As the weather gets cold and Thanksgiving comes around, cornbread becomes a popular dish on the table. In the South, it is a common side dish year-round. A little butter and honey on the cornbread makes it even better.
You don’t have to stop there. There are many different ways to make cornbread that affect the flavor, texture and final outcome — muffin tins, corn stick forms or cast-iron pans, just to name a few. Add some jalapeños, peaches, apples or cheese to liven the dish.
During the cooking process — with the addition of liquid and heat — the starch in ground corn gelatinizes, thickens and bonds to form the bread. While cornmeal is the main component, many cornbread recipes also contain flour. The same general process happens with the addition of flour, but the resulting cornbread has a less-grainy texture and much smoother finish.
Ground grains must be reconstituted for the starch to release and gelatinize. Water will get the job done, but won’t impart any flavor. Milk adds flavor as well as nutrients. Many other liquids can make the cornbread’s flavor unique. Buttermilk, yogurt or sour cream will give it tang. Applesauce or cheese — cream, ricotta or others — will change the composition for a different outcome.
Take care when measuring substitutions: too much liquid, and the cornbread won’t set, leaving it soggy and porridgelike; not enough liquid, and it will be dry, crumbly and still contain crunchy cornmeal.
The eggs in cornbread recipes serve a dual purpose. They bind the cornbread together and leaven it at the same time. Eggs are very hard to replace for these two purposes. Without eggs, cornbread tends to be very dense and crumbly.
In addition to eggs (they expand and coagulate when they cook), you need a secondary leavening agent. Cornbread is a “quick bread” so it uses chemical leavening such as baking soda or baking powder, as opposed to yeast. Some recipes may call for baking soda, which only needs moisture and acid to react and produce carbon dioxide to help the bread rise. Since it is an immediate reaction, the cornbread must be baked right away to trap the gas during the baking. If the bread is allowed to fall and then bake, you will have a firm cracker.
Baking powder comes in two types: single-acting and double-acting (double is the most common). Each type reacts with moisture and produces carbon dioxide. Double-acting baking powder also reacts with heat when the item is baked, helping it rise even more.
Cheese, jalapeños, bacon, corn kernels or sugar are all easy additions to cornbread. Take into account the fat and moisture content and tweak the other ingredients if needed. Warm, homemade cornbread is pretty hard to screw up completely, even if it is not the best. Slap some butter on it and maybe a little salt and you can fix about anything. When you are adjusting your recipe for the first time with an addition, take notes. How was the moisture content? Did it hold together well? Would one more egg have helped? This will help you come up with your own arsenal of distinct recipes that fit your flavor profile.
A 9-by-13-inch casserole pan is not the only thing in which you can bake cornbread. Many recipes may be written for this size but you can adjust to cook it in just about anything. If it is a larger pan that is making thinner bread, check it sooner. If necessary, turn up the heat to cook it faster without making it dry. If the bread is in a smaller pan, it will be thicker; lower the temperature and cook it longer. One of my favorite ways to cook cornbread is in a cast-iron pan. It normally takes a little longer — the pan has a smaller surface area and takes longer to heat up — but it creates a delicious dark and crunchy outer crust.
Cornbread is similar to most other quick breads. Use a cake tester or a toothpick to check the doneness. You don’t want any batter to stick but you don’t want it to cook until it dries out. Check it a few times. When the cake tester comes out nearly clean, let it cook a little longer then take it out of the oven. The center will continue to cook for a while from the residual heat in the pan and the outer bread.
This is what sets the amateurs apart from the pros. Butter is great but there are a few things you need to learn before taking the next step. No one likes to spread cold butter on cornbread. It crumbles, doesn’t taste as good cold, and causes a mess. Compound butter is the next step.
Bring the butter to room temperature slowly (if you warm it too quickly, it will melt and separate). Mix in the main flavoring component (honey, molasses, jalapeños, apple butter — just about anything you can think of). Season it. You’ll almost always need salt and pepper, but beyond that will depend on your preferences. Taste and season again, if needed. It is best to taste compound butter with whatever you are going to eat. Try your mixture with a piece of cornbread, see how it tastes, and adjust if needed.
If you are ready to serve it, you don’t need to chill it. To store compound butter, pack it in a container, plastic wrap or parchment paper and chill until needed.