CAN A MODERN INNOVATION CREATE A RECIPE THAT PLEASES THE WHOLE COUNTRY?
Deeply rooted in American history, cornbread has been around long enough to take on a distinctly different character depending on where it is made. In the South, cornbread is a decidedly savory skillet bread served with everything from a pot of greens to barbecue. It’s often quite squat and has a pleasantly crumbly texture. In the North, cornbread is more cake than bread and has a light and fluffy crumb. And Northern cornbread is generously sweetened.
Despite these regional variations in texture and appearance, cornbread has one constant: It lacks convincing corn flavor. Southern versions, with more cornmeal than flour, are certainly more corn-y than Northern recipes that usually reverse the ratio of these two key ingredients. But even Southern recipes with little or no flour taste more like cornmeal than corn. If we could create a truly corny cornbread would regional partisans come together over one great bread?
The solution would seem obvious—just stir in some fresh corn kernels. But nubby bits of corn bake up tough and chewy and don’t impart much flavor. Our recipe starts with convenient frozen corn and then purees it with the liquid elements, in effect creating “corn milk” to moisten the batter. This simple change is a revelation. Our cornbread tastes like fresh corn and it’s sweet but not sugary.
Many cooks don’t own a cast-iron skillet so we developed a recipe that relies on a baking dish but still yields a browned crust. As for the crumb, we decided to build a recipe with a fluffy but not cakey texture. And we add enough sweetener to reinforce the sweet corn flavor without pushing cornbread into the dessert category. It’s hard to make a classic recipe that pleases everyone, but you can try.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Choose the Right Cornmeal
Cornmeal comes in a variety of textures. For consistent results, we recommend using widely available Quaker yellow cornmeal. This isn’t the most flavorful option at the supermarket but that’s OK since it’s not the primary source of corn flavor. Perhaps just as important, Quaker is ground fine. Coarse cornmeal can give cornbread an unappealing gritty texture. A ratio of 3 parts flour to 2 parts cornmeal ensures a fluffy texture.
The Cold Secret
Corn kernels are the key to big corn flavor. While fresh corn is best, frozen is nearly as good—and a lot easier to use. Pureeing the thawed kernels in a food processor releases their full flavor while breaking down the tough, chewy kernels. We prefer the tang of buttermilk to regular milk in this recipe. (You can add lemon juice to regular milk to make a close approximation.)
Sugar and Soda
White granulated sugar makes good cornbread but using brown sugar instead adds mellow molasses flavor without too much sweetness and accentuates the corn flavor. Using a little baking soda with the baking powder makes for a fluffy but not too cakey crumb, plus the baking soda helps promote browning.
Streaks of Butter
Gently folding melted butter into the assembled batter leaves subtle streaks of unmixed butter that rise to the surface and create a more deeply browned top crust and stronger butter flavor.
Use a Hot Oven
In lieu of a hot skillet, a baking dish can yield a thick crust, especially if you use a glass pan (the glass heats quickly and conducts heat better than metal). Baking the bread at a higher than conventional temperature produces a crust that is crunchy and full of buttery, toasted corn flavor.
Starting this recipe in a food processor guarantees big corn flavor.
- 15 minutes to mix batter
- 30 minutes to bake cornbread
- 20 minutes to cool (in and out of pan)
- 8-inch baking dish (We prefer a glass baking dish because it yields a nice golden-brown crust, but a metal baking pan will also work.)
Substitutions & Variations
- When corn is in season, fresh cooked kernels can be substituted for the frozen corn.
- If necessary, the buttermilk can be replaced with a mixture of 1 cup whole or low-fat milk and 1 tablespoon lemon juice or distilled white vinegar.
- Delicious on its own, cornbread is even better with Whipped Honey Butter. Beat 8 tablespoons room-temperature unsalted butter in stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment at medium speed until smooth, about 30 seconds. Add 1 tablespoon honey and pinch salt and mix until combined, about 15 seconds. Increase speed to high and whip until very light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping down bowl as needed.
Before preparing the baking dish or any of the other ingredients, measure out the frozen kernels and let them stand at room temperature until needed. This recipe was developed with Quaker yellow cornmeal; a stone-ground whole-grain cornmeal will work but will yield a drier and less tender cornbread.
- 1½ cups (7½ ounces) all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (5 ounces) cornmeal
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup packed (1¾ ounces) light brown sugar
- ¾ cup frozen corn, thawed
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 large eggs
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
- Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Spray 8-inch square baking dish with vegetable oil spray. Whisk flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl until combined; set aside.
- In food processor or blender, process brown sugar, corn kernels, and buttermilk until combined, about 5 seconds. Add eggs and process until well combined (corn lumps will remain), about 5 seconds longer.
- Using rubber spatula, make well in center of dry ingredients; pour wet ingredients into well. Begin folding dry ingredients into wet, giving mixture only a few turns to barely combine. Add melted butter and continue folding until dry ingredients are just moistened. Pour batter into prepared baking dish and smooth surface with rubber spatula.
- Bake until cornbread is deep golden brown and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 25 to 35 minutes. Let cool on wire rack for 10 minutes, then invert onto wire rack, and turn right side up and let cool until warm, about 10 minutes longer, and serve. (Leftover cornbread can be wrapped in aluminum foil and reheated in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes.)
BLUEBERRY BREAKFAST CORNBREAD
Reduce salt to ½ teaspoon. Reduce buttermilk to ¾ cup and add ¼ cup maple syrup to food processor along with buttermilk in step 2. Add 1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries with melted butter in step 3. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons granulated sugar over batter in baking dish just before baking.
SPICY JALAPEñO-CHEDDAR CORNBREAD
Reduce salt to ½ teaspoon. Add ⅜ teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 finely chopped jalapeño chile, and ½ cup shredded cheddar cheese to flour mixture and toss well to combine. Reduce brown sugar to 2 tablespoons and sprinkle ½ cup shredded cheddar cheese over batter in dish just before baking.
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