Traditional Kentucky Black Skillet Hot Water Cornbread
Traditional Kentucky Black Skillet Hot Water Cornbread

Each week -- every Monday night at 6 PM, -- we host a wide-open, communal-sort-of-potluck Cornbread Supper at our house. You're invited.

Each week I make cornbreads for the shared meal. Most weeks, in addition to cornbreads with savory or even sweet additions, I make one skillet of "plain," as good an imitation as I can come up with of my mother's recipe-less skillet bread. Early on, I tried describing Mother's process here. Gradually, as I make the cornbread weekly, I have begun to try to turn the familiar process into a recipe that will reliably produce the cornbread the way I like it.

The result is this recipe-in-progress. All experiences and alternative recipes welcome.

Cornbreads are personal and people can harbor rather extreme prejudices about their own family's cornbread and how it grinds all other cornbreads into useless crumbs. I prefer a cornbread "big tent," in which many styles, types, and tastes are welcomed as good and useful. I still love the idea of the Cornbread and Couche-Couche Suppers, with multiple versions of cornmeal dishes underpinning a tasting party. I'd rather not come to blows with anyone over the perfect recipe for cornbread, so this is simply one recipe. (As you can tell, I'm a conflict avoider.) Use this recipe, change, substitute, add in. (Add-ins can transform this cornbread into something else entirely.)

Before the beginning:

Know that you will need these ingredients: cornmeal, buttermilk, baking powder, baking soda, sea salt, eggs, neutral oil, and water. The ways they are assembled can be confusing, but each gets its turn.

If you have time, at any point from 12 hours to 30 minutes before you begin making your cornbread, "presoak" the cornmeal in the buttermilk to improve the corn's digestibility and give a moister texture to your cornbread. Simply stir these two ingredients together in a large bowl and set them aside:

  • 2 1/2 cups unbolted white cornmeal (I use Weisenberger's)
  • 2 cups buttermilk

When you are ready to make and bake your cornbread, prepare your oven, skillet, and two hot ingredients, water and oil.

  • Turn your oven on to 425 degrees F. (450 can work, too, if you are in a special hurry.)
  • Put 1/3 cup butter, bacon fat or neutral oil (grapeseed or avocado, for example) in your 9", 10", or 11" cast iron skillet, and put the skillet on a rack in the lower third of the oven. Let the skillet heat with the oven.
  • Set about 1 cup of water to boil in an electric teapot or a small pot on the stove (medium to high heat).
  • Once the oven gets fully hot, your butter or oil will be hot, too. Watch the butter. Ideally the milk solids in it will brown to caramel color, adding extra flavor. If they go all the way to dark black, you may want to throw out that butter and start over. But I'm here to say I've never done that. I've used very dark brown butter and not regretted it.

Add more ingredients:

Add the ingredients below to the bowl that contains the cornmeal-buttermilk mixture, or, if you are making this dish without presoaking, add the cornmeal and buttermilk to this bowl now. Add and stir in well, but you don't need to be obsessive about the stirring:

  • 1 Tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 whole eggs

Check your skillet with its hot fat. If the fat is a bit shimmery, dimply, and you can smell it a little, add it to your batter (sizzle, sizzle). It's okay to leave a little in the skillet. Set your skillet in a heat-proof spot or, even better if you can manage it, on a burner over medium-high heat.  

Prepare for a crisp crust:

(This is an extra step that you can omit if you want or need to.) Sprinkle about 1 tablespoon dry white unbolted cornmeal over the hot fat in your skillet. Let the cornmeal begin to toast, so you see the first hints of browning. You can do this step in the hot oven if you like, instead of on a burner.  

Finish the batter with boiling (or really hot) water:

And now back to your batter, which is probably quite thick. If you pre-soaked your cornmeal for several hours, it may take some vigorous stirring or whisking with a heavy whisk to smooth the dryish lumps. When the batter is relatively smooth, assuming its quite thick, pour in about 1/2 cup boiling (or recently boiled) water. Stir well. The batter should now be a bit runny. It should not hold tracks from your stirring implement for more than a split second. Frankly, it should be wet, about the consistency of a slightly melted milkshake. If your batter is still thick, add another 1/4 cup boiling water and stir again. Note: The hot water makes a moister cornbread, but it is not crucial. Particularly if you use buttermilk that is quite thin, or use a buttermilk substitute you have made by adding vinegar to milk, you may find your batter is thin enough without adding water. It's a matter of trying, tasting, and adjusting the next time you make cornbread, based on your preferences.

