Southern Skillet Cornbread

I grew up in the South, far from the brisk fall weather and seasonal crops we enjoy here in the Midwest, where corn is king.

And yet, corn was on most of the menus from my childhood. My culinary roots lie in the messy Virginia and North Carolina kitchens of my grandmother and mother. These women wielded rolling pins and cast-iron skillets and churned out epically large meals. Dinner—or “supper”—was made up of a meat, two sides, salad or sliced tomatoes and bread. The formula didn’t vary. And neither did the bread—it was always cornbread.

Southerners have been inventive and prolific in their use of corn in dishes like grits (made from coarsely ground kernels), hominy, corn relish and succotash, but none is so beloved as cornbread. Cornbread falls on the Southern food pyramid somewhere between chicken-fried anything and sweet tea.

Southern cornbread is crispy, crunchy and grainy. It’s different from other iterations as it is most frequently fried flat in a skillet. There is no rise, no cake, no cloying sweetness. It is served buttered or crumbled into soups and stews.

Here in Illinois, being squarely situated in the “corn belt,” we’ve got plenty of fresh corn for cooking. I’ve updated my mother’s recipe below by making use of the Midwest’s bounty and including fresh corn in the batter. When buying fresh corn, no need to peel back the husk; instead feel each ear for even, plump kernels. Look for husks that are bright green, not brown or yellow. You want ears that have a lot of sticky golden silk coming from the top; avoid ears with black or dry silk. If you’re not going to prepare your corn right away, store it in the refrigerator with the husk still on.

Southern Skillet Cornbread
Makes 10 corn cakes

  • 3/4 cup plus 4 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus more for cooking
  • 2/3 cup whole milk
  • Kernels from one fresh ear of corn (about 1/2 cup)

Directions:

1. Mix the first three dry ingredients in large bowl.

2. Add egg, oil and milk and stir. Mix should be slightly thicker than pancake batter.

3. Add kernels and stir gently until just combined.

4. Heat skillet to medium high heat and add enough oil to lightly coat bottom of pan.

5. Once oil is heated through (will “spit” when you add a drop of water), turn down to medium heat.

6. Add scant 1/3 cup dollops of cornbread batter to pan and fry until edges bubble. Check underside to make sure not burning. Flip cornbread cakes. Cook about 2 minutes per side.

7. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels.

8. Add oil to pan, and wait until heated, then start next batch.

9. Cornbread best served warm fresh out of skillet. If you have leftovers, wrap them in paper towels and store them in your refrigerator and reheat in microwave.

Serving Suggestions: Try cornbread with sour cream and fresh tomatoes; sweeten it up by topping with applesauce or cinnamon/brown sugar butter; bring into the main course by serving shrimp or fish on top.

Tip: When cutting corn off the cob, first cut cob in half and place each flat end on cutting board for more stability; cut straight down from the top to shave off the kernels.

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Creative toppings for corn on the cob:

  • Squeeze lime wedges onto hot, salted corn instead of the usual butter slather; if you like a kick, add a sprinkle of cayenne pepper.
  • Try brushing corn with olive oil and sprinkling freshly grated parmesan cheese.
  • After coating cobs with butter, add a mixture of cinnamon and sugar for a sweet twist.
  • Smear your favorite pesto or guacamole onto corn on the cob.
  • Make herb butter with combinations of fresh sage and rosemary or basil and cilantro. Mix finely-chopped herbs into softened butter before spreading on corn.
  • Spiral wrap raw corn on the cob with bacon slices then brush lightly with honey or maple syrup before grilling or roasting for 20-25 minutes.

Tip: When boiling corn on the cob, don’t add salt to the water as it may toughen corn; try a pinch of sugar or a splash of milk for enhanced sweetness.