Skillet cornbread
TypeQuick bread
Created byNative Americans
Main ingredientsCornmeal, baking powder
VariationsBaked cornbread, Cracklin' bread, Corn pone, Hot water cornbread, Johnnycakes, Hushpuppies

Cornbread is a quick bread made with cornmeal, associated with the cuisine of the Southern United States, with origins in Native American cuisine. It is an example of batter bread. Dumplings and pancakes made with finely ground cornmeal are staple foods of the Hopi people in Arizona.[1] The Hidatsa people of the Upper Midwest call baked cornbread naktsi. Cherokee and Seneca tribes enrich the basic batter, adding chestnuts, sunflower seeds, apples, or berries, and sometimes combine it with beans or potatoes.[2] Modern versions of cornbread are usually leavened by baking powder.[3]


Cornbread, prepared as a muffin

Native people in the Americas began using corn (maize) and ground corn as food thousands of years[4] before Europeans arrived in the New World.[5] First domesticated in Mexico around six thousand years ago, corn was introduced to what is now the United States between three thousand and one thousand years ago.[6] Native cooks developed a number of recipes based on corn, including cornbread, that were later adopted by European settlers and enslaved African people—especially those who lived in Southern colonies. Aside from eating corn on the cob, Native people also mixed corn kernels with lye to produce hominy through an ancient process called nixtamalization.[7] Both hominy and unprocessed corn were then ground up to varying degrees to make dishes like sofkee (a corn-based soup or drink) and grits or to make cornflour. Frequently, cornflour was, and continues to be, used to make various cornbreads, like corn or ash pone, tamales, arepas, and tortillas. In contrast, cornmeal tends to be coarser than cornflour and is produced by grinding dry, raw corn grains. Besides cornbread, Native people also used cornmeal and hominy to make grits and alcoholic beverages, such as the Andean chicha.

Although Native people in the Americas first cultivated corn, it was introduced in West Africa by European traders shortly after contact through the Atlantic slave trade, and quickly became a major staple in African cooking.[6] Cornbread dishes like kush, for example, in Senegambia and the Sahel represent the transference of cuisine and culture that occurred across the Atlantic Ocean.[8] Cornbread has become a "cornerstone" of cuisine within the southeastern United States as well as being featured on the plates of African Americans, European Americans, and Native people alike.[9]

In its earliest developments in the American colonies, cornbread was a simple combination of ground cornmeal and water that was then stirred together and baked over an open fire or in a hearth.[10] At this point in its history, cornbread's role in Southern cuisine emerged out of necessity. Although farmers in the Northeast and Midwest could grow wheat and rye, the heat and humidity of the South made European wheat wither and turn rancid.[11]


In the 18th-century, the addition of other ingredients, such as buttermilk, eggs, baking soda, baking powder, and pig products (rendered bacon and ham hog fat), greatly changed the texture and flavor of earlier iterations of cornbread, making it much more similar to the version that is eaten today.[10] Although those ingredients were introduced in the 19th-century to improve the texture and taste of cornbread, there are two other common ingredients that were excluded from most recipes until the 20th-century: sugar and wheat flour.[12] As traditional stone mills were replaced with more-efficient steel roller mills in the 20th century, the quality of cornmeal was degraded. The heat from the steel rollers detracted from the corn kernel's natural sweetness and flavor and reduced the particle size of the cornmeal produced.[12] As a result, newer cornbread recipes adapted, adding sugar and wheat flour to compensate for the reduced sweetness and structural integrity of the cornmeal. In addition, the introduction of steel roller mills ushered in a new look to cornmeal; the new cornmeal tended to be yellow, whereas the old-fashioned stone ground cornmeal in the coastal South had been traditionally white. Following the proliferation of the more finely-ground yellow cornmeal, debates arose surrounding sweet vs. savory cornbread and white vs. yellow cornmeal—debates which still occur among cornbread eaters and cookers today. The importance of these differences for some cooks and eaters cannot be overstated; in 1950, for example, Francine J. Parr of Houma, Louisiana, posted a desperate headline in the Times-Picayune, "Who's Got Coarse Grits?," further explaining, "The only grits we can get is very fine and no better than mush. In short, I'm advertising for some grocer or other individual selling coarse grits to drop me a line."[12] Like Parr, some Southerners still prefer the traditional white cornmeal.

Types of cornbread

Cornbread is a popular item in Southern cooking and is enjoyed by many people for its texture and aroma. Cornbread can be baked, fried, or (rarely) steamed. Steamed cornbread is mushy, chewier, and more like cornmeal pudding than what most consider to be traditional cornbread. Cornbread can also be baked into corn cakes.

Baked cornbread

Home-baked cornbread made with blue cornmeal

Cornbread is a common bread in United States cuisine, particularly associated with the South and Southwest, as well as being a traditional staple for populations where wheat flour was more expensive. Cornbread, especially leftovers, can be eaten as a breakfast. It is also widely eaten with barbecue and chili con carne. In parts of the Southern and Southwestern United States, cornbread, accompanied by pinto beans, has been a common lunch for many people. It is still a common side dish for many suppers, often served with butter. Cornbread crumbs are also used in some poultry stuffings or dressing as it is called; cornbread stuffing is particularly associated with Thanksgiving turkeys.

