Cornbread should be tender and sweet, yet dark and crunchy. It should also burst with corn flavor.
Why This Recipe Works
In the North, cornbread is cakey and sweet, while Southerners demand theirs thin, crusty, and utterly savory. For us, cornbread should offer the best of both worlds—neither too muffin-like nor too austere. It should be tender and sweet, yet dark and crunchy. We also wanted it bursting with bold corn flavor. The question is how best to marry the two regional styles without inciting civil war in the test kitchen.
Northerners and Southerners disagree over the color of the cornmeal and its ratio to flour. Blindfolded tasters had a hard time distinguishing between yellow and white cornmeal, but there was no question that cornbread made with equal parts cornmeal and flour struck the right balance between crumbly and cake-like. Instead of buttermilk, we used a mixture of sour cream (for tang) and creamed corn (for intense corn flavor). Because the creamed corn tasted slightly tinny, we made a homemade version by pureeing defrosted frozen kernels with the sour cream. This mixture, along with two eggs for moisture and structure and a shot of hot sauce for kick, gave our cornbread great flavor. Some recipes call for bacon fat, but we avoid the added step of cooking bacon by using melted butter instead.
Finally, we tackled the most controversial ingredient: sugar. We found the right amount to enhance the natural sweetness of the corn without making sweet corn muffins. Regardless of region, bakers agree that a super-hot oven is the only way to form a craggy crust. For the crunchiest, brownish bottom crust, a preheated pan (preferably cast iron) is a must. The pan should be so hot that the batter sizzles as it hits the pan.