Now, I’m a big proponent of capturing family recipes while you can. In the south, old school cooks rarely use recipes, so I think it’s super important to take the time to sit down with your parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents when you can, and write down those old recipes – much like I did with my cookbook. Doing this not only captures those recipes, but also the memories associated with them for future generations.
In Heather’s family, it happened by way of her second cousin’s project in college. She created a small, 8-page booklet that contains 12 of Kate and Elmer’s most popular recipes. One of those recipes was for this very cornbread.
Now, admittedly, I did make a few tweaks to the recipe to make it easier to follow. For example, when it comes to the buttermilk and water measurements, Elmer’s recipe said, “Add just enough buttermilk to make it thick. Add water to make thin batter (like cake batter).” And while I absolutely LOVE how he described that, not everyone is so culinarily inclined and might just want to make some cornbread without knowing exactly what that means. So I tested it a few different ways and settled on this ratio of buttermilk to water. But feel free to follow Mr. Wheeles’ instructions if you wish.
And, we’re just going to head this issue off at the pass here… Yes, this recipe includes a measly tablespoon of sugar. And before some of y’all start with the whole “no real Southerner would put sugar in cornbread” deal, just know that it doesn’t get much more southern than Mellow Valley, Alabama – where they’re from. So, stop. I hear it all the time.
This is, by no means, a sweet cornbread. After tasting it with and without the sugar, I much prefer the version with it. It almost helps to enhance the corn flavor without being sweet at all. But the recipe works perfectly fine without it, if you so choose to leave it out.
Tips for the BEST cornbread:
This recipe calls for self-rising cornmeal. If you don’t have self-rising cornmeal, I’ve included a note in the recipe card to tell you how to make it from plain cornmeal.
The real trick to getting the perfect, thick, dark brown crust on cornbread is a high oven temperature and preheating the skillet with oil. Traditionally, I’ll put a little oil or vegetable shortening in the skillet and place it in the oven while the oven preheats. The thing is that now many modern ovens preheat really quickly and that doesn’t give the skillet enough time to get super hot. If you have one of those ovens, I’d recommend allowing the skillet to stay in the oven for about 5 minutes after it’s reached the target temp. Test the skillet by sprinkling a pinch of corn meal into the oil. If it sizzles, it’s ready. You can also preheat your skillet on the stovetop over medium high heat. When the oil starts shimmering and just gives off a touch of smoke, it’s ready.
Buttermilk is key to this recipe’s flavor and the acid in it reacts with the leavening to help give the cornbread lift. Low fat or fat free buttermilk is more traditional, but whole buttermilk will work as well. If you don’t have buttermilk, you can make a quick buttermilk substitute like this.
Like your cornbread dark golden brown on top, a few minutes under a low broiler will toast it right up. Just watch it carefully.
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil or shortening
- 1 large egg
- 1 heaping tablespoon real mayonnaise
- 2 cups self-rising cornmeal
- 1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1/2 cup water
- Preheat the oven to 425°F. Add 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil or shortening to an 8-inch cast iron skillet and place it in the oven to preheat while the oven preheats. (If your oven preheats quickly, you might want to leave the skillet in the oven to heat for at least 5 minutes once it's reached the target temp to allow the skillet to heat through. This is what gives the cornbread its thick, dark brown outer crust.)
- In a large bowl, whisk the egg and mayo together. Add the corn meal, sugar, buttermilk, and water and mix together until the batter is smooth.
- Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and rotate it to ensure the oil has coated the entire bottom of the skillet. Pour the batter into the skillet, being cautious as the hot oil can splatter a bit. You'll know the skillet is pre-heated enough if the batter sizzles when you pour it in. Return the skillet to the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. You can also turn the oven on low broil for 2 to 3 minutes if you like the top really brown.
- Remove from the oven and immediately invert to remove the cornbread from the skillet. If left in the skillet, the bottom will lose its crisp, crunchy crust. Serve warm.
If nutritional values are provided, they are an estimate and will vary depending on the brands used. If calorie count and other nutritional values are important to you, I recommend grabbing your favorite brands and plugging those ingredients into an online nutritional calculator.
I know this isn’t a Southern thing, but I never buy mayonnaise, only Miracle Whip. Would it do any good to use Miracle Whip in this cornbread recipe, or should I just make it without?
My go-to is Jiffy mix, because I guess I’m lazy & like the taste, also. I’m 70ish, and have actually only ever made true cornbread a few times.