In the United States, northern and southern cornbread are different because they generally use different types of corn meal and varying degrees of sugar and eggs.[13] Southern cornbread has traditionally been made with little or no sugar and smaller amounts of flour (or no flour), with northern cornbread being sweeter and more cake-like. Southern cornbread traditionally used white cornmeal and buttermilk. Other ingredients such as pork rinds are sometimes used. Cornbread is occasionally crumbled and served with cold milk or clabber (buttermilk), similar to cold cereal. In Texas, Mexican influence has spawned a hearty cornbread made with fresh or creamed corn kernels and jalapeño peppers and topped with shredded cheese. Cornbread is typically eaten with molasses in the southern states and with butter and honey in the northern states of America.

Pan-baked Southern-style cornbread, made with yellow cornmeal.

Skillet-fried or skillet-baked cornbread (often simplified to cornbread or skillet bread) is a traditional staple in the rural United States, especially in the South. This involves heating bacon drippings, lard or other oil in a heavy, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet in an oven, and then pouring a batter made from cornmeal, egg, and milk directly into the hot grease. The mixture is returned to the oven to bake into a large, crumbly and sometimes very moist cake with a crunchy crust. This bread tends to be dense and is usually served as an accompaniment rather than as a bread served as a regular course. In addition to the skillet method, such cornbread also may be made in sticks, muffins, loaves or baking pans.

A slightly different variety, cooked in a simple baking dish, is associated with northern U.S. cuisine. The batter for northern-style cornbread is very similar to and sometimes interchangeable with that of a corn muffin. A typical contemporary northern U.S. cornbread recipe contains half wheat flour, half cornmeal, milk or buttermilk, eggs, leavening agent, salt, and usually sugar, resulting in a bread that is somewhat lighter and sweeter than the traditional southern version.

Unlike fried variants of cornbread, baked cornbread is a quick bread that is dependent on an egg-based protein matrix for its structure (though the addition of wheat flour adds gluten to increase its cohesiveness). The baking process gelatinizes the starch[clarification needed] in the cornmeal, but still often leaves some hard starch to give the finished product a distinctive sandiness not typical of breads made from other grains.[citation needed]

Crackling bread

Main article: Crackling bread

A primarily Southern dish consisting of cornbread with pork cracklings inside. It can be prepared with any method, but a skillet is most common as it allows for making the cornbread crispier.

Corn pone

Further information: Pone (food)

Corn pone (sometimes referred to as "Indian pone") is a type of cornbread made from a thick, malleable cornmeal dough (which is usually egg-less and milk-less) and cooked in a specific type of iron pan over an open fire (such as a frontiersman would use), using mostly bacon grease, but later, butter, margarine, shortening, or cooking oil. Corn pones are a staple of Southern U.S. cuisine and have been discussed or referenced by many American writers, including Mark Twain.[14]

In the Appalachian Mountains, cornbread baked in a round iron skillet, or in a cake pan of any shape, is still referred to as a "pone" of cornbread (as opposed to "hoe cakes", the term for cornbread fried in pancake style); and when biscuit dough (i.e., "biscuits" in the American sense of the word) is occasionally baked in one large cake rather than as separate biscuits, this is called a "biscuit pone".

The term "corn pone" is sometimes used derogatorily to refer to one who possesses certain rural, unsophisticated peculiarities ("he's a corn pone"), or as an adjective to describe particular rural, folksy or "hick" characteristics (e.g., "corn pone" humor). This pejorative term often is directed at persons from rural areas of the Southern and Midwestern United States. A character in the Li'l Abner comic strip, General Jubilation T Cornpone, was a mythical Civil War general from Dogpatch known for his retreats and imputed cowardice. President John F. Kennedy's staffers, who were mostly Northeastern Ivy League elites, openly mocked Texan Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson's rural speech patterns, referring to Johnson behind his back as "Uncle Cornpone" or "Rufus Cornpone".[15]

Hot water cornbread

Johnnycakes on a plate

Cooked on a rangetop, one frying method involves pouring a small amount of liquid batter made with boiling water and self-rising cornmeal (cornmeal with soda or some other chemical leavener added) into a skillet of hot oil and allowing the crust to turn golden and crunchy while the center of the batter cooks into a crumbly, mushy bread. These fried breads are typically 3–4 inches (8–10 cm) in diameter and soft and very rich. Sometimes, to ensure the consistency of the bread, a small amount of wheat flour is added to the batter. This type of cornbread is often known as "hot water" or "scald meal" cornbread and is unique to the American South.


