Southern-style cornbread is a controversial topic, and it’s guaranteed that I’ll have a few rocks thrown at me for my take on it.
There’s an almost puritanical point of view that says cornbread never has sugar or flour in it. My grandparents that were descended from migrants from Tennessee made that kind of cornbread.
The Arkansas side of my family used flour and a touch of sugar. This is the kind of cornbread my mother made. At least most of the time.
It’s the kind that I like.
I question whether the people that originally made their cornbread with no sugar ate cornmeal that had been sitting on a grocery store shelf for weeks or if it was primarily from freshly milled cornmeal.
As milled corn ages, its flavor deteriorates, and it takes on a mildly sour taste. I think sugar started getting introduced into cornbread as industrialization started separating people from their food sources.
I love freshly milled cornmeal, but it’s expensive, and the closest small mill is hundreds of miles from me. I have to pay even more for shipping.
I’m certainly not going to mill it myself.
Don’t get me wrong; I won’t have anything to do with old, cheap cornmeal from the grocery store. I’ve chosen the middle-ground of ordering quality stone-ground cornmeal from Amazon (it has free shipping), but it’s still not as fresh as having it milled to order.
A couple of tablespoons of sugar helps give it some balance and brightens up the corn flavor without turning it into corn cake.
- Learn about whether or not sugar was included in traditional Southern cornbread.
I’d guess that if somebody living in the South two-hundred years ago wound up with what passes for cornmeal on a modern American grocery store shelf, they’d put some sugar in it too.
That, or they’d feed it to their pigs.
With all that being said, if you like a lot of sugar in your cornbread, by all means, put it in there. Jiffy Brand Cornbread Mix has been a tradition in the South forever, and it’s sweeter than what I normally eat.
Eat what you like. Tradition isn’t a prison.
Cornbread and beans are magic together. Try one of these bean recipes with a slab of homemade cornbread in it:
- 2 cups yellow cornmeal
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tbsp. sugar
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tbsp. kosher salt
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 2 large eggs
- 1 stick butter - softened to room temp. (leave out overnight)
- 2 1/2 cups buttermilk
- 1 tbsp. shortening
- additional butter - for serving
- Place your cast-iron skillet in the middle rack in your oven and preheat to 400 degrees.
- In a large bowl, thoroughly whisk all of your dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, gently whisk the eggs, then add the butter and buttermilk and whisk together.
- Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir with a wooden spoon until all ingredients are wet. Do not overwork. That'll make your cornbread dense. A few clumps are okay.
- Carefully remove your skillet from the oven and add the shortening. Swirl until melted.
- Pour in the batter. It'll make a sizzling sound as it makes contact with the pan. Gently level the top, then place back in the oven. Bake for 25-35 minutes, until a toothpick poked into the center comes out clean.
You’re right—Tennessee cornbread taught to me by granny, born 1900, and mom, born 1930, has 4 ingredients….lard, cornmeal, egg, and buttermilk.
Cory Doggett says
Cornbread is an interesting thing and I think it really boils down to family recipes more than anything else.
Historically, sugar is found in some recipes and not in others.
Below is a link to the Dixie Cookbook, published in 1885, a popular Southern cookbook of the time. Lot of home cooks learned from it.
Quite a few cornbread recipes in it had sugar. Only one recipe without sugar. A recipe they called “Plain Corn Bread.”
Guessing people back then were arguing over whether or not sugar should be in their corbread.