HOW TO PERFECT A SOUTHERN STAPLE
Southern chef Sean Brock shares the key to cast-iron cornbread.
Sean Brock looks at the American South differently these days.
After more than a decade running restaurants like McCrady’s and Husk in Charleston, the James Beard Award-winning chef, star of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, and bonafide expert on Southern cuisine has come to see the mass of land beneath the Mason-Dixon Line as not just a large, homogenous territory steeped in the same beloved cooking traditions, but rather a multitude of distinct microregions, each with its own unique stories to tell. And dishes to share.
For Brock, looking through this lens—state to state, coast to mountain, city to holler, sometimes neighborhood to neighborhood—which he does in his new cookbook, aptly titled South, reveals endless histories, traditions, and nuances. And few recipes embody this culinary diversity quite like one of his own personal favorites, cornbread.
“When you are born into Appalachia, some of your very first tastes are things like cornbread,” says Brock, who grew up in rural Virginia. “Those flavors are our earliest and strongest memories, and they become part of our subconscious brain, where we also find nostalgia. That’s why we crave those things so much, because they make us feel safe and secure and nurtured.” (Brock would also later discover that his great-grandfather owned a grist mill, so cornmeal is quite literally in his DNA.)
Cornbread—a seemingly simple dish with roots in Native American cooking—turns out to be a wildly regional dish, as shown in the five different recipes featured in Brock’s book. Classic cornbread with buttermilk and lard, cracklin’ cornbread with smoked bacon, sour fermented cornbread, rice cornbread, and hot water cornbread with country ham.
All similar, but slightly different, depending on a thousand factors: terrain, climate, crop varietals, native and immigrant traditions, economics, industry, and so on. “It’s this really fascinating matrix,” says Brock. “I was born in 1978, and what I was eating then was a product of the Scots-Irish, Germans, Native Americans, and the changing palette of the United States.”
Despite all of the variables, there does seem to be at least one constant: the cooking vessel.
“I don’t think I’ve ever made cornbread in anything but a cast-iron pan,” says Brock. “For me, cornbread and cast iron just have to happen, for a bunch of reasons,” some of which are not so simple.
“Cast iron is a tricky thing if you’ve never cooked with it before,” he says. “It’s not as reactive as other pans—it’s slow to heat up, and if it gets too hot, it’s hard to cool down, which I think scares a lot of people. Like a fast car, it can get away from you. But the more you use it, the more you realize how versatile cast iron is.”
For Brock, that understanding came with a few lessons in thermodynamics, and in particular, emissivity, which is the power of a surface to radiate energy and emit heat. Different mediums have different rates of emissivity, with cast iron on the higher end of the spectrum, like other matte black surfaces, taking longer to transfer its heat into whatever its cooking, while aluminum, on the lower end of the spectrum, like other reflective metal surfaces, disperses its heat willy-nilly.
“Cast iron holds its heat at a constant, with a density of thermal energy being evenly transferred to the food,” says Brock.
Think of it as slow release, hence the great sear but rare interior it often yields in steak.
Which brings us to the essence of cornbread.
“The crust,” says Brock. “To me, cornbread is that texture, and the difference between putting your batter in cast iron versus aluminum is the difference between cornbread and sheet cake.”
But even still, in order for that ideal consistency to happen, two key steps are necessary.
One, start with a smooth, well-seasoned cast iron, which is polymerized and thus repels and quickly evaporates any residual water, which is the enemy of crust. Even the smallest amount of steam will lead to a sad, soggy, less flavorful cornbread.
And two, avoid the “low-and-slow” ethos of so many Southern staples, instead getting your pan nice and hot. “I learned this from my mother,” says Brock. “As soon as she started cooking, she would put the pan in the oven and it would just stay there, sometimes for an hour.”
Just as importantly, that pan has to stay nice and hot, which is why all of Brock’s cornbread recipes require you to move the cast iron to a stovetop burner over high heat before adding the batter and then returning it to the oven to cook that crumbly center, just like his Mom did, too.
Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy Mill in Edisto Island, SC
“She knew that if she didn’t maintain that exact temperature, the crust wouldn’t work,” says Brock. “Again, because cast iron is slow to heat up, once the temperature drops, it’ll never get back to where it needs to be in time to keep it from sticking and get the exact color and crispness you want.”
And trust him. Because if you’ve ever seen one of Brock’s cornbreads, you know they’re the sort of crackly golden-brown perfection that would make any Southern mother, whatever her microregion, proud.
For the past 12 years Sean was the chef of McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina. Sean was also the Founding Chef of the Husk restaurant concepts throughout the American South. Chef Brock will soon open his flagship restaurant compound in East Nashville, TN, his first solo venture. Sean is creating a space that will be dedicated to exploring the possibilities of Southern food for many years to come. Raised in rural Virginia, he has been involved in the repatriation of the Southern pantry and cuisine for the past 20 years. In 2010, Brock won the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Southeast, and is a four-time finalist for Outstanding Chef, as well as a three-time finalist for Rising Star Chef. His first cookbook, Heritage, is a New York Times Bestseller and winner of the 2015 James Beard Award for American Cooking. Brock hosted season 2 of the Emmy Award-winning television show Mind of a Chef, produced by Anthony Bourdain. Sean is currently featured on the popular Netflix show, Chef’s Table and just released his newest cookbook SOUTH.
Chef Brock most recently started a lifelong project entitled “Before its Too Late” dedicated to recording and sharing the cultural and culinary wisdom of the American South. The project includes a podcast, his personal photography and eventually a large format book to showcase his discoveries.
Here's Sean's recipe and method for Jimmy Red Cornbread: Butter Pat Family Receipts.