There are many ways to make cornbread, but the classic method - at least, in the South - involves a cast-iron skillet. Unlike sweet and cakey Northern versions that are baked in a square pan and are sometimes better suited to the dessert table, Southern cornbread contains neither sugar nor flour, so it has a much more savory and strong corn flavor, and a hearty but still moist crumb. Southern cornbread also should have a crunchy crust (otherwise, why use the cast-iron pan?). Note that you will be moving the hot skillet in and out of the oven multiple times and will also be maneuvering the hot skillet to flip the cooked cornbread out of the pan. The skillet handle will be hot, so use good-quality potholders.Savory skillet-baked Sothern-style cornbread should boast hearty corn flavor, a sturdy, moist crumb, and a dark brown crust. For the right texture, we used fine-ground cornmeal (such as Quaker) but you can use fine- or -medium ground stone-ground cornmeal for more personality (but avoid coarse-ground cornmeal). Toasting it in the oven for a few minutes intensified the corn flavor. Buttermilk added a sharp tang that worked well with the corn, and soaking the cornmeal in the buttermilk helped to soften it so our cornbread was moist and tender. When it came to the fat, a combination of butter (for flavor) and vegetable oil (which can withstand high heat without burning) worked best, and greasing the pan with both delivered the crisp crust we were after.
10-inch cast-iron skillet
rimmed baking sheet
liquid measuring cup
4tbspunsalted buttercut into 4 pieces
Get skillet hot. Heat 10-inch cast-iron skillet on middle rack of 450° F oven until hot, about 10 minutes. If you don't preheat the pan, the crust of the cornbread will be soft and pale rather than brown and crunchy.
Toast cornmeal. Spread cornmeal on rimmed baking sheet. Toast cornmeal on lower-middle rack in oven (while skillet is heating up) until fragrant and lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Toasting the cornmeal before making the batter deepens its flavor dramatically.
Soften cornmeal with buttermilk. Transfer warm toasted cornmeal to large bowl and whisk in buttermilk. Let mixture sit for several minutes to soften before making batter. If you skip this step, the cornmeal will retain its hard, crunchy texture in the finished bread. Buttermilk gives cornbread much of its flavor and ensures that the crumb is moist.
Use oil and butter. Add oil to hot skillet and continue to heat in oven until just smoking, about 5 minutes. Remove hot skillet from oven, carefully add butter and gently swirl to melt and incorporate butter. The combination of oil and butter is great because the oil can get very hot without burning. while the butter adds good flavor.
Add fat to batter. Pour all but 1 tablespoon of hot fat in skillet into cornmeal mixture, whisking to incorporate. Whisk in baking powder, baking soda, salt and eggs. Most of the hot fat is added to the batter but some of it is left in the pan to ensure a crisp crust and flawless release of the bread after it's baked. The baking powder and baking soda ensure good rise (without flour, this recipe needs a lot of lift). The eggs add structure and richness, and a healthy dose of salt is essential.
Add batter to hot skillet. Quickly scrape batter into hot skillet. Bake cornbread on middle rack until top begins to crack and sides are golden brown, 12 to 16 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking. The hot skillet is what gives this bread its crunchy crust, so don't let it cool off before adding the batter. Rotate the pan 180 degrees halfway through the baking time to ensure even browning.
Cool, then flip. Let cornbread cool in skillet for 5 minutes, then gently flip out onto wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. If you try to flip the cornbread out before letting it cool slightly, it will crumble apart, so make sure to give it some time to set up first.
From America's Test Kitchen Cooking School (page 535)