made w buttermilk
Cornbread made w buttermilk

Associated with the cooking of the American South and Southwest, cornbread is also widely eaten as accompaniment to barbecue and chili. Beans and cornbread, immortalized in song by Louis Jordan, has been a staple weeknight supper (and an inexpensive source of nutrition) for many people. Leftover / stale cornbread is crumbled for the best Thanksgiving stuffing, too.

In the United States, northern and southern cornbread look and taste a little bit different due to the use of different kinds of corn meal and varying amounts of sugar and eggs. Southern cornbread is typically made with little or no sugar and smaller amounts of flour (or no flour), while northern cornbread recipes call for flour mixed with the cornmeal, and some honey (or sugar or maple syrup) — it’s sweeter and more cake-like, like in this recipe.

Also, Southern cornbread traditionally used white cornmeal and buttermilk, as in this example (and, coincidentally, this week’s Saturday Sample). Other ingredients such as pork rinds are sometimes used.

In Texas, Mexican influence has yielded cornbread made with corn kernels and jalapeño peppers, sometimes topped with shredded cheese – if that’s your style, here’s a great recipe.

Perhaps the biggest “rule” about cornbread is that, unless you’re making it so that you can dry it out for use in your Thanksgiving stuffing, it is best consumed while it’s still warm from the oven. Dunk it in your bowl of chili or jambalaya, or have it on the side with a drizzle of honey or maple syrup, and perhaps a dollop of your favorite spiced / herbed compound butter. Aaaahh! An all-American classic.

Photo credits:

Cornbread made w buttermilk – Girl Who Eats EVerything

“Northern-style” cornbread – Peas and Crayons