How to Make Cornbread Without a Recipe
Cornbread, unlike most breads, is very forgiving.
I love the way it feels when you can throw something together in the kitchen and it just works. Whether it is a ratio-based recipe, or an eyeball situation, anytime I can do minimal measuring, I am a happy girl. But for baking I tend to get wary of this winging it methodology. It is so ingrained that baking is science, that it is chemistry, that you have to be precise that I forget sometimes that there is certain baking that people have been doing for centuries mostly by feel. I have always marveled at the kinds of bakers who can improvise things like biscuits or scones or bread dough or pie crust.
Sure, I’m great with a fast vinaigrette or a soup or braise, but baking? That always seemed like you needed to do it every day if you were going to get good at it. And while it is true that you can get better at these things with practice, you can also be fairly competent if you have a general idea of a ratio or technique. Which is how I came to my no-recipe eyeball cornbread.
This is the cornbread I make on a random weeknight when the soup or stew or pot of beans requires it and I don’t have the bandwidth to start dirtying measuring spoons and the like. I had seen my Southern-bred husband do his cornbread by feel, a super traditional style with no sugar and no regular flour. Being a Northern gal, I like my cornbread with a bit more of a tender crumb, a tiny bit of sweetness. But I realized that once you know how cornbread works? You can totally wing it. Will it be perfect? Maybe or maybe not. But it won’t be bad.
For starters, how much cornbread do you need? I do mine in a cast iron skillet, but a baking pan is fine too. Whatever size you need will be key here, serving two people? A little 6 to 7 inch skillet might be just right. Have a very hungry family? You might want a 9 inch square or a 10 inch skillet.
I start with the actual baking vessel, whatever that is going to be and fill it about 1/3 full of cornmeal. Again, this is an eyeball situation, so don’t pull the tape measure out. This is the basis of the rest of your batter. I dump the cornmeal into a mixing bowl and wipe any residue out of the baking vessel. Then you have to decide if you are going all-cornmeal or adding some regular flour to lighten. If I am going to add regular flour I add about a half-inch or so of flour on top of the cornmeal in my bowl.
I heat my oven to 400, grease my chosen container liberally with anything from bacon grease to coconut oil to ghee to shortening. I like a fat that is solid at room temp so that I can see a good coating on the dish. I don’t use regular butter because it will burn. Then add a good extra dollop to the bottom of the pan to melt, maybe the size of a walnut for a smaller vessel or two walnuts for a large one. Then I put my lubricated baking dish into the oven as it heats, you want it scorching hot when you put the batter in.
I add a good pinch or two of salt to my dry ingredients, and a pinch of baking powder. I whisk these together. Do I want sugar? If so, I add a hefty pinch or two at this point and whisk that in as well. But it is totally optional. Am I using buttermilk or regular milk? If buttermilk, I also need some baking soda to help it rise, so I will add a pinch of that. If regular milk, I don’t add it. I take my milk of choice and begin to stir it in in small sloshes. You want a batter that is thick but pourable, think really thick pancake batter. Keep adding small amounts of buttermilk or milk till you get the consistency that seems good. If you used regular milk and want more lift and tenderness, add a beaten egg or two for small or medium vessels, three or four for a larger one. Buttermilk won’t need any egg.
When your oven is heated and your pan is hot, carefully pour most of the hot fat from the pan into your batter, leaving a good coating behind, a whisk it in, and then pour your batter into the hot pan. It should sizzle. Put the pan back in the oven and bake till a skewer in the middle comes out clean, between 20-40 minutes depending on size. That's it! Cornbread from scratch that you just threw together. Pretty impressive.