Cooking, Family Memories

Making Cornbread Mama’s Way

This recipe card is nearly 50 years old.

 The first time I got hungry for cornbread after leaving home, I called my mother to get her recipe. She’d learned to make it by watching her mother, and I doubt if Grandma Dale’s recipe was ever  written down. As Mama dictated the directions over the phone, I knew I was in trouble. Just exactly how much is a little of this and a pinch of that? I needed precise measurements.

Could You Be More Precise? 

After she worked out the amounts of salt, soda and baking powder in terms of teaspoons, I could cope with adding enough corn meal to about a cup of buttermilk to make a fairly thin batter. One egg was a no-brainer, and the amount of bacon grease was easy because I remembered how that rounded spoonful looked as it melted and sizzled in the hot iron skillet.
Yes, we eat bacon occasionally because we espouse all things in moderation where food is concerned. (Wright brand Hickory Smoked is our favorite.)  And although I use olive most of the timeand sometimes canola or vegetable oilcornbread and purple hull peas just taste better with bacon drippings, so I keep some on hand. 
Close, but it could have been a little browner

Mama’s Signature

 Mama’s cornbread had a crispy brown bottom crust that was to die for. It took me a while, but I finally got the timing and temperature basics down, which I think are the keys to the crunch.
1.      Be sure the oven is hot—preheated to 400 degrees—before mixing ingredients or heating the bacon grease.
2.      While the bacon grease (or oil) is heating in an iron skillet on medium high on top of the stove, mix the rest of the ingredients together.
3.      When the bacon grease starts to sizzle, pour it into the batter and stir quickly.
4.      Immediately pour the mixture back into the hot skillet and place it back on the burner (still turned to medium high).
5.      Leave it until the mixture bubbles around the edges and a few bubbles plop in the center. (It doesn’t take long, so watch it carefully. Don’t multitask.)
6.      Move the skillet to a hot oven and bake until the cornbread is golden brown (about 20-25 minutes).
That stove top part can be tricky—leave it on the heat too long and the bottom gets scorched. Take it off too soon, and you don’t get that nice crusty layer. It had been a long time since I had made cornbread, and my latest batch wasn’t quite as brown and crunchy as I like. (I think I had turned the heat down too low.) But that’s better than scorched.

Modern Substitutions

Mama’s recipe for this basic po’ farm folks’ staple didn’t call for flour, which meant her cornbread was a little coarser in texture. Having grown up on it, I like it that way. But Terry prefers a more tender version, so now I use a cornbread mix. (Mama never put sugar in hers either, so I don’t, but I wouldn’t turn down a sweet cornbread muffin.) 
The mix works just fine for me.

Both my parents liked buttermilk, so using it up was never a problem. In fact, Daddy often ate the leftover cornbread with buttermilk the next day. But as we say in the Johnson house, it didn’t look delicious to me, so I never acquired the taste. After throwing out way too much buttermilk over the years, I started buying SACO cultured Buttermilk Blend.  The powder mixes with water and works well in baking, plus it keeps a long time in the refrigerator. The mix works just fine for me.

Practice Makes Perfect (Some of the time)

At first, every pan of cornbread I made was an adventure, but eventually I was able to produce a fair version of Mama’s. We don’t eat it often, but fresh vegetables, a pot of ham and beans or soup call for cornbread. When I stir it up, I always feel close to my mother—and a bit proud when it turns out just right. Flipping it over so the brown crust is on top and cutting it into triangles is a little like being home again.

I have to stop now and butter my cornbread while it’s hot. Yeah, we slather ours with butter, too.
Do you have a cooking-lesson story or a favorite recipe passed down from your mother?
Give her the fruit of her hands; and let her works praise her in the gates. Proverbs 31:31

Copyright © Reflections from Dorothy’s Ridge 2014. All rights reserved

7 thoughts on “Making Cornbread Mama’s Way”

  1. No flour in my mother's cornbread either, nor sugar. She taught me if I use buttermilk, add soda, if sweet milk, no soda. I make pretty good cornbread, but it's not as good as Mama's.


  2. As I write, there's a box of cornbread mix in my cupboard. This makes me (sort of) want to open it and … wait, I don't have any kind of milk, much less buttermilk. Geez! There goes that 'want to.” Thanks for the nostalgia. I can't remember if Mom used buttermilk or not. I certainly never drank the stuff. I mean I never drank any of it. xoxo


  3. oh my., Now I'm remembering something my Grandmother made with cornbread and other things, like our modern 'taco pie'.
    You browned some ground beef in the skillet, and added corn and canned tomatoes, then poured the cornbread batter on top. Bakied ( don't know how long) and turned out, like you do your cornbread. It made a whole meal by itself. I know she added other things, and I sure wish I had that recipe. I've never been able to duplicate it.
    Thanks for the memory, DJ!


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