Southern comfort foods you need to try before you die

If you've ever lived in the South, you know that the food down there is different — and absolutely delicious. The cuisine you find in the Southern United States blends African, European, Native American, and other elements to create entrees, salads, stews, and desserts that will have your taste buds doing cartwheels.

If you're visiting the South, all you need to do is go to a nearby restaurant or diner and the menu is sure to be filled with enough southern comfort food to satisfy your every desire. Alternatively, you can learn to make southern cuisine in your own kitchen. That said, while the food isn't difficult to make, it takes a while to master.

If your time is limited, read on to learn about the southern comfort foods you absolutely deserve to eat before you die. If your life passes you by without eating all this food from the South, you will have deprived yourself of some of your life's finest moments.

Ambrosia salad

Ambrosia didn't necessarily originate in the South, but you will certainly find it at plenty of southern potlucks. This variety of fruit salad typically contains mandarin oranges, mini marshmallows, pineapple chunks, and shredded coconut mixed with some sort of dairy ingredient. Some people use mayonnaise, while others use cream cheese, plain yogurt, or whipped cream. The whipped cream version is the best because, well, it's whipped cream. You might find some potluckers add in bananas, maraschino cherries, and nuts too. At that point, you basically have a banana split without the ice cream — and no one would ever dare to complain about that.

Bananas Foster

Originally created in New Orleans, you will find Bananas Foster at a variety of restaurants around the country these days. This delicious dessert is made with bananas, brown sugar, butter, and cinnamon. The bananas and other ingredients are cooked, then alcohol (typically rum and banana liqueur) is added. 

Here's where it gets exciting: the concoction is then ignited! When you light something on fire while cooking, it's either a result of a colossal fail or an expert doing serious business. This is the latter. The flambeed bananas and sauce are served over vanilla ice cream and topped with whipped cream and walnuts.

Beignets

Another favorite out of The Big Easy are beignets (pronounced "ben-yays"). These airy treats are made with square pieces of yeast dough that are fried in hot oil until they puff up. They are then generously dusted with powdered sugar and eaten almost instantaneously, preferably along with a mug of cafe au lait. If you can't make your way to New Orleans to eat them at Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter at least one time, you are living a boring life. That said, luckily for you, beignets aren't very difficult to make at home. Just turn them often in the oil and make sure they don't overcook.

Biscuits and gravy

Biscuits and gravy are a hearty breakfast dish that you'll find in most restaurants and homes in the South. Soft, flaky biscuits are smothered in white gravy that is made from pork sausage drippings, milk, and flour. The gravy typically includes bits of the breakfast sausage, making it even more flavorful, and is seasoned with black pepper. 

If you don't know how to make sausage gravy, there are an abundance of recipes online — or easy just-add-water packets at the grocery store can make a passable version (though you'll really want to try the homemade stuff at least once). As for the biscuits, when making them from scratch just isn't feasible, the Pillsbury ones you pop open and bake will work just fine. Just don't let a Southerner catch you taking shortcuts, though.

Boiled peanuts

Admittedly, boiled peanuts sound bland compared to roasted ones. But they are actually good — really good. 

Raw peanuts that are not quite mature are boiled for hours in salty water over a fire until the shells turn soggy. Then these peanuts are sold at roadside stands all over the South, where residents and tourists alike eat them along with bottles of Coke or sweet tea. 

Tip: It's best to munch on boiled peanuts outdoors, so you can easily spit out those soggy shells because it's nearly impossible to crack them open with your hands. Of course, some people opt to eat these peanuts whole — including the shells. But that's not for amateurs — or northerners, for that matter.

Bourbon bread pudding

For centuries, people have been creating different forms of bread pudding around the world as a use for stale bread. Often made with bread, cream, eggs, sugar, spices, and raisins, modern bread pudding is a hearty comfort food that can really warm you up and fill you up on a dreary day. 

What can make bread pudding even better? Bourbon. In the South, they add a few (or, to be honest, more than a few) dashes of bourbon to an array of recipes and bread pudding is one of them. Bourbon is combined with heavy cream and sugar to create a thick, warm sauce that is drizzled over the warm bread pudding right before serving.

Brunswick stew

Brunswick stew is a hearty, tomato-based stew that is popular in the South. It typically features lima beans, corn, and other vegetables, along with some sort of meat. The base includes barbecue sauce and a little hot sauce for some heat. Early versions of this stew used squirrel meat, but if you're not brave enough to keep it authentic, you can make it with rabbit, chicken, or just about anything else. 

Virginians claim the stew originated in their Brunswick county, while Georgians will tell you it was first made in the city of Brunswick, Georgia. Wherever it came from, it's a delicious comfort food that can take the chill off on a wintry day. Grab some cornbread or a loaf of any crusty bread to sop up all this southern goodness.

Burgoo

Similar to Irish stew, burgoo is often served in the Midwest as well as the southern parts of the United States. Typically made with at least three types of meat, it's a thick spicy stew that is chock-full of vegetables and pairs perfectly with cornbread. In Kentucky, burgoo is eaten at large gatherings, like Derby Day parties. However, it also makes a comforting family meal any time of the year. Give it an honest try before you draw your final breath and you won't regret it.