Main article: Johnnycake

Pouring a batter similar to that of skillet-fried cornbread, but slightly thinner, into hot grease atop a griddle or a skillet produces a pancake-like bread called a johnnycake. While johnnycake often denotes this pancake-like cornbread, it is also used in a scattered sense as a more general term for cornbread, chiefly in the North.[16]


Main article: Hushpuppy

A thicker buttermilk-based batter that is deep-fried rather than pan-fried forms the hushpuppy, a common accompaniment to fried fish and other seafood in the South. Hushpuppy recipes vary from state to state, some including onion seasoning, chopped onions, beer, or jalapeños. Fried properly, the hushpuppy will be moist and yellow or white on the inside, while crunchy and light to medium-dark golden brown on the outside. Although Native people ushered corn and cornmeal into African people's diets, African cooks are generally credited with introducing the frying of foods in fats. The combination of Native cornmeal and the African technique of frying, therefore, led to the creation of hushpuppies.[6]

Fried cornbread

Collard sandwich with fried cornbread, collard greens, and fatback

Alongside other iterations of Native cornbread, the Lumbee people in southeastern North Carolina have a unique method of cooking their cornbread. The “fried cornbread” or “frybread” that most Lumbee families serve with meals differs from both hushpuppies and johnnycakes. Prepared with yellow cornmeal, egg, buttermilk, and salt, the cornbread batter is thinly poured into a cast-iron skillet to fry.[17] As Eric Locklear, a member of the Lumbee tribe and owner of Fuller’s Old-Fashioned BBQ, notes, “It’s got a crunch around it. I mean, it ain’t thick; it don’t look like pancakes. It’s real thin and crunchy”.[18] After the fried cornbread is made, it is typically served with slices of cheese or collard greens. Glen Hunt, owner of Lumbee Homemade Ice-Cream in North Carolina, states, “You know how the old folks like to eat collards? They like to get a piece of cornbread and dip it in those collards and eat it with their fingers".[18] In the article, “As We Cooked, We Lived: Lumbee Foodways,” Malinda Maynor Lowery goes on to track the creation of the collard sandwich—a Lumbee special, which features two pieces of fried cornbread with collard greens and fatback meat. Dorsey Hunt, co-owner of Lumbee Homemade Ice-Cream, notes that “[Lumbee people] just started putting [fried cornbread and collards] together and made a sandwich out of it. …We made the cornmeal fritters, and just put the collards in between it. Put your fatback meat and chow-chow”.[18]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Cumo, Christopher (2021). Ancestral Diets and Nutrition. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9781000176094.
  2. ^ New York State Museum Annual Report. 1910. p. 70.
  3. ^ Wilson, C. R. (2007). "Cornbread". In J. T. Edge (ed.), The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Vol. 7: Foodways (pp. 152–154). The University of North Carolina Press.
  4. ^ Teosinte was known in Rio Balsas (Mexico) valley from 9000 BP and was introduced in what is now the United States by the Anasazis circa 1000 AD
  5. ^ "Corn Bread". Retrieved May 14, 2012.
  6. ^ a b c Gilmer, Robert A. (2015). Wallach, Jennifer Jensen (ed.). "Native American Contributions to African American Foodways: Slavery, Colonialism, and Cuisine". Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama: 17–29. doi:10.2307/j.ctt1ffjdh9.8.
  7. ^ Dragonwagon, Crescent (2007). The Cornbread Gospels. Workman Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7611-1916-6.
  8. ^ Twitty, Michael (November 20, 2015). "A People's History of Cornbread Stuffing". VICE.
  9. ^ "A Southern Commandment". PineStraw Magazine. October 28, 2016. Retrieved November 4, 2019.
  10. ^ a b Melvin, Robby (December 9, 2016). "The Southern History of Cornbread". Southern Living.
  11. ^ Lee, Carissa (November 18, 2021). "The A-Maize-ing History of Cornbread". The Stanford Daily.
  12. ^ a b c Moss, Robert (June 5, 2019). "The Real Reason Sugar Has No Place in Cornbread". Serious Eats.
  13. ^ Cooks Illustrated Magazine, Baking Illustrated. Brookline, MA: America's Test Kitchen, 2004, ISBN 0-936184-75-2.
  14. ^ "Mark Twain: Corn-pone Opinions". Retrieved November 7, 2013.
  15. ^ The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, pub. Deckle Edge, ISBN 0679405070, ISBN 978-0679405078.
  16. ^ Burkette, Allison (Fall 2011). ""Stamped Indian": Finding History and Culture in Terms for American 'Cornbread'". American Speech. 86 (3): 321. doi:10.1215/00031283-1503919.
  17. ^ Gordon, Steve (January 7, 2013). "Collard Sandwich Recipe". Taste of Southern.
  18. ^ a b c Lowery, Malinda Maynor; Wood, Sara (Spring 2015). "As We Cooked, We Lived: Lumbee Foodways". Southern Cultures. 21 (1). University of North Carolina Press: 84–91. doi:10.1353/scu.2015.0001. JSTOR 26220215. S2CID 145813061 – via JSTOR.