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secret to making good cornbread?

I make great corn muffins but cornbread is proving somewhat more elusive. I've made it a few times and it's pretty good but often comes out dense. What could be causing this? Over-mixing? Not enough baking powder in the recipe? Or do I just need to change by baking powder? Something else entirely?

Also, does anyone have any recipes they particularly like? I've just tried one I got off the internet--a basic buttermilk batter. But I'm not particularly attached to it and I'd love recommendations. I tend to prefer to less sweet "Southern-style" type but I'm open to all kinds.

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  1. How is your muffin recipe different from the bread?

    A high ratio of cornmeal is going to make a denser cornbread. More flour (and sugar) will give a lighter, cake like character.

    1 tsp of baking powder per cup of flour is pretty standard. Of course if you are using buttermilk, you can use baking soda instead, though there's nothing wrong with using both.

    Where have you had the ideal cornbread?

    1 Reply
    1. re: paulj

      My muffins have more egg in them, I think, and I do make them sweeter and cakier than Southern-style cornbread usually is. (Also, I often put stuff in them--my bacon, cheddar, apple corn muffins are a hit among my family and friends. :-P)

      I had a friend from NC who made really good cornbread. Otherwise, most of the places I've had really good cornbread are good barbecue restaurants.

    2. I use a $.99 bag of Jiffy and add cheese, corn, jalopeno, depending what's on hand. Never fails ;-)

      5 Replies
      1. re: monavano

        The Jiffy produces something rather cake like, with plenty of flour and sugar, and fine grind corn.

          1. re: Antilope

            I love Jiffy, grew up on it, and usually can find it on sale for 39 cents more or less at the dollar store. Making it yourself is probably not even worth it.

            By the way, make sure to mix in a can of creamed corn, that's the best addition yet.

            1. re: coll

              Being 39 cents and from the Dollar store, I would question its freshness.

              1. re: Antilope

                I always check the sell by date and they are fine. They may expire sitting in my pantry though, since I like to stock up!

        1. Bacon fat. That's the secret.

          Eschew butter, vegetable oil, and even shortening.

          Use bacon fat, esp. for southern-style (i.e. not sweet) cornbread.

          5 Replies
          1. re: ipsedixit

            Bacon fat is the secret to what? Other than flavor, what is its advantage? I can see where bacon fat in the hot skillet produces a nice crisp crust, which contrasts with the dense all-corn interior, but it does not address the density issue.

            1. re: paulj

              The proportion of cornmeal is mostly it- adding some gluten flour would likely help, though I haven't tried it- I like it sort of dense. You rapidly reach a state where more leavening won't help because the batter doesn't have the structure to support it- kind of like blowing soap bubbles without the soap. If you're using eggs, you could whip the whites and fold them in.

              1. re: oldunc

                I'm definitely already there on the bacon fat. Yum!

                Hmmmm...I'm thinking now that I might have let the better sit for two long before putting it in the oven, and the reaction died down so there was less air in the bread. I already use some wheat flour. Next time, I'll try to be quicker.

                1. re: Lady_Tenar

                  A baking soda batter should be used right away. With baking powder there's more leeway, since most bp is double acting. Crepe batters benefit from sitting, since it hydrates the flour better, but they don't have baking powder/soda. Another option is to soak the cornmeal in water or buttermilk before adding the other ingredients. I've used this for corn pancakes.

                  When Europeans adopted cornmeal, they added it to their yeast breads. The Portuguese in particular are known for this.

                  1. re: paulj

                    The Portuguese have lots of corn- too wet in the North for wheat. It also makes a good ingredient in some kinds of cakes- I usually use some in Pineapple Upside Down cake.

          2. cornbread is kind of dense, in my experience. If you wan tit less so, increase proportion of flour to cornmeal and use fine grind corn meal. i Like it dense.

            1. Baking powder and baking soda lose power after about 6 months, sooner if they are exposed to humidity.

              Anyway, my keys are:

              -cast iron skillet, preheated with a fat that is solid at room temperature (bacon fat, or home rendered lard (not the hydrogenated bricks in the dairy case) or poultry fat even, also butter.

              -stone-ground cornmeal, no flour

              For a 9-10" skillet ( you can do a half or 3/4 recipe in an 8" skillet - you don't need to adjust the amount of egg):

              -Preheat skillet with 3-4T solid fat in a 450F oven
              -Whisk together dry ingredients: 2 cups stoneground cornmeal, 1t table salt (or 2t Diamond kosher salt; 1.5t Morton's kosher salt); 1/2t baking soda; 1/2t baking powder. Optional (at risk of offending Southerners): 1-2T granulated sugar (NO liquid sugars, btw; they will sink and scorch at the bottom).
              -Mix together liquid ingredients: 1 large egg into 1.5 cups buttermilk

              LIghtly mix wet into the dry ingredients; not thoroughly (do not overmix). Take hot skillet out of oven, pour batter into skillet. If you want to gild the lily, you can dot the top with little pieces of butter. Bake in the oven until done, about 20-25 minutes.

              5 Replies
              1. re: Karl S

                sounds spot on to what I do. I think that the high heat the helps to get a good rise as well as not over filling the pan. The finished bread is usually about 1.5" thick.
                I would add that Southern Cornbread should be consumed as soon as possible. If allowed to sit around it always seems dry, fine for soaking up pot liquor but not that good out of hand.

                1. re: chefj

                  Agreed. But what my grandmothers taught me is the best: sprinkle some cornmeal or dry mix onto the fat in the skillet and toast it on top of the stove, then add the batter and bake. Makes a marvelous crust. Add melted butter to the batter, use buttermilk. We usually use a cornbread mix as a base.Never sweet.

                2. re: Karl S

                  Now that's the no fail cornbread ticket.

                  1. re: Karl S

                    a winner,what I do 95% of the time

                    1. re: Karl S

                      This sounds delicious. I've never used 100% cornmeal before but I'll try it. Also never used heat that high but I can see how it makes sense, since it would "set" the bread before the soda reaction can die down too much and air can escape. Thanks!