I’ve not tried it that way, but it should work, still.
Elmer’s cornbread is awesome and moist.
Thank you for the recipe. I have it 5 stars.
So glad to hear you enjoyed it, kd!
I though I read the different measurements for 8, 10 and 12 inch skillets on the original email, however I cannot find them now.
I’ve only got it figured this way.
I have a huge cast iron fry pan. You think doubling this would be an issue?
I’ve not tried that, so I can’t say for sure. Seems like it would work with a little adjustment of the cook time.
I have been making cornbread per my southern (from Cullman) grandmother’s “recipe” for forever. My daddy loves it! My “Yankee” mom learned how to make it from Grandma for daddy. After my mom was in the hospital for an extended stay a few years ago, my daddy became the cornbread baker since he could live off the stuff. He still makes it for them : ) . They are both 90 years old. It is the ONLY thing my daddy cooks. lol. It is a staple in all of our families. HOWEVER, I must try this recipe! I think I will have the best cornbread in our family now! Thank you for the recipe. And the story is so sweet! Oh! And I can’t wait to make my own buttermilk!!! Thank you, Linda Copeland, for the recipe!
I’m sure it won’t replace the tried and true family recipe, but I hope you love it nonetheless! Enjoy!
I always stir the hot oil back into the cornbread instead of the cornbread into the oil. Lol, I don’t know why other than it was how my mother and grandmother both did it.
And the way they did it was the right way! 🙂
Pretty much the recipe that I have always gone by except it has never been written. Just make it like my mother and grandmother, by sight. You are so right. My maternal grandmother had a teacake recipe that she made but not recorded. It is now forever lost. My excuse is that I was only 2 years old when she passed. I never got the chance to work with her in her kitchen.
I agree with you about the sugar, it accentuates the corn flavor without adding sweetness. But to the adding of water, I just add my buttermilk and a bit of 2% milk (since it is full of water) and sometimes just the buttermilk. I have also added a pinch or two of brown sugar to the top, but only when making the cornbread as a dessert to be served with butter and syrup or pear preserves.
My mother and grandmother are gone now, so it is just my memory of recipes and working in the kitchen or watching how things were made and what went in them. No measuring by either one,, but by sight and taste. It is the way that I still cook. I am in the process of trying to write down my recipes to pass on to my sons.
Those recipes will be treasured gifts to your sons!
Thank you for sharing your recipe: Here are some of my personal cook’s notes I wanted to share on making cornbread.
Bring buttermilk and eggs to room temperature. (I use low setting on my microwave for buttermilk…it will curdle fast if too high), and I put eggs in warm water. Use this method for any baked goods to get maximum loft.
Experiment with cornmeal (yellow/white) to flour ratios to find a texture that you like. I use a 1:1 ratio cornmeal:flour, as I like the texture better (for my taste).
I have found that putting the skillet on the stove (with the oil) more convenient than putting in the oven.
I have a Griswold cast iron 10″ skillet that I use for cornbread. Cooks perfectly; releases perfectly.
I’m from the south, and we cut our cornbread. I use a dough scraper and cut the cornbread in the pan in 8 equal pieces and serve with butter and maple syrup. My father was from GA. He used “Alaga” syrup. Ugh! I never developed that tasted.
Alaga syrup is made just down the road from me! Thanks for sharing your tips, Leisa!
Love your blog and recipes. I’m from Mississippi and I couldn’t be much more “Southern” either. My Mother and Grandmother both used a little sugar in their cornbread. About what you list in this recipe. It did not by any means make the cornbread sweet. What it does is help tame down the little bitterness in the cornmeal. I have always made it with the little sugar and mayonnaise and it is one the most requested things from my family for me to make. As for the question of what makes something “Southern” I have often wondered about that also. My daughter married a man from India and he was astonished that I cooked with cardamom and turmeric. He said those are Indian spices. I replied apparently no one ever told my Mother and Grandmother that because they used them and therefore that is probably why I use them. Where do these ideas come from?
Thanks so much, Charlotte! And I agree 100%!
Love all if this.
I for some reason don’t have your Breakfast Bites cookbook. Could you please send it to me?
Love the recipes.
Good point about what makes things Southern! In our case, way back, we only ran up on sweet cornbread in the north but now it’s served everywhere. I know I’ll keep enjoying your recipes and stories. Thanks a lot!
