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Food & Drink

Sean Brock’s Cornbread Recipe

by Grace Bonney

Excerpted from Heritage by Sean Brock (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014. Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
There is nothing more nostalgic than the smell of food from your childhood. Growing up, I had two favorite corn dishes, spoonbread and cornbread. Both are southern staples, but cornbread seems to be experiencing a real revival across American restaurant menus. I order it just about any time I see it, but none have been as overwhelmingly flavorful and evocative of dinners at my Grandma Nita’s house as the cornbread at Sean Brock’s restaurant Husk in Charleston, South Carolina.

Excerpted from Heritage by Sean Brock (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014. Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
Sean’s devotion to heirloom grains, seeds, produce and meat is something I truly admire. Although he’s been famous in the food world for some time now, I learned about him primarily through his stint as a host on my favorite television show, Mind of a Chef. Sean’s recipes are all about bringing back ingredients and traditions of the low country and his beautiful new cookbook, Heritage, celebrates that region’s diverse cooking styles with a reverence and level of research that’s rarely seen. What struck me most about Heritage, in addition to the delicious food, was how much work Sean puts into connecting the traditions we associate with southern cooks with their roots in Africa. To say that the reasons behind those connections are unfortunate would be a massive understatement, but Sean takes an honest look at the way the slave trade affected early food in the south and how those ingredients and cooking styles connect to our contemporary kitchens. Heritage is equal parts recipe and history book and I am so glad to see more southern chefs digging deeper into the roots behind the food we make and enjoy today. Speaking of enjoying, I’m thrilled to be sharing my favorite of Sean’s recipes, his cornbread, here on DS today. It is perfect for the holidays, but it is equally delicious at any other time, day or event. You just cannot beat the crispy edges and soft, pillowy corn center. xo, grace

Excerpted from Heritage by Sean Brock (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014. Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards.

Cracklin’ Cornbread
Makes one 9-inch round loaf

My favorite ball cap, made by Billy Reid, has a patch on the front that reads “Make Cornbread, Not War.” I’m drawn to it because cornbread is a sacred thing in the South, almost a way of life. But cornbread, like barbeque, can be the subject of great debate among Southerners. Flour or no flour? Sugar or no sugar? Is there an egg involved? All are legitimate questions.

When we opened Husk, I knew that we had to serve cornbread. I also knew that there is a lot of bad cornbread out there in the restaurant world, usually cooked before service and reheated, or held in a warming drawer. I won’t touch that stuff because, yes, I am a cornbread snob. My cornbread has no flour and no sugar. It has the tang of good buttermilk and a little smoke from Allan Benton’s smokehouse bacon. You’ve got to cook the cornbread just before you want to eat it, in a black skillet, with plenty of smoking-hot grease. That is the secret to a golden, crunchy exterior. Use very high heat, so hot that the batter screeches as it hits the pan. It’s a deceptively simple process, but practice makes perfect, which may be why many Southerners make cornbread every single day.

4 ounces bacon, preferably Benton’s
2 cups cornmeal, preferably Anson Mills Antebellum Coarse Yellow Cornmeal
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1½ cups whole-milk buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten

1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Put a 9-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven to preheat for at least 10 minutes.

2. Run the bacon through a meat grinder or very finely mince it. Put the bacon in a skillet large enough to hold it in one layer and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently so that it doesn’t burn, until the fat is rendered and the bits of bacon are crispy, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the bits of bacon to a paper towel to drain, reserving the fat. You need 5 tablespoons bacon fat for this recipe.

3. Combine the cornmeal, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and bits of bacon in a medium bowl. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat and combine the remaining 4 tablespoons fat, the buttermilk, and egg in a small bowl. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just to combine; do not overmix.

4. Move the skillet from the oven to the stove, placing it over high heat. Add the reserved tablespoon of bacon fat and swirl to coat the skillet. Pour in the batter, distributing it evenly. It should sizzle.

5. Bake the cornbread for about 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm from the skillet.

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Comments

  • YES. I love cornbread in general, but that cornbread from Husk is incredible! I’m so excited to have the recipe!

