Cornbread III – The Go To, and Traditional Hot Water Cornbread

There’s a bunch of recipes out there for cornbread, including several of mine, the last of which I wrote about a year ago. I guess it’s not all that strange that my go to recipe has changed again.

Cornbread is as old as fire and grain in human history. Like pretty much everyone else who’s obsessive about food, I’ve gussied up and stripped down cornbread recipes more times that I can remember.

Here in the states, in very general terms, the farther into the Deep South you go, the closer cornbread gets to its deepest roots. One of the recipes I’ll share here today, hot water cornbread, harkens back very closely indeed. Go west, into Texas, or pretty much anywhere up north, and the stuff gets sweeter and and more cake-like.

All that aside, whatever version you make will only be as good as your corn meal. No matter how pumped up or stripped down your recipe, if your meal isn’t fresh and of good quality, it’ll be impossible to make a really stellar final product. That’s especially true with hot water cornbread, where the meal used has literally nothing else to hide behind.

Fortunately, there’s a resurgence in great corn and corn meal, much of that centered in the Deep South, but not all. Do a little searching, and you’re more likely than not to find a small mill near you.

That’s good for a number of reasons – you’ll get fresh stuff, it’ll likely come from local corn, and you’ll be supporting one or more small, local businesses. With a wealth of heirloom varieties coming into cultivation, you’ll find a lot more options out there than you did in years past.

So it’s a great time to tweak your personal recipe. That may entail nothing more than a new corn variety, or it might lead to a full blown overhaul. If you love cornbread, you simply must explore all those regional twists and niche recipes – that’s where brilliance and inspiration often hides. Small mills offer variety on grind, too – which is important, I think – I love the nuttier taste of a coarse grind.

For either version shared here, cast iron is a key element. Cast iron provides excellent thermal conductivity for this dish – in essence, that’s the ability of the cooking vessel to conduct heat, or more specifically, to absorb heat from areas of higher temperature and move it to areas of lower temperature, like your batter.

For my current go to, there are a couple more key steps – Preheat your oven with a rack in the middle position, and your cast iron skillet on that.

Having your skillet oven hot is important for two reasons – first, it’ll foster a nice, crispy crust to start forming as soon as you drop batter in the skillet, and secondly, it’ll brown your butter – that’ll yield a deeper, richer smell and mouth feel, and a lovely nutty minor taste note.

What I’m doing now is more or less southern-style cornbread. There’s no sugar, it’s 50%-50% flour and cornmeal, and the way it’s built pretty much guarantees a great finish every time – Bold words, I know, but I’ll stand behind them. And for purity’s sake, there’s the hot water version too – try that when you come across some truly special cornmeal.

Flour note – I use bread flour for my cornbread. It has a little bit higher protein content than AP, a.k.a. a bit more gluten. I like that, because I get a better rise out of it while maintaining a nice overall density. You can certainly use all purpose, if that’s what you prefer.

Urban’s Go To Cornbread


1 Cup Cornmeal

1 Cup Bread Flour

2 Cups Buttermilk (Or 1 1/2 Cups Whole Milk and 1/2 Cup Sour Cream)

1/2 Cup Unsalted Butter

2 large Eggs

1 Tablespoon Baking Powder

1 teaspoon Sea Salt

1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda

Preheat oven to 425° F and place a rack in the middle slot. Slide your dry cast iron skillet in there too.

In a large mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder – whisk to thoroughly incorporate.

In a second mixing bowl, combine buttermilk and eggs, (or milk, sour cream and eggs if you go that road) and whisk thoroughly to incorporate.

When your oven is preheated, add the butter to your skillet – keep an eye on that, so you get it melted and browned, not burned – this should only take you a couple minutes at that temp.

Combine the wet and dry ingredients, carefully adding the browned butter.

Whisk just enough to combine things, then use a spatula to quickly get the batter into the hot skillet.

