No self respectin' Southern cook worth their grits would consider adding sugar or wheat flour to a batch of cornbread. Over 150 years ago the Civil War split this country in half because of the attempted secession of eleven southern states from the Union and the issue of slavery. The battle to preserve authentic Southern cooking is not quite as contentious but is still fought to this day. Arguments are heated over what defines true southern BBQ, fried chicken, pies, cakes, cobblers, and yes, cornbread. The sweet cake-like cornbread confection that many of us are familiar with has nothing in common with the coarse, cracklin' savory cornbread made without wheat flour and sweetener but with tangy buttermilk, bacon, and cornmeal that you will find in many a southern kitchen. If you're a fan of one kind, it's a pretty good bet you won't like the other.
My mother and father grew up during the great depression. Mom on a dairy farm in rural New Mexico and dad in a small town in east Texas. My Southern roots run deep. Bossy on the other hand hails from upstate N.Y. and as Yankee as they come. When I want down home soul food I boot his uppity Northern butt out of the kitchen. "The North thinks it knows how to make cornbread, but this is a gross superstition," Mark Twain wrote in his autobiography. Bossy can whip up a lovely bernaise or bordelaise all day long but get him outta the way when there's Southern food to be cooked.
There are three key components to making great cornbread:
2. Cast iron skillet
3. Cooking method
1. Cornmeal, the single most important component of the three. Today, good cornmeal is as hard to find as a family run farm. In the early part of the 20th century a huge shift occurred in the cornmeal industry, one that changed the very nature of cornmeal and forced cooks to alter their cornbread recipes. During the 19th century, toll milling was the way most farm families got the meal for their cornbread. Farmers took their own corn to the local mill and had it ground into enough cornmeal for their families, leaving some behind as a toll to pay the miller.
The mills were typically water-powered and used large millstones to grind the corn. Starting around 1900, however, new "roller mills" using cylindrical steel rollers began to be introduced in the South. Unlike stone mills, steel roller mills eliminate much of the corn kernel, including the germ; doing so makes the corn shelf stable but also robs it of much flavor and nutrition. The friction of steel rolling generates a lot of heat, too, which further erodes corn's natural flavor. The most significant difference, though, is the size of the resulting meal. With stone milling you get a diverse particle size. Steel roller milling creates a finer meal with all of the particles being the same size. When cornmeal's taste and texture changed, cooks had to adjust their recipes. Hence, the addition of sugar and flour.
To the rescue: Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina.
Beginning in the 1990's, Roberts embarked on a mission to revive and rediscover the heritage grains that were all but lost since the advent of the industrialization of agriculture and food production that we have today. He's developed a network of farmers to grow heirloom corn, rice, and other grains and he built Anson Mills to mill them in the traditional ways and distributes them to restaurant chefs and home cooks. To order products or read more about what they're doing go to: www.ansonmills.com
If ordering Anson Mills products is not practical, seek out the best stone ground cornmeal that you can find, as it will have the single biggest impact on the final cornbread.
2. Cast iron skillet. This is non-negotiable, it's what cornbread is cooked in, just get one. Period.
3. Cooking Method: To get the outside golden and crunchy and inside moist and crumbly, you have to pre-heat the skillet so that it is screeching hot, (450 degree oven) then pour about a tablespoon of fat into the hot pan, either bacon drippings, butter or oil, get that hot, then you pour in the cornbread batter and send it all into the oven to bake.
James Beard award winning chef Sean Brock, owner of three acclaimed Southern restaurants grew up in the coalfields of Virginia not far from Kentucky. His obsession for exploring Southern foods and preserving and restoring heirloom ingredients are legendary. He admits that he's a cornbread snob, and believes that the muffin-like cornbread served in most restaurants isn't worth eating, he won't touch the stuff. His cornbread is savory, crunchy, a little smokey from bacon and very dense, no sugar, no wheat flour. He's a huge fan of Anson Mills products.
I have to admit, as Southern as my roots are, I do like a little sweetener and touch of flour in my cornbread. Not so much that I'm having dessert alongside my dinner, but just a little to mellow out the savoriness of hard core Southern cornbread. Like Goldilocks, not too sweet, not too savory, juuuust right!
I'm going to share three recipes with you. The first is Sean Brock's Cracklin' Cornbread, from his cookbook 'Heritage'. The second is the sweet, cake like type that kids love, our granddaughter Macy will eat it all day long. And the third is a recipe that I've adapted to make a cornbread that is somewhere in between.
Copy and paste the link below into your web browser to access the recipes in PDF form
I hope you enjoy these, cornbread is very forgiving so feel free to adjust the cornmeal / flour ratio as well as the honey / sugar ratio to your liking.
Thank you for reading and please feel free to share with your friends and family if you think they would enjoy this blog. If there are any special food topics you would like to see let me know!
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