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 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.