Bake for 22-25 minutes, until cornbread is golden brown, and a toothpick stuck in the middle of the skillet comes out clean.


Serve hot, then eat more the next morning, if any survived.

Hot water cornbread is the real deal in the south, or as my friend Carter Monroe puts it, ‘What we in The Provinces refer to as “The Grown Folks Method.”’

Also known variously as corn pone, hoecake, or corn dodgers, this is cornbread stripped to its roots.

When I asked Carter if folks would make different versions for kids and adults, he wrote, ‘Nah, the Northern version of what I call “cake” cornbread has permeated the south. This is old school. What those of us who are wore out grew up with.’ That’s more than good enough for this here Yankee.

When you contemplate making this version, remember what I wrote above. Hot water cornbread often was and is made from freshly ground meal, from good local corn – that’s key, frankly, because that meal is what you’re going to taste here. There’s nothing else in the mix but enough water to get to the consistency you like and a little salt to make everything pop – that’s it.

Coarse or fine ground is also up to you, but far as I’m concerned, it aughta be coarse for this.

There’s no sugar in there, so whatever sweetness you’ll taste comes from the corn. There’s no leavening, so you won’t get a rise either, albeit you can manipulate things quite a bit. Make a thicker batter with some air whipped into it, and you’ll get cornbread with a creamy, soft middle – the corn/water slurry will trap some air bubbles as it fries. Leave it thin and you can have it as crispy as you like.

Oh yes – this version is fried in oil, y’all, not baked, which adds a whole new texture, and subtle flavor notes. This brings a frying fat into play as well, so what’ll it be? Leaf lard, peanut oil, or corn oil will all do fine, and each will have a slightly different flavor profile. If you’re feeling modern, avocado oil is a great choice – it has a great, buttery taste.


This is hot water cornbread, which means the water matters too. If you have funky water, you’ll get funky cornbread. We happen to be graced with such, so we use a filtered pitcher for cooking water, and that’s what I’ll recommend to y’all if you share that malady.

Finally, although there’s not much salt in the recipe, you’ll taste it. Kosher works fine, but this is a great place for some fancier salts to express a subtle flavor note too – use ‘em if you’ve got ‘em, I say.

Hot Water Cornbread


3/4 Cup Cornmeal

1/2 to 3/4 Cup Water

1/2 teaspoon Salt

Frying Fat of your choice

Heat water to near boiling – do 3/4 cup, so you have some leeway once you see how things shake out.

In a mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, 1/2 cup water and salt and whisk to incorporate with a fork.

Adjust water ratio to your desired consistency if the initial balance is too thick for you.

In a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, add enough oil to get about 1/2 inch depth.

Heat oil, using an instant read thermometer to monitor temperature – you want right about 375° F.

Once your fat is up to temp, add generous soup spoons of batter – You can get 3 or 4 in a 12” skillet without crowding.

If you like things thin and crispy, use the back of the spoon to tamp down each dollop a bit, otherwise, let it ride for a softer middle.

These will cook quite quickly – about 1 to 2 minutes per side – when you’ve got a nice golden brown, it’s time to flip.

Transfer cooked cornbread to a paper towel lined wire rack to cool a bit.

As soon as you can grab them without burning yourself, devour with abandon.

Cornbread, Old & New

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Recipes aren’t really meant to be repeated exactly, time and time again – Even when you’re the one who wrote them. They’re a springboard to further exploration, and nothing more. After thanksgiving, there must be turkey soup with home made stock, and that begs for accompaniment by something delightful – like cornbread, for instance.

Let us pause to consider from whence this stuff came. Cornbread is largely seen as a southern culinary thing, but its roots go far beyond those boundaries. Our modern versions harken back in the 1600’s, when European interlopers adapted some bread making techniques to the new cereal the natives had introduced them to, (and had been cultivating, starting down in Mexico, for something around 10,000 years).