Correct the seasonings:

If you are brave, and if you have used healthy small-batch local eggs, you can taste a tiny bit of the batter now to see if it needs more salt. It may, depending on the saltiness of your particular type of sea salt. On occasion -- gasp gasp -- when I have found the batter tastes almost acrid or extra sour because of something going on with the cornmeal or the buttermilk, I have stirred in one teaspoon sorghum or honey to smooth the taste. Please don't tell anyone.

Because cornmeal contains no gluten, it will not toughen with repeated stirring as wheat-based breads do. So you can taste, correct, and stir as often as needed until you like the look, feel, and even the taste of the batter you have made.

Bake the cornbread:

If you used the oven to toast your cornmeal, pull the skillet out (carefully). Wherever your hot skillet is now, pour your batter into the it (sizzle sizzle again), and return the skillet to the oven.

Set a timer for 15 minutes. Check it then. It may be done, or it may seem a bit pale to you. My cornbreads, in my oven, usually require 20 - 25 minutes to get as dark as I like them. Cook until you like the color of the top crust. I prefer dark gold. Be aware, though, that the bottom crust is dramatically darker than the top, and can get almost burned before the top gets close to "brown." Also be aware that some people like the "almost burned black" crust even when you think you have let things go too far. And also, of course, be aware that crust is crucial. A crunchy, dark caramelized crust makes cornbread worth eating.

Cut and serve the cornbread:

When you take your cornbread out of the oven, you have some options. Old folks cooking just for close family might bring the skillet right to the table, set it on a trivet, and let people serve themselves.

I like to "decant" my cornbreads so I protect the crunchiness of the crust. To get the cornbread out of the skillet, I get a serving plate that is at least an inch larger all around than the skillet. I turn the plate upside down over the open skillet. Using two flexible thick potholders in each hand, I then pinch the plate to the skillet, turn the whole thing upside down, and the cornbread plops right into the plate, crust side up. (That's the beauty of the black skillet, the hot oil, hot oven, and the little layer of toasted oily cornmeal.)

Cut your cornbread with a serrated knife. You may need a napkin to help hold it in place. If you have five minutes to spare after you take the cornbread out of the oven, it will cut more easily after a little wait time, and it will still be beautifully, butter-meltingly warm when you cut into it.

Make the first cut through the center, dividing the round cake into two half-moon halves. Then quarter the cornbread, and cut two, three or four wedges into each quarter. For family you may want 8 servings, depending on the size of your skillet. For potlucks, where there are many other foods on the table, I usually cut a 9" cornbread into 16 pieces. They are slender, and they invite people back for seconds.

Cornbread's best friends:

Serve with any of these:

  • Fresh butter
  • Sweet sorghum
  • Maple Syrup
  • Honey
  • Savory cooked vegetables, especially freshly cooked green beans
  • Sliced, fresh summer tomato salads of all types
  • Split pea soups
  • Chili or vegetable/beef soup or minestrone
  • Lima beans
  • Beef stew
  • Barbecue
  • Braised pork or lamb shoulder
  • Fresh, vinegar-y summer salads or spring wilted salads
  • Wintry, roast vegetable salads
  • Cooked greens of all types
  • Salsas of all types
  • Fresh milk or buttermilk
  • Cooked beans, especially pintos, or bean salads (beans and cornbread together make complete protein)
  • Fried apples
  • Fresh cantaloupe slices or balls -- a classic underground Kentucky pairing
  • Sweet or unsweetened iced tea
  • Icy cold Riesling, Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, Rosé, or a light-bodied Pinot Noir
  • Kentucky Pale Ale or other tasty beer
  • Bourbon and soda or branch water