Cornbread is a quick-bread made from dried, ground flint corn — the North American corn that Europeans might call “maize.”
The First Nations in North America were making corn breads long before the Europeans arrived. Seen after that as a “pioneer” or “poor person’s” bread in the past, it is now enjoyed for its texture, taste and aroma. It is still seen somewhat as “country” food, particularly associated with the American south.
What is called Cornbread can be cooked in a variety of ways, baked or fried, or steamed into puddings. The bread can be fluffy, like a cake, or it can be flat and fried like patties.
Butter makes cornbread richer, but shortening gives it a lighter texture. There are not really any yeast-risen Cornbreads, because cornmeal doesn’t have the gluten necessary to slowly trap gas from yeast. Cornbread can benefit, some feel, from an addition of protein to hold the cornmeal together, whether it comes from wheat flour or eggs. (Many American southerners dismiss that notion as Yankee heresy.)
Traditionally buttermilk was used as a liquid, which imparted a tang to the taste.
Cornbread tends to be crumbly; some recipes can be dry. It is best served warm, ideally hot from oven, but can be re-heated.
Northern US versions of cornbread are sweeter owing to their use of sugar or molasses. They are also fluffier, more like corn muffins, owing to their being often half cornmeal, half wheat flour, with egg added.
In the American South, Cornbread has little or no sugar, and little or no wheat flour. Purists insist that Cornbread should be cooked in a cast iron skillet, which you first coat with a fat such as lard, bacon drippings. (The joke is that cornbread can be fattening, but only if cooked properly.) Pros recommend sprinkling a little cornmeal on top of the fat to help prevent sticking and make a crispier, browner crust. You then pour the batter in and put in the oven to bake. Good southern-style Cornbread should have a crunchy crust.
Hot water Cornbread describes a category of Cornbread recipes that call for you to pour hot water on the cornmeal while preparing the recipe. This is called “scalding” the cornmeal, thus the term “scald meal” cornbread.
Variations: add corn kernels, green onions, cheese, chiles, cooked chopped sausage. The general rule of thumb is no more than 1 cup in volume of add-ins.
In the Southwestern United States, chiles are added.
Cornbread is preferred by many to base a more flavourful poultry stuffing on.
You can add a teaspoon of sugar to serve as dessert with syrups, etc.
Scald Meal Cornbread
Mix 1 cup of self-rising cornmeal with 1 cup of boiling water and 1/2 teaspoon of salt, to the consistency of a mush.
Heat a frying pan with oil or bacon drippings in it. You want the pan to be hot, but not so hot that the outsides of the Cornbreads will be burnt before the insides are cooked.
Cook the batter in 3 to 4 inches (7 1/2 to 10 cm) wide “pancakes” to a golden brown on both sides.
Don’t assume that Cornbreads are free of wheat, gluten and egg. Some which are wheat and egg free might have in them some baking powder into which the manufacturer has put gluten.
Cornbread does not store well. It really is meant to be eaten up right away.
Literature & Lore
There is an annual National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, held the last weekend of each April.
“At the Creek I was obliged to learn all over again the simple matter of “bread.” Bread to me had always been the baked wheat loaf, white or of the whole grain. One drew a line only between homemade and baker’s bread. This is not “bread” to the Creek at all. If I asked a neighbor for some bread in an emergency, I should receive a pan of cornbread. It is the staple bread and the young Townsends were correct in believing that one must have it to grow on. Bread as I once knew it is called “light bread,” and healthy appetites despise it for “wasp’s-nest bread,” with contempt for its texture and its filling qualities. There are gradations of cornbread. True cornbread is made elegantly with milk and eggs and shortening and is considered, rightly, good enough for any one. Then comes cornpone. It is not so rich, leaving out the eggs and usually the milk, and is made in a skillet on top of the stove. Below cornpone is hoe-cake and this is made simply of cornmeal, salt and water, very thin in texture, and fried in a skillet if one has fat for frying, or often in a Dutch oven or over a hearth or camp fire. The field hands of slavery times and the soldiers in the War Between the States baked it on a shovel or hoe held to the open flame. When made of good sweet water-ground meal, it is crisp and palatable, much like Mexican corn-chips.” 1
Members of the older generation feel strongly that cornbread must be broken — it is very bad luck to see it cut with a knife. Some old-tiers are much upset to see a stranger, even in a hotel, cutting cornbread. I have known several who refused to eat at a table where such a thing occurred but got up and left at once. A ‘furrin’ schoolmarm in McDonald county, Missouri, having her first meal at the boardinghouse, offended everybody by cutting a piece of cornpone. ‘Dang it, she’s sp’iled the bread!’ muttered one young man, jumping up from the table.” 2
Rawlings, Marjorie Kinnan. Cross Creek. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1942. ↩
Randolph, Vance. Ozark Superstitions. Columbia University Press, 1947. Chapter 4. ↩