  • Double OMG! I am a cornbread connoisseur – I wish I could try Husk cornbread. I know I would be dancing and eating with pleasure! Can’t wait to try the recipe. Husk, thanks for sharing.

  • I just want to say I really enjoyed and appreciated this post!

    No. 1 I love love love cornbread especially made in a cast iron skillet. That’s nostalgia to the max for me!

    No. 2 I also loved that you and Sean took the time to acknowledge and pay respect to the African roots of southern cooking. This way of making cornbread has been a long standing tradition in my family and in the AA community. Even though I grew up in Los Angeles ms now reside in NY I still continue to make cornbread the way my Texas Grandma did.

    Looking fwd to checking out Heritage!

    • Irene

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. While there are parts of Heritage that use the word “Antebellum” a bit too nostalgically for me, I think overall he worked very hard to include and honor the African heritage behind so many dishes that are too-often credited to white male cooks.

      Grace

  • This sounds so good minus bacon – I don’t eat meat. Have you tried this without bacon? Thanks for sharing.

    • Mindy

      You can definitely make this without baking, but most old-school cornbread recipes called for lard or pork fat of some sort. But you can most definitely make it without that. :)

      Grace

  • I made this recipe and enjoyed it. I left out the bacon and added fresh, greated coconut……….am living in the Caribbean. It was a Blast. I have even added herbs to mine. I also added some sweetener.

  • Ummm, cornbread.

    I am from Virginia, but in Los Angeles now. I have many cast iron pans. The skillets are the best for corn bread. I use coarse ground corn and a little fine ground corn from my local co-op. For vegetarians and vegans, you can use coconut oil, instead of the bacon fat. My Momma used to make spoon bread with crackling. I think that was fried fat back. She would pull the pan out of the oven, and dig a well in the bread and toss in the crackling. I love the taste of buttermilk in my bread, but not much for drinking it. You can measure out what you need and pour it into ice cube trays and freeze it for later. I tried dry buttermilk, but it does not have that acidic flavor. The acid reacts with the soda and powder. No sugar in mine, sugar.

  • That recipe has no sugar in it. except for the bacon bits, it doesn’t really sound very good to me. Coursely ground corn meal has pieces in it that are so hard they nearly crack your teeth. “Perfect Cornbread” from the Better Homes and Gardens checkered cook book is awesome. If you did this with the bacon, it would be even better.

  • I’m not a cook so I am confused but I really want to try this because my mother used to make biscuits on top of the stove in a skillet. The recipe says take the skillet out of the oven put it on high heat on the stove, pour in the ingredients and “bake”. Huh?? Grace says you can leave out the bacon and “bake”. Again, huh? Are we baking this in the oven or cooking this on top of the stove. Thanks. sj

    • hi sandy

      you’re baking this. you’re basically pre-baking the skillet first so it’s sizzling hot when you pour things into it- that gives you that great crispy crust. so you’re going to:

      1. pre-heat the oven and put the empty skillet inside to heat it up.
      2. while that’s happening, cook the bacon (or if you want to leave it out, just use another fat replacement that can handle high heat, like vegetable oil, in equal amounts)
      3. mix your wet and dry ingredients, pour them into the sizzling hot pan and bake.

      grace

  • You’ve described the way my grandma made it, but since they had bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning, she had a coffee can filled with fresh bacon grease near the stove. A couple of spoonfuls went in to the enameled baking pan she used and then into the oven while she mixed up the batter. She used shortening on the rare times there were no bacon drippings handy.
    Any meal that included cornbread always ended with buttered cornbread drizzled with honey. Talk about comfort food!
    And as to “leftover” cornbread, if there is any, I keep it in the fridge (a zip top bag will do) then slice in in half and put it in the toaster oven. Top with butter that melts right through and top that your favorite jelly or jam. I like something tart, apricot, or leftover cranberry sauce if I have any. Oh my!

  • Love this book, anyone have any adjusted recipe for a 12 inch cast iron skillet, as I do not have a 9 inch. Thanks.

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