Skillet Cornbread

This recipe, like many used in the 19th century, was likely passed down through several generations without ever being written down at all. With a wood stove, the cook would have to do a lot of guessing about when the temperature was just right. Most families didn't have oven thermometers, and there were certainly no thermostats. The temp on the top of the stove was easier to determine. Cooks learned to judge by how fast a drop of water danced atop the flat burners. Besides a hot stove and a cast-iron skillet, the only things you'll need are a big spoon, a fork, 2 mixing bowls, measuring cups and spoons.

For ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup buttermilk, the thicker the better
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon honey or sugar
  • 3/4 cup cornmeal
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons oil or butter, for the pan
  • Pour the buttermilk into a small bowl. Add the egg. Beat the two together with a fork. Stir in oil and honey or sugar. In another bowl, mix cornmeal, salt and baking soda.

    Put the 2 teaspoons of oil or butter into your iron skillet, spreading it over the entire bottom. Get it nice and hot, but not smoking hot.

    Meanwhile, add cornmeal mixture to milk mixture. Stir briefly to mix well before pouring the batter into the hot skillet. Take some big tongs and reach in the oven and adjust the wood so it won't be so hot under your skillet now--I'd say "medium-low" will work fine. Cover the skillet and wait 6-8 minutes, maybe a little more. When you lift the lid, if the cornbread has cooked long enough, it will be nice and firm around the edges and the center just a little soft in the middle and a nice golden look to it (unless you used white cornmeal, that is, in which case the bread will be sort of a beige color.)

    Check after 6 - 8 minutes. (It may take a few minutes more.) Cornbread has cooked long enough when firm around the edges with center almost firm. Careful now! Grab a couple of hot pads and move the pan off the stove so the bread won't dry out. That hot skillet will keep cooking the bread until it's "jest right."

    When it looks like it is, slice you a big wedge and see. If so, get a big pat of butter and test-taste it. If it's still doughy in the middle, put the skillet back on the hot stove and try again. You'll find making it easy one of these days, with no guesswork at all; but today....well, it was just sort of an experiment.


    To learn much more about the cuisine, culture and conflict in the days of the American Civil War, check out Just Following Orders: Escape from Guerrilla Warfare in 1863