Like most cooks, I have several cornbread recipes at my disposal. This particular recipe is truly rooted in the South. Start with the fact that it is baked in a cast iron skillet. So often it seems that in Southern cooking, a cake pan or baking dish equates to “cast iron skillet” – be it up-side-down cakes, breads or biscuits.
Then there’s the use of bacon grease both to season the skillet and flavor the bread. I don’t know of many Northerners that keep a tin of bacon grease handy, but no self-respecting Southern kitchen would be without it. Okay, so I was born and raised in California, but my dad is an Okie through and through. He does a lot of things the “Southern” way. He passed those on to me, and I to my children and grandchildren.
What’s the difference between Northern and Southern Cornbread? That’s easy – Northern Cornbread is moist, sweet and more cake-like. It is usually cooked in a cake pan or square glass dish. While not always the case, generally speaking Northern Cornbread uses more flour than corn meal, giving it a more cake-like finish. Northern Cornbread uses butter or oil as the fat, Southern cornbread uses bacon grease. Northern Cornbread is especially delicious when served alongside a big bowl of spicy chili where the sweetness is a welcome contrast to the fiery bowl of beans. Southern Cornbread usually isn’t sweetened (although I like mine sweet, so I add some sugar to the mix). Southern Cornbread uses more corn meal than flour and is usually cooked in a very hot skillet, making the crust crisp and the bread more gritty. Southern Cornbread is great with grilled foods such as barbecued chicken or ribs.
If you don’t have any bacon grease handy, fry up some bacon for breakfast or BLTs for lunch and save the grease.
Southern Skillet Cornbread
4 teaspoons bacon drippings
1 1/2 cup yellow corn meal, preferably stone ground
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 tablespoon baking soda
1/2 cup rapidly boiling water
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg, beaten lightly
A “must” for this bread is a hot cast-iron skillet. Although the bread can be made in a cake pan or square casserole dish, that would just be too “Yankee” to do the bread justice. Adjust oven rack to lower middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees. Set 8-inch cast iron skillet with bacon fat in it to heat oven.
Measure 1/2 cup cornmeal into medium bowl. Set aside.
Mix remaining 1 cup cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in small bowl; set aside.
Pour boiling water all at once into the 1/2 cup cornmeal; stir to make a stiff mush. Whisk in buttermilk gradually, breaking up lumps until smooth. Cornmeal mush of just the right texture is essential to this bread. The mush must be smooth without overworking the batter. Don’t rush the buttermilk and you’ll have less lumps to break up. Once the mush is ready, add the egg.
When oven is preheated and skillet very hot, stir dry ingredients into mush mixture until just moistened. Carefully remove skillet from oven. Pour hot bacon fat into batter and stir to incorporate, then quickly pour batter into heated skillet.
Place skillet back into the oven, then immediately lower the temperature of the oven to 425 degrees.
Bake until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven and instantly turn corn bread onto wire rack; cool for 5 minutes, then serve immediately.
If serving the cornbread with a spicy barbecued dish, poke a few holes in the top of the bread with a fork. Spread a little honey butter over the top of the cornbread and let it seep in just before serving. The honey will help to off-set the heat.