If you’ve ever been to a pig pickin’ in North Carolina – or really to any barbecue restaurant in any state — there is bound to be one side that will be gracing your plate more often than any other (except maybe coleslaw): cornbread. Originally a Native American dish, cornbread was adopted by the people of the Southern colonies and quickly became a staple for just about everyone.
Not all cornbreads are created equal, however. Baking time, ingredients (such as the addition of sugar), and the way it is cooked all differ, depending on where you are and who you ask.
In order to up our game and actually learn how to make cornbread (instead of just using a box mix), we sought out someone we thought might know a thing or two about the staple side.
Pitmaster Sam Jones is the third-generation operator of Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, North Carolina (population: just over 5,000). He is also the founder of Sam Jones BBQ, which opened in 2015, and a 2018 James Beard Award nominee for “Best Chef Southeast” (Skylight Inn BBQ won a JBA for “American Classics” in 2003, too).
Jones is also the author (with Daniel Vaughn) of the new book,. In Whole Hog BBQ, Jones details his own cornbread recipe which, after trying, is pretty damn good.
As he explains it:
“When I was a boy, the commodity hogs were fatter. A cut pan (I don’t know why this round aluminum pan had that name) was put under a finished hog to catch the grease when it was quartered. The pan held about two gallons, and we’d need to change it out after three or four hogs. That’s a lot of lard.
Today, we get our lard from the slaughterhouse. It’s not the hydrogenated stuff from the grocery store shelf. But if you don’t have access to good lard from a local butcher, strained bacon grease will also work.
“Our cornbread recipe calls for four ounces of lard per pan. We still put a pan under the hogs to catch the fat when we quarter them on the pit.”
We use two stands, which are just shy of four gallons, of lard a week at the restaurant, which is about sixty pounds. Our cornbread recipe calls for four ounces of lard per pan. We still put a pan under the hogs to catch the fat when we quarter them on the pit. The collected fat is strained and added to the lard that we have to buy, but it’s not even a quarter of the lard we need.
The hushpuppy mix we use is Moss Light n’ Sweet Hushpuppy Mix with Onions from Buffaloe Milling in Kittrell, North Carolina. It’s available online or on store shelves in Virginia and North and South Carolina. Moss’s blend uses flour and cornmeal, like just about any other hushpuppy mix out there, so feel free to substitute. Just make sure there’s a bit of salt and sugar in the mix, and add a teaspoon of onion powder if it’s missing from the one you choose.”
Now, it’s time to make your own.
You can pick up Whole Hog BBQ by Sam Jones and Daniel Vaughn.
Old Fashioned Cornbread Recipe
(Makes 12 servings)
- 3 cups white cornmeal
- 5 tbsp hushpuppy mix
- .5 tsp salt
- 25 cups water
- .75 cups lard or bacon grease
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a large bowl, stir the cornmeal, hushpuppy mix, and salt together. Add the water slowly while mixing and combine thoroughly. The goal is a batter that’s the consistency of a thin pancake batter. Add more water if necessary to achieve this.
- In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the lard. Pour it into a 9 by 13-inch pan, coating the bottom and sides, but do not pour off the remaining lard!
- Pour in the batter. The fat will come up around all the edges. It might look wrong, but that’s the goal.
- Bake for 35 minutes, until the cornbread is golden brown on top. Be careful of the hot liquid fat in the pan when pulling it from the oven.
- Serve immediately or within the hour. If you keep this overnight, you could probably use it to shingle a house. I don’t recommend it.
Reprinted with permission from Whole Hog BBQ by Sam Jones and Daniel Vaughn, copyright © 2019. Photographs by Denny Culbert. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.