Cornbread: Baked Good or Religious Denomination?

Well, it’s that time of year, and “cornbread” seems to be the topic of friendly but intense argument in the blogosphere in 2021. It ranks up there with “dressing or stuffing” among Americans from certain regions as a topic that can be – and is – argued with religious fervor.

A note for my readers from outside the US and Canada, at least those who have not encountered this particular dish before. What Americans call cornbread is made from ground maize. It is rarely eaten outside North America, as best I can tell. The grind of the grain is different from that used for polenta, and the grain is not treated the way maize used for tortilla flour is processed before grinding. The resulting baked good does not rise like wheat bread, and is more crumbly because of the lower gluten content. However, it is a native food, and in some parts of the country, was (or is) the main starch that accompanies many meals. So cornbread is yellow, low-rising, and generally crumbly. You can’t slice it the way you do wheat breads. But we love it anyway.

When you start asking people about family cornbread recipes, the line falls on “sugar in the dough” and “no sugar in the dough.” Some people will allow a little wheat flour and baking powder added in, others add egg, there’s “rye-n-Injun” which is a rye-cornmeal bread, and others prefer fried cornbread to baked cornbread. All discussion of those topics seems to pale when compared with the intensity and fervor that accompanies “with sugar or without?”

Purists insist that “bread” means “no sugar.” Unlike wheat breads, where the sugar helps encourage the yeasts to do their thing and cause the dough to rise, or sweetened breads that are supposed to have sugar (or honey, or molasses, or . . . ) cornbread does not need yeast-food. The chemistry doesn’t require sugars. Hot-water cornbread, the ne plus ultra of minimalist cornbread has nothing but very hot water, cornmeal, shortening (lard, bacon-grease, or vegetable shortening) and salt. It can be baked or fried. Cornbread is for workin’ folks, farm folks, it’s not fancy. Light-bread is fancy, and for special occasions only. Cornbread is what you eat to fill the hole when you start running out of bacon or salt-pork to go with the beans and collards (or turnip greens). Or the New England version thereof, because New Englanders leaned on cornbread for quite a while, back when.

Other people add a pinch of sugar, just because. The result should not be sweet. Others make a sweet cornbread, just like some people add canned corn to the mix, or cheese, or jalapenos, or other things. Flour can make a soft, not-crumbly cornbread, more of a fluffy quick bread with corn in it. But that’s not “real cornbread.” One of the blogs I frequent almost had a knives-out argument recently over sugar or no sugar. This is a place where we can talk religion, politics, handgun caliber, domestic or imported motorcycle, you name it (other than cornbread) without resorting to violence. Cornbread . . . is a sensitive topic among a group of Southerners, or at least people who grew up on “poverty food.”

At RedQuarters, we add a bit of sugar.

1 cup yellow corn meal

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour (not self-rising)

1/4 C. sugar (can be omitted. We leave it in.)

1/2 tsp salt

4 tsp baking powder.

1 egg

1 C. milk

1/4 C shortening.

Preheat oven to 425 F.

Sift together the dry ingredients. Add egg, milk, and shortening. Beat until smooth. Bake in greased 8″ square pan in a hot oven for 20-25 minutes. Best served warm with butter and honey, or molasses, or sorghum syrup, or apple butter. Or served with butter to go with something that has a sauce that needs to be sopped up (collards, turnip greens, bean soup . . .)

To me, it does not taste sweet.

Note: this recipe does not keep well. It goes rancid in as few as three days if you do not eat all of it, refrigerate it, or use it in other things (dressing for the turkey/duck/goose/ham).

Edited to add:

“Jiffy” is a brand of cornmeal with flour and other things pre-mixed in. It’s like Bisquick™ for rolls, pancakes, and biscuits, except you use “Jiffy” for cornmeal-based baking.

A “chub” of sausage is the small, blunt-ended cylinder of ground sausage (breakfast sausage), usually packed in a soft wrapper so you can either trim off the end and squeeze the sausage out like toothpaste into a bowl or pan, or you can use a sharp knife, cut the chub into slices, and remove the wrapper from each slice. Then you have home-made, thick, sausage patties.

27 thoughts on “Cornbread: Baked Good or Religious Denomination?

  1. I’ve suffered in the cornbread wars but I’ve never understood them It really comes down to the cornmeal. If it’s freshly milled it will be mildly sweet without added sugar; if it’s been sitting for months on the grocery shelf it will need some help. Why can’t we all get along?

  2. Corn Cake Muffins
    1 pkg cake mix
    2 pkg Jiffy
    1 pkg instant pudding
    6 eggs
    1/2 cup oil
    2 cups milk
    Blend for 2 minutes. Bake in well-oiled muffin tins at 350 for 20 minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack.

  3. Possum’s Corn Bread
    1 pkg Jiffy
    3 eggs
    1 can creamed corn
    1 Tbsp Bisquick
    1 cup shredded cheese
    Mix thoroughly, then pour into a square baker. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes.

    Impossible Breakfast Pie
    Brown 1 chub of sausage, add mushrooms if desired.
    Spread evenly over bottom of square baker.
    Scatter 1/2 cup cheese over top.
    Pour Possum’s Corn Bread over, and spread to cover evenly.
    Bake at 350 for 45 minutes.

  4. Fah.
    Unless you choose to eat field corn instead of sweet corn (or supersweet corn), why wouldn’t you want your cornbread sweet?

