Old-Fashioned Skillet Cornbread

July 09, 2011
By Holly Jennings


When cookbook author Crescent Dragonwagon ran an inn and restaurant in Arkansas, her skillet-sizzled cornbread was a favorite menu item of hers and her customers. Clearly cornbread is important to her. After writing Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread: A Country Inn Cookbook, she went on to write The Cornbread Gospels; she also likes to feed cornbread to her parrots. So I was prepared to take her cornbread making advice seriously, including her rationale for adding some sugar, at least a little, to the batter. Though I grew up mostly in the North, the cornbread I ate was prepared by my Tennessean grandmother, who had migrated north when she was a young woman. Her skillet cornbread was made with 100-percent cornmeal, making it a bit dry and crumbly, and was sugar-free. Grandma emphatically denounced cornbread made with sugar, and, until now, I too had made it without sugar.


Grandma would probably say “hogwash” on hearing Crescent Dragonwagon’s sugar thesis, but I found it compelling. Crescent says that very freshly ground cornmeal (the day of or after its grinding) is naturally sweet. She thinks that if you’re using cornmeal older than that, which is likely, that a little sugar should be added. What sealed the sugar debate for Crescent was a comment made by Mrs. Clark, one of the local regulars at her restaurant: “Now, to be any good, cornbread should be just a little sweet. Just about as sweet as good sweet fresh corn, right from the garden.” So, I relented. I added a little sugar, but very little. Just enough to round out the flavor, but not to be detectable. I think if I made this cornbread for Grandma, she would accept it as true, old-fashioned Southern cornbread.


(Adapted from Crescent Dragonwagon’s recipe for Old-Fashioned Cornbread in Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread.)


2 tablespoons bacon fat
2 cups stone-ground yellow cornmeal (medium grind)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1½ cups buttermilk
1 large egg
½ teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons neutral-flavored oil


  1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. As soon as the oven has come to temperature, place the bacon fat in an 8-inch cast-iron skillet and place in the oven.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. Mix well.
  3. In a small bowl, stir the baking soda into the buttermilk.
  4. In another bowl, whisk together the egg, sugar, and oil, then whisk in the buttermilk.
  5. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir together until just combined.
  6. When the cast-iron skillet and fat is smoking hot (it will take about 10 minutes), remove the skillet from the oven and very carefully tilt the skillet to make sure the sides are coated. Pour most of the fat into the batter. Quickly stir the batter to combine and immediately pour the batter into the hot skillet. Smooth the top with a spatula and immediately put in the oven. Reduce the oven temperature to 400°F and bake until golden brown and crusty around the edges, about 30 minutes. Cut into wedges to serve. Makes an 8-inch cornbread


Next Day Cornbread Tip from Grandma

The best way to eat day-old cornbread, or any cornbread that’s not piping hot from the skillet, is to cut a slice in half, generously butter the halves with softened, room temperature butter, and toast under a broiler until the butter is melted and the edges crusty. I like cornbread this way better than fresh.

6 Comments to “Old-Fashioned Skillet Cornbread”

  1. Holly, Try making it with nextamalized masa harina — makes it much healthier for you as well as tastier. I can’t understand why anyone uses regular cornmeal for anything. I talked about it at http://thriceshy.blogspot.com/search?q=masa+harina

  2. Sharon, that’s a great idea. Thank you. I have some masa harina–leftover from doing The Art of Mexican Cooking. I’m going to try it.

  3. Sandra says:

    Holly, what do you think will be different if I substitute butter as the fat? (Unlike you, unfortunately, I have no homemade lard available!)

  4. Sorry for a slow response, Sandra. Been traveling. You can definitely use butter. Some recipes I looked at called for butter, but those had you heat the butter in the skillet on the stovetop, add the batter, and then place the skillet in the preheated oven. I think this may be because butter will burn sooner than other fats–unless you use ghee! But that would add a whole ‘nother dimension. I suppose you can keep a closer eye on how hot the butter is getting on the stovetop than in the oven and are less likely to burn it. Let me know if you try it with butter and how it goes.

  5. Louanne Headrick says:

    I certainly was interested in each segment of this colorful and informative blog and I really enjoyed the relaxed and cheerful slant of the writer. However, in regard to butter in the skillet for cornbread, one will loose the crustiness using butter. The extreme temperature that can be reached using the bacon fat, in comparison, is the secret of crusty on the outside but moist on the inside, fabulous cornbread. You might try dropping in some fresh kernels of corn or some bits of browned sausage for a different effect. I agree with a wisp of sugur. Creativity abounds in kitchens around the world and most certainly in those involved with the Cook Book Club…………. Louanne Headrick

  6. You’re right about the butter. The person that asked about using butter is a vegetarian–thus the question. So a better reply on my part would have been to suggest using cooking oil in the skillet that can handle high heat, like Canola or even peanut oil, and then follow the recipe as written. And if a little butter flavor is desired, some melted butter could be added to the batter instead of the amount of vegetable oil that is currently called for. Thanks for your comment. It made me think this through more fully—the goal being, crispy cornbread for vegetarians. And they can enjoy your suggestion of adding whole corn kernels to the batter.


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