Cornbread is very simple and quick to make. But, like so many “simple” things, it takes a lot of practice to master. When you examine what makes a good cornbread, you realize right away that it’s a very personal preference from one cook to the next. For me, the best cornbread has to tick a few boxes. First, it has to be cooked in a cast-iron skillet, started on the stove and finished in the oven. The crispy, deep brown, caramelized crust achieved when you cook cornbread this way is unbeatable. Then, when you bite into the soft crumb inside, you want to taste a tangy sourness that only buttermilk can give. The corn and buttermilk are the two ingredients that make or break a skillet of cornbread. Even if you’re still searching for your ideal skillet of cornbread, if you start with great full-fat buttermilk and high-quality cornmeal, the result will be memorable. But “high quality” doesn’t have to mean “the most expensive.” High quality means a flavorful variety of corn, organically grown, dried in the field, harvested, and ground, all with care. That means when it gets to you, all you have to do is cook it with the same care to enjoy something truly special.
The Basic Cornbread recipe below is my gold standard. It’s the cornbread I grew up with. I use different cornmeals every now and again, but for the past few years, I’ve been consistently using Jimmy Red cornmeal. It has the perfect earthiness and sweetness. If you’re using the right corn, there’s no need to add sugar. I’ve also included some of my favorite riffs on the traditional recipe. I love them all just as much in their own ways.
2 cups coarse cornmeal, preferably Geechie Boy Jimmy Red
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 cups full-fat buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon Rendered Fresh Lard (recipe follows), melted
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Put a 10-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven to preheat for at least 10 minutes.
Combine the cornmeal, salt, baking soda, and baking powder in a medium bowl. Combine the buttermilk, egg, and 1/4 cup of the melted lard in a small bowl. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just to combine; do not overmix.
Move the skillet from the oven to the stove, placing it over high heat. Add the remaining tablespoon of melted lard and swirl to coat the skillet. Pour in the batter, distributing it evenly. It should sizzle.
Transfer the skillet back to the oven and bake the cornbread for about 15 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm, directly from the skillet.
Rendered Fresh Lard
Makes about 1 1/2 cups
1 pound fresh pork fat, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup water
Combine the pork fat and water in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until all the fat has rendered and the water has completely evaporated, about 1 1/2 hours.
Strain the fat through a fine-mesh sieve into a heatproof container. Discard the browned bits in the sieve. Cool to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate until ready to use. Tightly covered, the lard will keep for up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator.
Excerpted from South by Sean Brock (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2019.
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