Chef Frank Stitt’s Southern Corn Bread

Baking, Chefs, Cook, Fire Smoke & Flavor, Meet, Ultimate BBQ Sides

Last year my dad attended a culinary retreat in Greenwood, Mississippi, that exceeded his expectations by a long shot. By the end of the weekend, he was bombarding me with emails and phone calls about his incredible food experience, which was led by Chef Frank Stitt, who has four restaurants in Birmingham, Alabama, including the flagship Highlands Bar and Grill.

 

To share his excitement, my father immediately mailed me Stitt’s cookbook Southern Table, which I’ve been enjoying as much for the stunning photos as for the fresh ideas on Southern cooking.

 

With the barbecue focus at Williams-Sonoma this month, I thought Chef Stitt would be the perfect person to talk to about a classic side dish to smoked meats: corn bread. As it turns out, I was right – his recipe is more like a tradition or philosophy than a list of ingredients and directions.

 

“Corn bread in the South was a staple in everyone’s kitchen, certainly in my grandparents’ kitchen out on the farm,” Stitt said. “It was never sweet. It’s a hearty, rustic, humble Southern tradition.”

 

According to Stitt, authentic, quality corn bread requires three key ingredients:

 

  • Cornmeal. “If you have freshly milled cornmeal that is organic, obviously that’s the number one choice. There should be three times as much cornmeal as flour.”
  • Buttermilk. “Buttermilk in the South is a sacred ingredient: it’s tangy, flavorful. Often they would have corn bread and dunk it in a big glass of buttermilk. That’s an acquired Southern taste.”
  • Bacon fat. Yes, bacon fat. “It’s not spa food,” he admits. “You just have to eat plenty of vegetables and you’ll be okay. Corn bread made with rendered bacon fat makes for a unique eating experience. One of the key things that we do is really heat up the bacon fat until it is super hot, and we mix that into the batter.”

 

High temperatures are also key for making corn bread Stitt’s way. He says, “You’ve got to heat up your pan and have it sizzling hot – 15 minutes at least in a 425-degree oven – so when you put a little extra fat to pour your batter in, there’s a sizzling sound to ensure a crisp and golden brown crust.”

 

At Highlands Bar and Grill, they’ve been using the same tools to bake corn bread for ages, and that’s just the way Stitt likes it. “We have these two 24-count muffin tins, and they are so old they look like something from an archaeological dig,” he laughs.

 

Stitt has made a mark among food lovers for his ingenuity and knack for reimagining comfort food with European techniques and flair. Here are a few of the ways he’s used his homemade corn bread in the restaurant to create new, inspiring dishes:

 

  • Panzanella. “In the summer we’ll do a corn bread panzanella. We’ll toast big cubes and toss it with fresh local tomatoes, cucumbers, vinegar and olive oil and lots of basil.”
  • Stuffing. “Sometimes we’ll use corn bread as a stuffing for quail. Also strip steak with grilled red onion with a big slice of corn bread and salsa verde. You put the steak on the corn bread and all the juices go into it.”
  • Dessert. “Sometimes we’ll do a sorghum ice cream and serve it on corn bread soaked with sorghum and honey.”

 

“It’s just a wonderful thing to have as part of your dinner instead of baguettes and sourdough,” says Stitt of his favorite bread. “It’s a dreamy thing when done right.”

 

 

Corn Bread

 

Corn bread sweetened with sugar must be a Yankee invention, because corn bread in the South is always a savory staple. We like to keep it simple, but don’t stint on the fat, whether butter or bacon fat (or oil, if you must). Corn bread, corn muffins and corn sticks should all be cooked to a dark shade of golden brown and turned out while hot, the steam rising fragrant with the aromas of corn and bacon as you break into them.

 

2 cups self-rising yellow cornmeal (or substitute 2 cups regular cornmeal plus 1 tsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. baking soda and 3/4 tsp. salt)

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup whole milk

3/4 cup buttermilk

Scant 1/2 cup rendered bacon fat (or 7 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted, or scant 1/2 cup vegetable oil, or a mixture)

1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten

 

Preheat an oven to 450°F.

 

Preheat an 8- to 9-inch cast-iron skillet in the hot oven.

 

Place the cornmeal and flour in a large bowl and stir in the whole milk and buttermilk a little at a time, mixing with a large wooden spoon. The batter will be quite loose.

 

Meanwhile, add the bacon fat to the preheated skillet, return it to the oven, and heat until the fat is very hot, about 5 minutes.

 

Remove the skillet from the oven. Pour all but 1 Tbs. of the hot fat into the cornmeal mixture and stir to combine. Add the egg and stir to combine. Pour the cornmeal mixture into the hot skillet and immediately place it in the oven. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and unmold. Serve hot. Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish.

 

Adapted from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table, by Frank Stitt (Artisan Books, 2004). Photograph by Christopher Hirsheimer.

 

About the author: Olivia Terenzio grew up in Mississippi, where she cultivated a love of sweet potatoes, crawfish and cloth napkins at a young age. A passion for sharing food with friends and family led her into the kitchen and later to culinary school, where she learned how to roast a chicken and decorate a cake like a pro. As a Williams-Sonoma blog editor, she’s now lucky enough to be talking, writing and thinking about food all day.

7 comments about “Chef Frank Stitt’s Southern Corn Bread

  1. How to Make Southern Sweet Tea

  2. L Yoakum

    I have always had wonderful compliments on my southern cornbread and it’s so simple and delicious.
    2 cups of white self rising cornmeal
    l/2 cup of self rising flour
    dash of salt
    Add enough whole buttermilk until batter is the consistency of what a cake mix would be.
    Bake in a 400 degree oven in a iron skillet that has been heated with about 3 tablespoons of oil ( crisco or any other brand works fine)
    Bake 30 min for a delicious cornbread,. have any questions leave under remarks. Guarantee you will not be disappointed!

    Reply
  3. chad...

    pretty similar to my moms cornbread… only she always used white cornmeal….. it was NEVER sweet. I never understood those recipes that had all the added sugar….if your going to do that you might as well open a box of jiffy cornbread

    Reply
  4. The Sweet is in the Milk | Real Southern Men

  5. Shirley Eble

    This is the way my mom and my grandmother have always made our cornbread. Crumble it up in a bowl of buttermilk and spoon it up, you are in heaven.

    Reply
  6. Deyne Meadow

    Wonderful! I don’t like sugar in cornbread,even though I am a Yankee, so always just leave it out — now I can’t wait to try these.
    Has anyone used substitutes for buttermilk? I have a milk sensitivity, so sometimes use Almond or Coconut or Oat Milk instead. I’ve used Coconut Kefir as a buttermilk substitute in cakes and it works well — any thoughts?
    Thanks

    Reply
  7. Jackie

    Hi! I am a true southernlady from Nashville TN. My mother was an incredible cook…she was famous in our little town for her chicken and dumplings…cornbread…sweet tea….homemade chocolate and biscuits…fudge pie…banana pudding…amongst other things. She even opened up a meat &3 resaturant for a good many years. Your cornbread recipe sounds good. Although K,ema” one upped you. A trick to the most beautiful looking and tasting cornbread is as follows: After you pour off some of that hot grease into the batter…take a scant handful of cornmeal and throw it into your remaining hot grease…catter it all around….up the sides of the skillet…everywhere. place back in the oven to brown a little while you are beating that grease into your batter. Now carefully add in the batter in the skillet on top of that browned hot corn meal. When it comes out it will have a whitish crisly coating on the outside. The texture is just lip smacking good. Enjoy

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *