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What is Cornbread?

A Kaminsky
Updated May 16, 2024
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Sometimes portrayed as a classic Southern food, cornbread is actually a true American food. There are as many variations on this quick bread made from cornmeal, eggs and oil, as there are people who make it. Recipes vary from region to region, although the basic ingredients remain the same.

Cornbread has its origins in the very earliest American history. Native Americans who grew corn were well acquainted with its versatility and used it for cakes, breads, and porridges. They shared their knowledge with the European settlers and corn became a staple food before wheat was established in the New World. The first breads settlers made with corn meal were baked in open hearths, sometimes on planks or other implements, and often called “ash cake.” As cooking methods improved, settlers started using their sturdy cast-iron skillets to bake the breads, known by such names as journey-cake, johnny cake, hoe-cakes, dodgers, spoon bread, and a variety of other appellations.

One of the great advantages of cornbread is that it keeps well and does not need to rise like yeast breads do. This was a big plus in frontier cooking. As it gradually became more widely consumed, variations on the recipe sprang up, depending on what the cook had on hand that day.

Regionally, people in the northern United States often preferred a sweet cornbread, flavored with molasses or sugar. Those in the southeast liked a more savory bread, often flavored with pork cracklings. This tradition still holds in many places, although Southerners also eat Mexican versions, with whole kernel corn, jalapenos, and sweet peppers in it. They rarely eat sweet recipes, however.

Cornbread was also popular on both sides of the fence during the Civil War. When it could be cooked properly, it was a favorite dish, but when supplies became scarce and the soldiers had to fend for themselves, they created “ramrod” versions. This was their ration of cornmeal, mixed with water and salt if they had any. The thick, pasty batter was then wrapped around the rifle ramrods in a spiral and cooked over their bivouac fires. It was tasteless and rock-hard, but it kept the soldiers alive.

This quick bread has become more popular in recent years, often appearing in cooking shows whose hosts are chefs from the South. It can be baked as a large cake in an iron skillet, as corn-shaped “pones” in an iron corn stick pan, as muffins in a muffin tin or on the range top as corn cakes, cooked much like pancakes. Some even bake it in glass casserole dishes, but these do not produce the desirable golden brown crust that cast iron does.

Rural people may eat this bread crumbled into a glass of milk or with syrup and butter. Although Southerners may pour syrup on it, they generally view sweet versions with a jaundiced eye. This bread is often served with garden vegetables, pinto beans, or black-eyed peas and is the basis for cornbread dressing, which is much more common in the South than stuffing. Variations include corn dodgers, dropped into the hot “pot liquor” left over from cooking turnip greens, and hush puppies, mixed with onion and deep fried.

Cornbread has become synonymous with Southern cooking, and indeed, Southerners do eat a lot of it. Recipes for many variations are available online or on the cornmeal bag. It is a versatile, delicious, quick bread and is surprisingly easy to make.

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A Kaminsky
By A Kaminsky
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at DelightedCooking. With experience in various roles and numerous articles under her belt, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers across various platforms on topics of all levels of complexity.

Discussion Comments

By amypollick — On Feb 28, 2013

@anon322646: Your dad may be thinking about hot water cornbread. It's fried on top of the stove.

A recipe I've had success with is:

2 cups self-rising cornmeal mix

1/4 cup buttermilk (or half and half)

1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

3/4 - 1 1/4 cups boiling water.

Combine cornmeal, milk and oil. Gradually add boiling water, stirring until the batter is the consistency of grits.

Fry in oil in an iron skillet until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.

Now, I generally use 2 eggs in my "regular" cornbread, but I don't use flour or sugar, and you can always use buttermilk in place of regular milk. Good luck!

By anon322646 — On Feb 28, 2013

Does anyone have a recipe for cornbread without eggs, flour and sugar? That's what my dad remembers his mamma making - using buttermilk. I'm trying to find one for him.

By giddion — On Dec 14, 2012

My mother used to get onto me for eating the crust off the cornbread. To me, the center was always too dry, and I often choked on the crumbs. However, the crust was perfectly brown and crisp.

She made it in a big iron skillet nearly every night. I had to wait until everyone had gotten their fill of cornbread before I could remove and eat the crust from what was left over.

At the beginning of the meal, I would get a regular size piece like everyone else, but I would only eat the edges and top. I treated the leftover crust like dessert, even though it wasn't sweet, because it was such a treat to me.

By OeKc05 — On Dec 13, 2012

Corn spoon bread is delicious! Many recipes make this a type of cheese cornbread, but my mother's recipe doesn't use cheese at all, and I love it.

I'm not sure what all is in it, but it is extremely moist. The middle has an almost pudding like texture, and I can taste the wonderful flavor of corn.

By seag47 — On Dec 12, 2012

@pleats – My dad has always crumbled cornbread in milk, too. I guess that is an old tradition.

I just can't stand the texture it takes on in the glass of milk. It almost reminds me of those lumps that spoiled milk gets when it's way past its expiration date!

I also don't like dipping my cornbread in the juices of whatever is on the plate. I've seen many of my family members do this, and to me, it just makes the texture gross. I don't want my bread soaked in black-eyed pea juice, because it starts to disintegrate and turns black!

By healthy4life — On Dec 12, 2012

I grew up eating savory cornbread in Mississippi. My husband is from New York, and he prefers it sweet.

I buy this cornbread mix that contains a little bit of sugar, and it is a good compromise. It doesn't taste like dessert or anything, but it is sweet enough to keep him happy.

It still tastes great with peas and beans. I eat it without butter, because it is already full of flavor.

By CopperPipe — On Oct 20, 2010

Can anybody post a really good, easy cornbread recipe here? After reading about this I would love to try it, but I have no idea how to even start making it.

Nothing fancy, because I'm not that great of a cook, but just the basics, if you can, would be nice.


By pleats — On Oct 20, 2010

Cornbread is definitely a prime comfort food. When I was little my grandmother used to make cornbread all the time, so much so that we usually couldn't finish it in one dinner.

The next day, when the cornbread was just slightly stale, we'd crumble it into milk -- talk about heaven!

The way that the milk mixes with the cornbread makes such a great snack, and it's especially good for eating in the middle of the afternoon in the summer.

I don't know if that's just our family thing or what, since I've never heard anybody else ever talk about doing that, but I sure love it.

By yournamehere — On Oct 20, 2010

I think that of all the foods in the world, cornbread would definitely be my desert island food.

I grew up in Western North Carolina, and we had cornbread at least twice a week -- on Sunday always, and usually along with dinner on another day of the week.

Of course, I'm talking about skillet cornbread -- not the instant Jiffy cornbread mix. My grandmother, and then my mom would make cornbread from scratch, which totally spoiled me as far as cornbread goes.

Of course I love cornbread stuffing and muffins too, but the classic cornbread with melted butter in the middle is my far and away favorite.

By mentirosa — On May 22, 2010

I never knew about corn bread, but I definitely knew about polenta. They are both delicious.

A Kaminsky

A Kaminsky

Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at DelightedCooking. With experience in various roles and numerous articles under her belt, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers across various platforms on topics of all levels of complexity.
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