Stacy, I absolutely love your recipes and I may try this one. In my household and my mom, grandmom and me always made/make cornbread with self rising cornmeal and buttermilk. No other additives. Definitely not sugar! We’re just too southern for the sugar. But I may try this with the egg and the mayonnaise, I’ve never tried any additives at all so thanks for the recipe.
Thanks so much, Donna! I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the recipes! I can assure you Kate and Elmer Wheeles were as Southern as they come. I’m not sure where this idea that adding sugar to cornbread somehow wasn’t Southern. But my curiosity about what is and isn’t Southern and who gets to make those designations extends beyond way cornbread. Is something Southern because of the physical location in which it’s made? Is it about the people who made it and where they hail from? If someone raised in the South makes cornbread in New York, is it no longer Southern? Is it about ingredients? Preparation method? I have so many questions! 🙂 Hope you finds tons more you enjoy! And that mayo is a pretty great addition.
Hi Stacey, I’m curious as to why lowfat or nonfat buttermilk was considered more traditional than whole buttermilk? I would have thought it would be the other way around?
I’m so glad you asked this question! I was going to address it in the post, but thought it was getting a bit wordy. So, real buttermilk was the byproduct of churning butter. After the fats all combine to form butter, the liquid left over is buttermilk. And as a result of this process, buttermilk is nearly fat free (because all the fat is in the butter). Today’s buttermilk is cultured. That means it’s not the result of actual butter making and rather is made by adding a live culture to it – much like yogurt. All of this to say, most old school recipes that call for buttermilk were created assuming the buttermilk would be real buttermilk and therefor nearly fat free or very low fat. Either will work in this recipe but I imagine that the low fat or nonfat buttermilk is much easier to find – at least it is here. Hope that helps!
Hello my Southern Brother from another Mother!
As I read your comment about low-fat and fat-free buttermilk, it reminded me of when I was a child and my parents used a gallon of skim or 2% milk to make their own buttermilk. When my Dad saw the buttermilk in the fridge was getting low, he’d reserve a cup of it to use as a “starter” for the next gallon. I saw the jug sitting in the corner, close to the wall, on the counter top at least overnight. It would get tested by my Mom the next day and it sat there until it was thick. Through the years I’ve used both kinds of buttermilk and can’t taste much, if any, difference. Both are good! As for mayonnaise, it’s uses are many and can be used in cakes as well. If I’m out of an oil for a bread/cake recipe, mayo would be my choice to avoid going to the grocery store…and that’s a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say. A salute to cornbread & buttermilk!
Your Southern Sister from a different Mister.
Linda! What a fun memory!! I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of anyone making their own cultured buttermilk! I love that! And mayo makes a great cake, right??? Great to hear from you!
Stacey, I found a recipe about how to make homemade buttermilk. If making this for the first time you’d need to buy a pint or quart of buttermilk from the store to get the “starter” amount, but after that you’d never have to but it again. It’s the same basic way my parents made it back in the late 1950’s and will last for 2 weeks with good refrigeration after it gets thick on the counter top. Oops! I think I gave away my 70 yr.-old age. LOL Hope all you buttermilk lovers enjoy this!
How to make Cultured Buttermilk
Very interesting! Thanks for sharing, Linda!
Thank you Stacey! And Linda too!
Is it possible to get all 12 recipes? I am a 75-year-old Southern cook and I’m still learning. Love your blog!
I’ll have to see what I can do. 🙂 Thanks, Nancy!
I am an old Southern cook, 79 years old hailing from Gadsden Alabama. Cornbread was a staple in my parent’s home. I mean it was not just served with foods you normally eat cornbread with it was ALWAYS served with every meal regardless of what was on the table, even breakfast had leftover cornbread available if you wanted it with your eggs, nevermind the late-night snack.
This is pretty much a typical recipe for southern cornbread except for the mayonnaise. You do not address this in your narrative and I was wondering what the mayonnaise does for the cornbread, what is the purpose of adding the additional calories?
An avid fan.
Thanks, Marti! Since mayo is an emulsion of oil and eggs, it provides moisture and a little extra lift and binder for the cornbread. Hope that helps!
Is the corn bread sweet?
I talk about that in the post. No, it’s not sweet.
Hey, Got a question about the Great Grandmother, Kate. Where was she from? And what was her maiden name? She looks exactly like my people even has my chin , too.
She’s from central Alabama as well.