    Yes to sugar, yes to flour, yes to baking powder, and to cooking on the range in a well-greased cast iron skillet (and flipping it into the air halfway through).

    It’s like cake, that’s savory as well as sweet. And you don’t have to wait for dessert to eat it.

    (And to the purists who sniff that this is “inauthentic”, it was a staple for my grandmother when she was running the Chuck Wagon on trail drives. Calories per ounce, sugar is hard to beat. Especially in rough conditions.)

  5. Corn Pudding
    1 jiffy mix
    1 egg
    1can each of whole and creamed corn undrained
    1/2 cup chopped onion
    Chopped green pepper to taste ( optional)
    Salt and black pepper to taste.
    Bake at 350 in greased casserole dish until firm.

  6. I will call them muffins instead of bread if it helps, but I like the Jiffy mix ones, which are definitely sweet, with lots of butter. I haven’t tried putting sweet things on unsweetened cornbread and in fact missed that that was a thing. Maybe I will.

  7. I’ve always used a bit of sugar in the cornbread… but I live in Tennessee now, and this might get me burned at the stake.
    Sugar or not, it’s much improved by using real cornmeal, made from ground-up whole kernels, preferably of one of the more flavorful varieties (as Luke noted: field corn). Now that I have a supply of such corn from this past summer, it’s time to set aside the store-boughten bland dry yellow stuff and break out the mill.

  8. A hundred years ago my grandmother and her aunt would fight over the sugar/no sugar question. This was in West Texas.
    And Jiffy is waaaay too sweet!

  9. I prefer non-sweet or minimally sweetened cornbread. The older I get, the less I enjoy the Jiffy-mix-type, very sweet cornbread.

    Also, cornbread is one of the only justifications, IMHO, for creamed sweetcorn. A can of that in the cornbread adds a lot of flavor, and helps to bind it together. I’m a fan.

    Cornbread is also a great thickener for soups, etc. If you grew up cutting bread into small cubes to add to soup, as I did, then crumbling cornbread into soup works just as well, and is very tasty.

    Finally, if you can get hold of some African-ground cornmeal (the yellow sort for preference, but white is also OK, as used for sadsa or putu [maize porridge, stiff enough to hold a fork or knife upright]), it makes great cornbread; but its larger grain size means it needs more binder to hold it together. A couple of eggs do well for that, or creamed corn.

  10. I was looking in the freezer for the last ham bone. Found it; ham and bean soup in the slow cooker, and thin cornbread slices with or in it.

    Enthusiastic agreement with Drak – great combination! Also Peter, as I like the minimal or unsweetend cornbread’s taste better.

  11. No sugar. Either straight cornmeal or cornmeal and rye or cornmeal and wheat.

    Jam/honey/maple syrup is added at the table and the diabetic and prediabetic glared at ferociously until they go without.

  12. Chili beans, cornbread (unsweetened and thin) and coleslaw. I got that combination every week at school lunch, hated it, and had to resort to tricks to get it down one miserable bite at a time. I wasn’t allowed to throw away food whether I liked it or not, My parents were raised in rural Arizona during World War II and after the Great Depression, and we had a large family which probably explains that quirk: Food was not to be wasted, and since my grandmother was one of the cooks in the cafeteria, she would have known and told on me if I did. My mother made her cornbread sweet and thick, and I liked it. It was my dad’s mother, not hers, in the cafeteria, and I don’t know who actually set the recipe there. My mother also used the same kind of cornmeal to make cornmeal mush, which was occasionally breakfast. We didn’t always have sugar to sweeten it, but it was still good enough without it. Masa Harina (corn flour) was for corn tortillas, and when we were younger, we made our own and had a tortilla press for it.

  13. Even within a region there are “religious” differences. My maternal Grandmother and her best friend/across the street neighbor (who was a 2nd or 3rd cousin, never quite clear) would discuss it heatedly (Grandma was too ladylike to argue 🙂 ) Grandma against, Eva (her friend) for tending to use blackstrap molasses. I will admit to being an apostate, I always liked it better with a touch of molasses, though certainly would have never refused Grandma’s (and she always had plenty of homemade jellies and preserves to put on it). Most local versions you get at restaurants seem way to sweet even to me, of course I’m 50+ years older now with a different palate. Both Grandma and Eva are long gone, so I can’t compare with the originals as both recipes were more by fell than measured.

  14. *grins*
    And we haven’t even gotten into the blackstrap molasses vs. sorghum syrup debate for what you put on your cornbread…

  15. First I went off wheat. I still ate cornbread.

    Then I went off corn, rice, etc.

    I particularly liked cornbread cooked with chunks of hot dog inside.

  16. My dad loved crumbled cornbread in buttermilk. Never made cornbread with sugar. That’s worse than heresy in Louisiana.

  17. Cornbread is great stuff.

    I liked cornbread so much when I was growing up that when Mom asked me what kind of cake I wanted for my approaching (single-digit) birthday, I passed on my usual choice of German Chocolate and asked for cornbread. That became the default for several years.

    Oh, and we used this one in school:

    Math teacher: “To figure the area of a circle use the formula Pi r square.”
    Bored boys who have been waiting for this moment, in unison: “Pie are not square. Pie are round. Cornbread are square.”
    Math teacher: falls over from violent eye rolling

  18. In Arkansas, the two main choices are “baked” or “boiled in grease.”

    I grew up eating “boiled in grease.” And after moving out on my own, I never had to eat it again.

    I’ll take baked, sweet, with japapenos.

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