Although their ingredient lists may look similar, the cornbreads of the North and South are as different as Boston and Birmingham. For one thing, white is the cornmeal of choice in Southern-style cornbread. But a few blind taste tests proved that yellow cornmeal, the choice of Northern cornbread lovers, provided more potent corn flavor.
But one concession we couldn’t make was the classic Southern cornbread cooking vessel: a scorching hot, greased cast-iron skillet, which gives it a seriously crunchy, golden crust. Using a combination of oil and butter for greasing the pan (as well as in the batter) strikes the perfect balance of smoke point and flavor—the oil can be heated in the skillet to a high temperature without burning, while the butter adds good flavor.
HOW TO MAKE SOUTHERN-STYLE SKILLET CORNBREAD
1. Preheat the skillet: Heat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet on the middle rack of a 450-degree oven until it is hot, about 10 minutes. If you don’t preheat the pan, the crust of the bread will be soft and pale rather than brown and crunchy.
2. Toast the cornmeal: Toast the cornmeal in the oven (while the skillet is heating up) until it is fragrant and lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Toasting the cornmeal before making the batter deepens its flavor dramatically.
3. Soften the toasted cornmeal with buttermilk: Mix the warm toasted cornmeal with the buttermilk and let it sit for a few minutes to soften before making the batter. If you skip this step, the cornmeal will retain its hard, crunchy texture in the finished bread.
4. Use oil and butter: Add the oil to the hot skillet and continue to heat in the oven until just smoking. When the oil is hot, carefully swirl in the butter to melt. Most of this hot fat is added to the batter, but some of it is left in the pan to ensure a crisp crust and flawless release of the bread after it’s baked. The combination of oil and butter is great because the oil can get very hot without burning, while the butter adds good flavor.
5. Add the batter while the skillet is hot: The hot skillet is what gives this bread its crunchy crust, so don’t let it cool off before adding the batter. Bake the cornbread until the top begins to crack and the sides are golden brown, 12 to 16 minutes, rotating the bread halfway through baking.
6. Cool the bread in the skillet, then flip it out: When removing the cornbread from the oven, use good potholders because the skillet is heavy and the handle will be very hot. Let the bread cool in the skillet for 5 minutes, then flip it out onto a wire rack. If you try to flip the bread out before cooling, it will crumble apart.
Want to try it for yourself? Check out our recipe for Southern-Style Skillet Cornbread for free through October 15.