August 27, 2018

Understanding the delicious versatility of cornbread

Cornbread is a truly ancient dish, a food originally made in a wide variety of forms by Native Americans across the country long before Europeans arrived and the Columbian exchange brought corn to other parts of the world. The many preparations that changed from tribe to tribe and region to region meant a wide range of preparations and finished products. Beyond being a quick bread – meaning it isn’t leavened with yeast or eggs – made from cornmeal, there was no single, set recipe.

The versatility of cornbread continues to this day, with sweet and savory varieties prepared as everything from muffins to the deep-fried hush puppy. Boulder pastry arts students should understand the depth of variety this very basic dish offers in everything from breakfast to dessert.

A skillet with wedges of cornbread inside.Skillet cornbread is often, but not always, made in the more savory Southern style.

Exploring savory cornbread recipes

Savory cornbreads traditionally have little or no sugar or flour in their recipes and are somewhat denser than the sweeter preparations. However, in the modern world of fusion cooking, there are many exceptions. This type of cornbread is most common in the Southern U.S. but can be seen across the country. As a quick bread, it doesn’t take much time to bake, and can even be fried in a skillet instead of baked. Of course, it can be baked in a skillet, too.

Traditional Southern cornbread

A traditional example of this dish, from Alabama chef Frank Stitt and Williams-Sonoma, features three key ingredients to a Southern-style cornbread. The bacon fat, buttermilk and cornmeal combine to create a savory, crispy crusted treat that can be eaten with everything from chili con carne to barbeque. You can even eat this cornbread alongside a glass of buttermilk and dunk it in, although that’s more of an acquired taste.

The keys to this recipe are rendering the bacon fat and keeping it at a high heat before adding it to the batter, and making the skillet or pan very hot before adding the batter. This approach helps create the crispy crust that adds so much to the dish.

Crackling bread

Cracklings are another name for pork rinds, pieces of pork skin roasted or fried in fat. Mixing them with a Southern-style cornbread yields an especially savory treat. This recipe from Louisiana Cookin’ adds additional layers of flavor by incorporating red bell and jalapeno peppers and whole corn kernels. This treat will never be mistaken for the sweet, cakey variety of cornbread.

Sweet cornbread has its place

Sweeter, lighter cornbreads can fill a variety of roles. Featuring more flour and sugar, they aren’t quite as heavy as their savory counterparts. Breakfast is one of the meals that’s often served with sweet options, and cornbread can be just such a treat.

Cornbread muffins

With a 50-50 mix of flour and cornmeal and sweetened with sugar and honey, these corn muffins from Food Network are a classic example of the sweeter cornbread found in areas outside the South and Southwest. Delicious while still warm and topped with a pat of butter, these treats are also a filling snack while on the move or as an appetizer for a variety of lunch and dinner dishes.

Cornbread cake with a sweet, salty frosting

This offering from The Cozy Apron blurs the line between bread and cake. Using just a half-cup of cornmeal and more flour and sugar, the end result is taller and lighter but still structurally sound. The salted honey butter frosting completes the dessert, pushing squarely into the sweet category and proving the truly impressive versatility of cornbread.