Baking with sourdough starter has enjoyed a resurgence during the dark days of COVID quarantines and isolation. Now that COVID is receding into the rearview mirror and shopping for groceries is becoming less of a soul-sapping, face-masked, hand-sanitized, social-distancing drudgery, cooking with sourdough starter may fall back out of favor.
But while it is still “a thing” — here’s my fail-safe, works-every-time, skillet cornbread recipe: crispy outside, light and tender inside, coherent enough not to crumble when portioned, but definitely not cake-like. It’s serious cornbread.
One caveat: You’ll need a big, well-seasoned cast iron skillet — I use a 10-incher because it’s what I have, but a 9-incher or a 12-incher should do as well. Like most of my favorite recipes, I love this one because it incorporates my favorite go-to kitchen staples: a cast-iron skillet and sourdough starter.
1 ½ cups sourdough starter*
1 ½ cups yellow cornmeal**
½ cup all-purpose flour***
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup buttermilk
¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp shortening (melted lard, butter, mixed lard and butter, or vegetable oil)
1 Tbsp brown sugar, honey, or sorghum
1 tsp salt
Mix all ingredients (including the 2 Tbsp of shortening, reserving the ¼ cup of shortening for the skillet). Batter should be the consistency of a thickish pancake or waffle batter. Cover bowl with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel and allow to ferment at room temperature for four to five hours (some folks get squicked-out by allowing the raw-egg batter to sit out so long, but I’ve never had problems with it).
Preheat the oven to 400° F.
Pour ¼ cup of shortening in the cast-iron skillet and heat on the stovetop to smoking.
Pour the cornbread batter into the hot skillet (if using the smaller, 9-inch skillet, do not fill above the last inch from the top).
Place in the preheated oven and bake for 25 minutes, or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.
I serve this on a wooden board in the middle of the table out of the pan.
* Lots of folks go on and on about “finding excuses” to use “sourdough discard,” apparently under the theory that no one uses their starter often enough to keep it viable, so periodically a certain portion must be “discarded” and the starter fed with fresh flour and water. Some specify using “unfed” starter out of the theory that it is “hungrier” and therefore more “active.” I pull my starter out of the fridge 30 minutes before using, take what I need, replenish it with a like amount of what I remove, and put it back in the fridge.
** I expect my sourdough starter to earn its keep — and I never add additional store-bought yeast, baking powder, or baking soda. But if you want an even lighter, higher-rise cornbread, substitute two cups of self-rising cornmeal mix for the cornmeal and flour and reduce the salt to ½ tsp.
If you don’t have self-rising cornmeal mix, make your own:
1 ½ cup cornmeal
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
If you don’t have sourdough starter, make your own. There are plenty of recipes online, some calling for potatoes and potato water, some calling for rye or whole-wheat flour, some calling for granulated yeast, but it’s basically just mixing up some flour with a pinch of sugar and lukewarm water to make a thinnish wet paste, letting it sit overnight loosely covered, and feeding it by stirring in a spoon of flour and a couple of spoons of water twice a day for a few days until you see it begin to work. Keep utensils as clean as possible to avoid mold. After a few days it should be ready (if not, dump it out and start again). Feed it well, cover closely, and refrigerate until needed.
– Mike Howard