Baked, Not Fried
Perfect cornbread in 800 words or less
by Gay Lyons
My cast iron skillet has been getting a workout lately. It started when my friend Judy McCarthy hosted our book club at her home and served the best corn bread I’ve ever eaten.
I make great fried corn bread, which we call “mound builders’ cakes” in our family. Naturally, there’s a story behind the name.
When my daughter Liz was in middle school and working on a project about Native Americans, she confided to me the morning of her presentation on the mound builders (her assigned tribe) that other students had been bringing food to accompany their presentations. She had not been able to figure out the mound builders’ diet and was sure she would be penalized for not bringing appropriate refreshments.
I was completely inept at helping with the kinds of projects elementary school teachers love to assign. I’m lousy at constructing solar systems out of Styrofoam and igloos out of sugar cubes. Liz’s paper mache globe (who thinks up this stuff anyway?) was probably the worst ever in the history of third-grade paper mache globe-making. But this was food, and that’s my thing.
I convinced Liz that mound builders ate corn cakes and dried beef. Within minutes, I had three skillets going simultaneously. After some furiously paced flipping, I had a pile of fried cornbread—now renamed mound builders’ cakes—and moved on to the second course, which required a package of beef jerky purchased on the way to school and some quick scissoring in the car. The crisis was averted, the project earned an A, and fried cornbread had a new name.
Fried cornbread is easy. You can use any cornbread recipe. You can even use Jiffy cornbread mix. The frying renders the recipe inconsequential. Fried cornbread is fine, but sometimes a pan of baked cornbread is what’s needed. Trouble is, I’ve never been pleased with mine. It’s not as good as my mother’s, and it’s nowhere near as good as Judy’s, which, heresy though it may be to say, is even better than my mother’s.
My recipe, passed down in the family, is easy and has very few ingredients: cornmeal, baking soda, salt, buttermilk, an egg and hot oil, which can be most any kind of oil—vegetable oil, Crisco, bacon grease. It results in a grainy cornbread with a nicely browned crust. Judy’s cornbread was superior in several ways. It was thicker, lighter and moister, and yet it had a wonderfully crunchy exterior—top and bottom. It was the best cornbread I have ever had. Armed with this new recipe, I looked forward to whipping up a pan of divine cornbread myself. Getting a recipe from Judy is the culinary equivalent to consulting the Oracle at Delphi. But it seems I had a few things to learn about turning out a pan of perfect cornbread.
My first effort was pretty bad. In my effort to achieve a nicely browned crust, I overcooked it, so it was extremely dry. And there was a weird aftertaste that seemed vaguely chemical in nature. I love cooking but hate baking, so it’s possible my baking powder and baking soda could date back to the Clinton administration. It’d be helpful if we non-bakers could buy these things in tiny packages. I threw out the old stuff and purchased completely fresh ingredients. I also decided to follow the recipe more closely instead of skipping a couple of steps along the way.
The second batch was a big improvement over the first. There was no aftertaste. The fresh ingredients obviously made a difference. This time I also followed the directions and sifted the dry ingredients. I’ve never sifted cornmeal, but it seems to be an essential step to achieving the desired texture. This time the interior was light and moist. But the exterior was light brown and not nearly crisp enough. Time to revisit the oracle!
Judy’s diagnosis: The shortening needs to be hotter. I’m not getting sufficient sizzle when I pour the batter into the pan. The batter needs to start browning immediately.
After replenishing my supply of buttermilk and cornmeal, I tried again. This time I cranked up the heat under the Crisco, which resulted in a sizzle that sounded something like the time I nearly set fire to the kitchen trying to make wilted lettuce and onions. Sssssssssss! This time that sizzling noise was the sweet sound of success with cornbread.
Judy McCarthy’s Mother’s Cornbread Recipe
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Sift together two cups white cornmeal, one cup soft white flour (such as White Lily), one tablespoon baking powder and one teaspoon salt. Stir a half-teaspoon of baking soda into one and three-fourths cup buttermilk and set it aside until it bubbles. On top of the stove, melt one-fourth cup shortening in a nine-inch iron skillet. Stir the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients and immediately pour the batter into the hot skillet. The batter should sizzle as it is poured into the skillet. Put the skillet in the oven and bake for 30 minutes.