Nowadays there are regional variances in style, and it’s interesting that those are almost diametrically opposed to what we see with biscuits – The farther south you go, the cornbread gets more rustic and less cakey, often with little or no added sugar and very little flour, (in fact, sometimes none at all). Meanwhile, while up north and out west, while not exactly flaky, you find a sweeter, more floury version. White cornmeal, closely akin to masa, is more popular in the south, yellow up north. Those southern differences may have to do with the prevalence of Mexican regional cooking, and the proximity to the origin point of the cereal itself, while up north, European influences speak loudest. That jibes with my personal experience as well – Growing up in Massachusetts, I remember cornbread as overly sweet and therefore, not much to my liking. When M and I moved to Texas, I found what I was looking for – Something that’s a bit more savory, and highlights the natural sweetness of corn without adding sugar or other sweeteners to the mix.

In any event, cornbread isn’t something we make super often, so when we do, it can fairly be considered a treat. In that light, one should consider what it is you most want out of the stuff. For me, that means as moist as I can get it, while still being firm and grainy with genuine cornmeal flavor.

For a good few years now, I’d landed on a cheddar version that we like a lot. I’ve taken to soaking the corn meal in milk or cream as a critical step, and in fact, doing that does make notably moister bread. Grinding my own cornmeal fresh, from local, organic corn was even better.

Then, as fate would have it, a measuring malfunction lead to a new twist, or at least, new to me – I’d put too much cornmeal in the mix. Once I realized it, I balanced everything back out, but found I was out of the heavy cream I’d used for the dairy, so I thought – what the hell, why not throw in some sour cream?

The second part of this tiny epiphany had to do with the chosen fat for the batch. I’ve used, and advocated here, leaf lard and/or butter, but all of a sudden, I thought about biscuits, and realized that what has really made my current version sing is avocado oil. If you haven’t tried that yet, it’s not really avocado-y in taste at all, just very subtle and buttery – Perfect for cornbread. Since I’d putzed around so long, I didn’t bother with the dairy rest for the cornmeal, (and it turns out that, with this version, I didn’t need it.) And as fate would have it, what resulted was what M happily anointed as ‘far and away, the best cornbread you’ve every made’ – High praise, that, believe you me.

So I made a second batch, to make sure the recipe worked, then made one the old way, for comparison. What that does is give y’all a couple of options. In the picture below, the old recipe is the batch to the left, the new one to the right. First off, I assure you, both are fully cooked, and neither has had anything done to it other than being sliced. You can see how dense, moist, and almost muffinish the new recipe is, while the old one is lighter and airier. I like them both a lot, but M was right – The new stuff is heavenly.

Old style to the left, New to the right
Old style to the left, New to the right

Urban’s Old Standby Cheddar Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Corn Meal, (yellow or white)
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup grated Sharp Cheddar Cheese
1 Cup Whole Milk
4 Tablespoons Leaf Lard (or Unsalted Butter)
1 Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Optional: 1-2 seeded and cored Jalapeño chiles

Preheat oven to 400° F

Pour cornmeal into a bowl and add the milk; mix well and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

Mix remaining dry ingredients, (Including the cheese), in a large bowl.

Melt shortening, then combine all ingredients and mix by hand to a nice, even batter consistency.

Place the pan(s) you’ll do the bread in into a 400 F oven, with a small dot of shortening in each pan, (Or a tablespoon full if using a single pan).

When the shortening is melted and sizzling, remove the pan, pour in the batter and return to the oven.

Bake at 400° F for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made
What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made

Urban’s New Deal Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Cornmeal
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Heavy Cream
1/2 Cup Sour Cream
1/2 Cup shredded Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
4 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 large Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 400° F and set a rack in the middle position, with the pan your going to bake in thereupon.

Combine all dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Add the cheese, egg, dairy, and oil, and whisk into a uniform batter.

Carefully remove the hot baking pan and rub a little avocado oil around the inside, without burning yourself.

Pour the batter into the baking pan and return it to the hot oven.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown.