A Taste of History with Joyce White

Cornbread:  The Evolution of a Recipe

by Joyce M. White, 2011, updated 2014

The native American grain corn, also known as maize or Indian Corn, has been consumed by Americans (and subsequently people all over the world) since the time of discovery of the New World, and, of course, for centuries before that by the indigenous populations of all of the Americas.  Cornbread is a great recipe to track through the past few centuries because it was so prolific a crop in America that it was consumed across class, race, and regional lines.  Corn lends itself to change very easily and therefore variations of cornbread recipes through time, in regards to types of ingredients and technological advances, have enabled it to keep its important place in American cuisine.  

The most basic cornbread recipe was made using cornmeal, water, cooking fat, and possibly salt.  Native Americans may
have also added other ingredients to make a more substantial and nutritious cake such as sunflower seeds, nuts and berries. Native Americans would fry the cakes on hot rocks or in an iron skillet (after contact with Europeans).  Settlers commonly called this type of
cornbread, “Hoe Cake,” because they could be baked on a garden hoe held or wedged up against an open fire. These small individual cakes were cooked and eaten with soups or stews. 

American home cooks eventually started adding additional ingredients as wealth increased and additional  products became easier to acquirer such as yeast, butter, eggs, milk, buttermilk, sugar and molasses.  These additional ingredients transformed the dense plain hoe-cake into a lighter and sweeter cornmeal cake.

Eventually, by the 1840s the first wave of chemical leavenings such as pearlash (potassium carbonate) or saleratus (potassium bicarbonate) were in relative common usage in American kitchens.  By the middle of the 19th century, these chemicals, which could be bitter in taste, were replaced with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate).  By the third quarter of the 19th century, yeast powders (baking soda and cream of tartar sold together but in separate containers with instructions on how to mix), now sold already mixed as baking powder, also emerged.  Cornbread recipes using these chemicals were offered alongside traditional ones using yeast.

In addition, wheat flour was added to lighten the taste and density of traditional corn breads made with just cornmeal.  Similarly, as sugar became more affordable and accessible it became a regular ingredient in the recipe.  Although, traditional cornbread was not sweet at all in the south, regional preferences for sweetness in the recipe did develop.  For example, in the north, molasses was added as early as the beginning of the 19th century.  As a result of the growing taste for sugar in cornbread, most American cornbread recipes of the 21st century are  sweet.   

400 Years of Cornbread Recipes

Fighting Old Nep:  The Foodways of Enslaved Afro-Marylanders 1634-1864 by Michael Twitty, 2006

1 cup of white stone-ground cornmeal
¾ cup boiling hot water
½ tsp salt
¼ cup of lard, vegetable oil or shortening

Mix the cornmeal and salt in a bowl.  Add the boiling water, stir constantly and mix it well and allow the mixture to sit for about ten minutes.  Melt the frying fat in the skillet and get it hot, but do not allow it to reach smoking.  Two tablespoons of batter can be scooped up to make a hoecake.  Form it into a small thin pancake and add to the pan.  Fry on each side 2-3 minutes until firm and lightly brown.  Set on paper towels to drain and serve immediately once all the hoecakes have been cooked.

Indian Sunflower Seed Bread
Cooking Wild Foods the American Indian Way by Dawn Manyfeathers, 2000

3 ¼ cups sunflower seeds
3 ¼ cups water
2 ½ tsp salt
6 Tbsp corn flour
1 cup sunflower oil
Put the sunflower seeds, water, and salt into a covered pot and bring to a boil.  Simmer slowly for 1½ hours.  After this cooking time, crush the seeds and make a paste. Add the corn flour to the paste one tablespoon at a time to thicken.  The dough should hold together easily for patting out.  When the dough is cool enough to handle, work it with your hands to smooth it, the pat it out into 4-5 inch thin circles.  If you oil your hands before handling the dough, the dough will not stick to them.

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet.  Fry the circles of dough on each side until golden brown and thoroughly done. Drain on paper towels and serve hot.  You may also want to sprinkle some powdered sugar over them of dip pieces into honey.  These are also good with homemade jellies. 

Johnny Cake, or Hoe Cake
American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, Albany, NY: 1796 (the first published book of American cookery)

Scald 1 pint of milk and put to 3 pints of Indian meal, and half pint of flower--bake before the fire. Or scald with milk two thirds of the Indian meal, or wet two thirds with boiling water, add salt, molasses and shortening, work up with cold water pretty stiff, and bake as above. 

Corn Meal Bread
The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, 1824

Rub a piece of butter the size of an egg into a pint of corn meal, make a batter with two eggs and some new milk, add a spoonful of yeast, set it by the fire an hour to rise, butter little pans and bake it.

Indian Batter Cakes.
Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats by Eliza Leslie, Boston: 1828

A quart of sifted Indian meal, [mixed with the flour]
A handful of wheat flour,
Three eggs, well beaten,
Two table-spoonsful of fresh brewer’s yeast, or four of home-made yeast
A large tea-spoonful of salt
A quart of milk

Make the milk quite warm, and then put into it the yeast and salt, stirring them well.  Beat the eggs, and stir them into the mixture.  Then, gradually, stir in the flour and Indian meal.
Cover the batter, and set it to rise four or five hours.  If the weather is cold, and you want the cakes for breakfast, you may mix the batter late the night before.

Should you find it sour in the morning, dissolve a small tea-spoonful of pearl-ash in as much water as will cover it, and stir it into the batter, letting it sit afterwards at least an hour.  This will take off the acid.

Grease your baking-iron, and pour on it, a ladlefull of the batter.  When brown on one side, turn the cake on the other.

Batter Cakes (associated with Thomas Jefferson)
The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, 1824

(Thomas Jefferson supposedly enjoyed eating corn batter cakes for breakfast.  Mary Randolph’s recipe is thought to be the type of batter cake Jefferson ate on a regular basis.)

​Boil two cups of small homony very soft; add an equal quantity of corn meal with a little salt, and a large spoonful of butter; make it in a thin batter with three eggs, and a sufficient quantity of milk--beat all together some time, and bake them on a griddle, or in waffle irons. When eggs cannot be procured, yeast makes a good substitute; put a spoonful in the batter, and let it stand an hour to rise.

Plain Indian Cakes
The Good Housekeeper by Sarah Josepha Hale, 1841

Take a quart of sifted meal, sprinkle a little salt over it, and mix it with scalding water, stirring it well; bake it on a board before the fire, or on a tin in a stove.  It is healthy food for children, eaten warm (not hot) with molasses or milk.

 Indian cake made with buttermilk, or sour milk, with a little cream or butter rubbed into the meal, and a tea-spoonful of pearlash in the  milk, is very light and nutritious.


Indian Johnny Cake
The American Home Cookbook by an American Lady, New York: 1854

1 quart, 1 cup flour, 2 eggs, 1 cup of molasses, 1 tea-spoonful of saleratus, 1 of ginger, then stir in the meal.

Corn Cream Cake
Jennie June’s American Cookery Book by Jane Cunningham Croly, 1870

Take a quart of milk, or buttermilk, and put a sour thick cream mixed with sufficient bi-carbonate of soda to sweeten it, add cornmeal enough to the milk and cream to thicken it to the consistency of pound cake, stirring it in; put it an inch thick in floured pans, and bake it in a quick oven.

Corn Bread
The American Home Cookbook by an American Lady, New York: 1854

1 quart of milk, 4 eggs, tablespoon of sugar, 1 of butter, tea-spoonful of salt, some nutmeg, a large tea-spoonful of soda, and 2 of cream of tartar; stir in the meal until it makes a thick batter and bake in buttered tins in a quick oven.

New England Corn Cake
The White House Cookbook by Fanny Lemira Gillette, Chicago: 1887

One quart of milk, one pint of corn-meal, one teacupful of wheat flour, a teaspoonful of salt; two tablespoonfuls of melted butter. Scald the milk, and gradually pour it on the meal; when cool, add the butter and salt, also a half cup of yeast. Do this at night; in the morning beat thoroughly and add two well-beaten eggs, and a half teaspoonful of soda, dissolved in a spoonful of water. Pour the mixture into buttered deep earthen plates, let it stand fifteen minutes to rise again, then bake from twenty to thirty minutes. 

Corn Bread
The Times Cookbook, Various California Women, Los Angeles, 1905

NO. 6. CORN BREAD. Mrs. N.S. Alling, Lamanda Park, Cal.--One and one-half cup yellow corn meal, one and one-half
cup flour, one-half cup white sugar, one-half teaspoon salt, three teaspoons baking powder; sift into a large bowl and pour over it one pint sweet milk, butter size of small egg, melted soft; stir in one well-beaten egg at the last. Put in a well-greased biscuit pan and bake forty minutes in a good heated oven, being careful not to burn. To be eaten while hot, with butter, or with sweet cream and sugar.

Here is the quintessential late 20th to early 21st century recipe for cornbread.  It contains chemical leavening  instead of yeast for convenience, sugar for sweetness, and wheat flour and eggs for lightness:

Quaker Cornbread Recipe

1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Quaker or Aunt Jemima enriched corn meal
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
1 cup skim milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 egg whites or 1 egg, beaten

Heat oven to 400 F. Grease 8 or 9 inch pan.  Combine dry ingredients. Stir in milk, oil and egg, mixing just until dry ingredients are moistened. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown and wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.