*: “Perfect” in this case is a relative term – perfect for me, right now. There’s space for variation to maybe make it perfect for you.
**: This goes beyond a simple recipe.
I bought my first cast iron skillet, a big deep 12 inch standard one, in the summer of 1998 at a Crate and Barrel, after having been unable to find them in any other stores here in the Chicago area. Then the following year, I found a three-skillet set at Target and got that too. After a few attempts at the best ways of seasoning and maintenance, I finally got the rhythm going of how to cook, clean, and care for my cast iron cookware. My cleaning technique was actually discovered on a camping trip where we used salt/sugar to scour a pan, thinking of how cowboys used dry sand to clean their cast iron skillets in past. So at home I started to use hot water and kosher salt to scrub my cast iron skillet, keeping it shiny and clean but also delicious. I fry chicken, make bacon, and cook eggs. I saute veggie hashes, cook rice, and steam spinach. And, of course, I make cornbread in it (and it’s offspring, cornbread dressing).
I am picky about my cornbread. It must crumble, but not explode dry bits all over my lap. Savory, with a tiny bit of sweetness and maybe a nearly imperceptible hint of spice. I don’t want it to be like cake. I will accept bits of corn, but feel no need to go through such lengths when I make it at home. Once a year I like jalapenos in it, but that’s it. I like a basic, simple framework of cornbread that can be made quickly, from memory, and with staple ingredients that are almost always on hand in the kitchen.
In the beginning I simply used the box of Jiffy corn meal mix. It was slightly too close to the side of sweet and cakey spectrum for me, but not unreasonably so, and worth it for the ease of prep and the price — at one point I could find the little blue boxes on sale for 5 for $1.00. But after a few years, it nagged at me. The cornbread was fine, but it wasn’t delicious, melt in your mouth, taste of home, something that would make you groan just a little when you take a bite. And it felt somehow I bit morally wrong to make cornbread from a box and not from scratch, or at the very least a vague disservice to my southern heritage. There were a couple hurdles to overcome, which have proved critical to The Perfect Cornbread Technique (PCT).
The cornbread of my childhood is made from yellow cornmeal mix. This means yellow corn meal plus flour and baking soda, usually. In Chicago, there are two items on the shelves at grocery stores: yellow cornmeal and buttermilk cornmeal mix. I’m not into the buttermilk thing. We never had buttermilk in the house growing up, I don’t even know what to do with it, even though many southern style things seem to bank on it (biscuits, fried chicken). So, ok, I will buy plain yellow cornmeal and figure out the right flour/soda proportions to add and make it just like cornmeal mix. Except I never could. It would taste okay, but not right. These were my first attempts in experiments, and this is a terrible way to begin, it derailed the operation for years, because the success levels vary wildly and it’s easy to get demoralized. So I changed my technique, and instead I started to shop for big bags of yellow cornmeal mix while visiting other parts of the country and bringing it back as a souvenir. I prefer Martha White or Aunt Jemima, but I’m open to trying all varieties. One word of caution with this method: last year I brought home two 5 lb bags from Nashville in the spring, right before summertime when I don’t bake as often. Also, TWO bags. I am one person who loves cornbread, but damn, I don’t make/eat it that much. By the fall, one of the bags had fallen to mealworms and the second bag is starting to approach flatness. I have used flat flour when baking and no matter how you think it won’t be noticeable, it always is, mostly in taste. Learn the lesson from me: make room in the freezer for your cornmeal mix.
I’ve already mentioned the cast iron skillets, except those plain round pans are merely just OK for cornbread. I wanted the Perfect Cornbread, which means I need more crust. I wanted the wedge pan. And the cornstick pan. At a Lodge outlet near the Wisconsin/Illinois border, I finally made the dreams come true. These pans come “preseasoned” supposedly, but with what, I have no idea, I always scour them down and do it myself. On the day before making the PC, I gave these two pans so much love and an hour of my time to properly season them, using the steel wool to get them back down to the metal, using salt scrubs and fingers to get every remnant out of every corner, then slathering on oil and treating them in the oven. They came out shiny and ready. If you can’t make cornbread in a well-seasoned, non-sticking cast iron skillet, then don’t even bother. Ok, actually, just go ahead and use a nonstick square pan, it’s fine.
So! Here’s the recipe itself, culled from the backs of packages, phone conversation with Mom, discussions with baker friends, and my own experimental knowledge.
Raymond’s Perfect Cornbread
1. Turn on oven to 450 deg.
2. Take a 1+ tbsp of butter and slather it generously all over the cornstick pan and the wedge pan, making sure to get into every corner and nook. This is beyond a cake pan greasing, you should see a few bits of butter and the pans should shine gloriously as a result of the butter bath. Then put both pans into the oven, on a rack one notch above center (my oven heats from the bottom, if it heated from the top, I’d probably put it more center).
3. In a rubber bowl with a handle, combine:
1+ tbsp of softened butter
lightly beat these two things together with rubber spatula.
4. Then add:
1 1/2 cups of yellow cornmeal mix
1 cup of flour
a few shakes of Secret Ingredient (i.e., something salty. This can be salt, if you’re doing standard cornbread. It could also be a few dashes of Emeril Essence (my favorite), Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, e.g.. This could also be where you get crazy and add cinnamon or jalapenos or whatever else the kids do these days to their cornbread.)
5. Stir it up, like Patti Labelle. And then this is where it gets tricky to explain:
Add milk (skim).
I don’t know how much.
Seriously, this is one of the breakthroughs I had with my mom on the phone, because she told me she just adds to sight, and I suddenly realized, all this time in my quest, I ignored my basic sense of sight and how cornbread batter is supposed to look. I’d been relying on the recipe proportions to work, without me just grabbing the jug of milk and making it happen the way I wanted. So, I think it’s maybe in the realm of a 1 cup of milk? But seriously, I add a few splashes, stir, add a few more splashes, stir, until it looks how I want. This is why I am not a recipe cook, I am an experiential cook, so I apologize to recipe cooks out there who are flummoxed, but it should be like really thick pancake batter. Not absolutely smooth, but no visible dry ingredients either. Thinner than muffin batter, but in the same ballpark. I use the rubber handled bowl because I will eventually pick it up and pour the cornbread batter into the cast iron skilets, so if your batter isn’t pourable, add more milk. It shouldn’t be TOO thin though, and if you go too far, just sprinkle some more cornmeal in to soak it up, but really, despite this being baking, I found this step to be less reliant on science, so don’t sweat it too much. Just aim for the realm of thick pancake batter and you should be okay.
6. Remove skillets from oven (ideally they should be pretty damn hot), pour batter into the wedges and cornsticks and listen to the sizzle of it hitting the hot butter in the pan. This means a yummy brown crust is going to form on the bottom.
7. Bake it awhile. See, I’m terrible at recipes. 10ish minutes? 15? Not super long. The thing with cornbread is I’m always making it while cooking the main meal, so I just pull open the oven after 5 minutes and assess the situation periodically. I like it to be nicely warm yellow on the top and a camel brown on the bottom. And if the pan is properly treated and buttered, they wouldn’t stick a bit, you can flip them out easily with your fingers (if you have teflon hands like me). Slice the wedge in half and add a touch of margarine. Ok, butter, I guess, but really, I prefer to butter my bread with margarine because it’s saltier and melts perfectly. Just get the smart balance kind then your heart won’t explode.
Congratulations, you are now eating Perfect Cornbread.