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Crispy Skillet Cornbread

This recipe is pretty basic, except for the addition of sautéed chopped onions. But to this, you may add a myriad of other ingredients, depending on your mood and who you are feeding (see variations). For the most interesting texture, use medium-ground (not fine) cornmeal. And cultured buttermilk is the secret ingredient to making the best-tasting, crispest, (yet incredibly tender) cornbread. (Buttermilk is the secret to so many different recipes that I’ve lost count!) Using an old-fashioned, well-seasoned cast iron skillet ensures the crispest, most authentic results. Today, you can even buy pre-seasoned cast iron pans. In a pinch, a heavy round cake pan will do. Any time I’ve suggested a tool, a piece of equipment, or a culinary term that’s unfamiliar to you, you can go to Kitchen Management for more information.

Special Equipment

  • Wide blending fork or batter whisk
  • Sifter or triple-mesh wire strainer
  • 10 1/2-inch (1 1/2-inches deep) well-seasoned or pre-seasoned cast iron skillet or heavy 10-inch round cake pan (2 inches deep)

For the cornbread batter:

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 cup minced yellow onion
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 1/2 cups medium-ground yellow or white cornmeal
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 cups cultured buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter, melted
  • 3 tablespoons clarified butter or solid vegetable shortening
  • Softened butter, for accompaniment

1) To set up: Place a 10-inch cast iron skillet or heavy cake pan on the center shelf of the oven. (If using a cake pan, brush or spray the sides with flavorless vegetable oil.) Preheat the oven to 425o F.

2) To sauté the onions: Heat a small skillet over medium heat with 1 tablespoon butter. When melted and bubbling, add minced onion and sauté until softened and fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add some freshly ground black pepper, remove from heat and set aside.

3) To assemble the batter: Place cornmeal, flour, baking soda, salt and sugar in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Using a whisk, combine well and then sift into another bowl. Pour buttermilk into a separate bowl; add lightly beaten eggs and cooled sautéed onions and mix well. Pour buttermilk mixture and sautéed onions into the bowl with the dry mixture and add melted butter with another grind or two of fresh black pepper. Using a wide blending fork or a batter whisk, gently combine mixture until there are no dry pockets.

4) To bake: Place clarified butter or solid shortening into the preheated pan while it remains in oven. Close oven door and allow the fat to liquefy and become hot (1 minute). Open the oven door and carefully (using oven mitts!) pull the rack holding the skillet toward you. Using a rubber spatula, somewhat quickly (so the oven doesn’t cool) pour cornmeal mixture into the hot skillet (the batter should sizzle furiously). Push the pan back into the oven and close the door. Bake until firm but not overly dry and a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the center of the bread, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile warm your serving plate.

5) To invert and serve: Carefully remove pan from oven and run a knife around its circumference. Place a flat cookie sheet or a wire rack over the top and invert bread onto rack. Immediately invert once more onto a warmed serving plate so bread is right side up. Cut into wedges and serve hot with softened butter.

Timing is Everything

  • The dry ingredients can be mixed, sifted and left in a covered bowl days before needed. Just give a good swish with a whisk to combine and lighten before assembling.
  • Although batters leavened only with baking soda should be baked soon after being assembled, this batter can be fully combined, covered and left at a comfortable room temperature for up to 1 hour before pouring into the preheated skillet. Or, for best results, simply combine the dry ingredients in one bowl and the wet ingredients in another and refrigerate the latter–hours ahead. Add the sautéed onions to the wet ingredients and allow them to sit out at room temperature for 1 hour before combining wet and dry ingredients (along with melted butter) just before baking.

Cornbread Variations

The sautéed onions can be omitted. Or, while sautéing the onions, add 1 or more of the following: 1/3 cup minced red or green bell pepper; 1 chopped, stemmed and seeded jalapeño chili pepper and/or 1/3 cup chopped hard sausage (andouille, or pepperoni, or chorizo, with the casing removed); you can also sauté 3 pieces bacon, until crisp, drain and coarsely chop. Then sauté the onion in 1 tablespoon of bacon drippings instead of the butter and add chopped bacon when assembling butter. Another variation is to sauté 1/3 cup crumbled fresh sweet or hot Italian sausage in a bit of olive oil until golden; pour out any accumulated fat and add onions and 1 clove of minced garlic.

Clarified Butter
To clarify butter, slowly melt 2 or more sticks of unsalted butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan (preferably one with a spout) over low heat, without stirring, until totally liquefied and the milky residue that’s fallen to the bottom of the pan becomes light golden and gives off a nutty aroma. Remove the pan from heat and let the butter settle for 15 minutes. Using a fine-mesh skimmer or a small shallow spoon, remove any white foamy substance that sits on top of the butterfat. When no milky solids remain on top, carefully pour the pure, yellow butterfat through a fine-mesh skimmer or a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, leaving any toasted residue behind. Expect to lose up to a quarter of your original volume, after straining. Store clarified butter in the refrigerator in a securely shut container for up to 6 months.

SHOPPING LIST

At-a-Glance Reminder of Ingredients

For the cornbread batter:

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 cup minced yellow onion
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 1/2 cups medium-ground yellow or white cornmeal
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 cups cultured buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter, melted
  • 3 tablespoons clarified butter (see recipe) or solid vegetable shortening
  • Softened butter, for accompaniment

From the supermarket shelf:

  • Unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • Medium-ground yellow cornmeal
  • Baking soda
  • Fine table salt
  • Granulated sugar
  • Black pepper

From the produce aisle:

  • Yellow onion

From the refrigerated section:

  • Extra-large eggs

From the dairy case:

  • Buttermilk
  • Unsalted butter (for the batter, to clarify and for serving)
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