A good, basic cornbread should be moist and tender with deep corn flavor. As to the level of sweetness, back in my TimeInc. magazine days, there was always a battle between the editors and test kitchen staff as to sugar vs. no sugar. I’m more salty than sweet, and so often err on the side of savory; admittedly, though, a bit of honey or brown sugar adds some nice caramelization. Over the years, I’ve come to rely on browned butter, which offers both depth of flavor and a nutty, almost-sweet note. You can mix this up and pour the batter right into a lightly greased baking pan or cake pan, but if you’re like me and partial to the golden, crunchy edges, pull out a cast-iron skillet and heat some butter until browned and nutty before adding to the batter.
This recipe is also very forgiving. When supplies are low, I’ve substituted all oil for the melted butter; stirred in about 1/4 cup sour cream and once, when low on milk, I made this with half whole cow’s milk, half almond milk. I’ve also baked up one and a half times the recipe in a 10-inch skillet. If you want a semi-sweet “dessert” cornbread, up the honey/sugar and stir in some wild blueberries or fresh chopped peaches. Either way, it’s great the next day, toasted in a skillet to serve with eggs or crumbled over yogurt. If it gets neglected and a little dried out, dip it in buttermilk and eat as a snack or use leftovers for cornbread dressing or toasted breadcrumbs for a salad or to add some texture to chili or stew.
Brown butter cornbread
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups cornmeal, fine or medium-grind
1 tablespoon brown sugar or honey (optional, see note above)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1 1/4 cups buttermilk (or milk plus 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, or half-and-half)
1/4 cup vegetable oil, such as avocado, grapeseed, sunflower
1 large egg
1/2 cup frozen, thawed corn kernels (or fresh, cooked in season)
*Optional add-ins: 1/2 cup cooked, crumbled bacon; 2 tablespoons fresh chopped chives; 1/2 cup grated cheddar, Comté, or Pepper Jack cheese; 1/2 cup roasted green chiles; chopped fresh dill plus feta
*Sweet version: double the honey or sugar plus 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup blueberries or grated zucchini or chopped peaches
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place one 8- to 9-inch cast-iron skillet (or other heavy-bottom, ovenproof pan) over medium heat. Add butter and allow to melt, swirling pan occasionally, so butter coats the sides and bottom, until it’s frothy and deep brown and starts to smell nutty; watch it carefully so it doesn’t burn, 5 to 7 minutes. Pour butter into a large bowl and do not wipe out the pan. You can also place the skillet in the oven to stay warm while it’s preheating, but be careful not to let the residual butter in the skillet burn. Alternatively, lightly grease a 9-inch square or round pan or a 12-cup muffin pan.
2. Weigh flour and cornmeal or gently spoon into a measuring cup and swipe with a knife edge to remove any excess. Whisk together, in a medium bowl, flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, salt and pepper. To the bowl of browned butter, add buttermilk, oil, and egg; stir just to combine. Pour the liquid mixture into the flour mixture and stir quickly and gently until just combined; be careful not to overbeat the mixture, just stir enough to moisten all the dry ingredients. Stir in corn and, if using, any other optional ingredients. Remove the skillet from the oven and pour the batter into the skillet; bake 20 to 25 minutes, depending on the size of the pan, until the edges start to pull away from the sides and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. NOTE: depending on what you add in, i.e. roasted chilies, cheese, etc., you might need a few extra minutes cooking time. Remove pan from the oven and let cool 5 minutes before cutting and serving. Serve warm as is, or with honey, butter and hot sauce. Any leftovers can be stored, well-wrapped, at room temperature; or freeze, if desired.