Buttermilk pound cake

Can adding buttermilk to your pound cake recipe really make a difference? Definitely! In the South, they often make their buttermilk pound cake in a bundt or tube pan, slice it thick, and drizzle it with a buttermilk custard sauce. The result is an incredibly moist, delicious cake that is made even better by the thick, creamy sauce. Some people like to top the cake and sauce with fresh berries and cream, but honestly you don't need to add anything else to this kind of perfection. Don't expect to be able to stop at just one slice.

Fried catfish

Fresh catfish, fried until it's golden and crispy, is a simple dish that is available at many southern restaurants. Catfish is a healthy fish to eat, as Livestrong says it's high in Omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury. If you can't find it at a restaurant near you, your grocery store may offer farmed catfish, which is also typically safe and clean. Catfish is easy to prepare: dip it in milk, dredge it in seasoned corn meal, and fry it in hot oil. It only takes a few minutes to get it golden brown on the outside and beautifully flaky on the inside. Add a squirt of lemon and a side of rice, then start chowing down.

Chicken & dumplings

For a truly comforting meal on a chilly day, there's nothing like a bowl of chicken and dumplings. If you aren't in the South, where you can find them at almost any restaurant or diner, you can try to make these at home by dropping biscuit dough into cooking soup. And though they aren't difficult, dumplings are a kind of artform that takes some time to perfect. You don't want your dumplings undercooked and wet inside, but you also don't want them so overcooked that they start falling apart in the broth. Stick them with a toothpick and if it comes out clean, you are good to go.

Chicken fried steak

Chicken fried steak, sometimes called country fried steak, is made from a tenderized cube steak which is battered like fried chicken, pan-fried, and topped with white gravy. While you can find chicken fried steak in an array of southern states, it's most closely associated with Texas. And, as with most things, the chicken fried steak is bigger in Texas. 

In fact, at Lulu's Cafe in San Antonio, you can find a 21-ounce version of this luscious steak. It's not a coincidence that Lulu's is also home to the famous 3-pound cinnamon roll, too. If you can't make your way to the Lone Star State, try to find a Texas grandmother to cook some chicken fried steak for you.

Chicken gizzards

For your next Super Bowl party (or any other get-together), serve up a batch of southern fried chicken gizzards instead of wings. Believe it or not, your guests will thank you. Don't think too much about what a gizzard is (it's part of the digestive tract, for the record), just think about how good it tastes. You can cook gizzards in a number of ways but it's best to boil them first and then coat them like fried chicken before deep frying. 

The flavor is similar to dark meat chicken, but a lot richer. Add some Frank's Red Hot or your other favorite hot sauce, and you won't be able to get enough of these tender morsels.

Chicken pot pie

Yes, more chicken. Chicken pot pie is an iconic comfort food that can't be beat when done right. And "done right" doesn't mean grabbing a pie from your grocer's freezer section. A flaky, golden brown, homemade crust is essential for this southern specialty. Inside, the chicken needs to be moist and plentiful. The vegetables must be neither too firm nor too mushy, and the gravy creamy but not goopy. 

Is it a challenge to find a good chicken pot pie? Yes, but it's worth it. You can find amazing chicken pot pie at various southern restaurants around the country, or experiment with different recipes at home. There may be a lot of gummy crust and flavorless gravy to wade through, so once you find a good recipe, stick to it.

Chitlins

If you live north of the Mason-Dixon line, you've probably never experienced chitlins — and you are definitely missing out. The actual term is chitterlings, but in the U.S., you mostly hear "chitlins." Chitlins are made from the large intestines of a hog, and they need to be carefully cleaned and prepared for obvious safety reasons. 

Typically they are soaked in baking soda and water, rinsed several times, turned inside out, and carefully cleaned by hand before being boiled for several hours. Warning: Chitlins smell disgusting while they are boiling, so put some onion and lemon in the water to tone down the odor. After they are boiled, batter and deep fry them, then serve with hot sauce.

Chocolate gravy

In the South, biscuits and gravy doesn't always feature white sausage gravy. Sometimes, hot, buttery biscuits are smothered in chocolate gravy instead. Chocolate gravy is just what it sounds like. To make it, you simply mix cocoa, flour, and sugar with milk, butter, and vanilla. Like all gravies, you want to eliminate the lumps, so you need to stir it well while cooking. The result is a sweet, but not too sweet, sauce that adds a dessert-like quality to any type of breakfast dish. In the South, chocolate gravy is typically poured over biscuits, but it can also be an awesome replacement for maple syrup to top your pancakes or waffles as well. You aren't living right if you don't have chocolate gravy at least once before you die.

Chow-chow

Though Pennsylvania has their own version of chow-chow, it's completely different than the southern variety. In the South, chow-chow is a cabbage-based type of pickled relish that incorporates onions, peppers, tomatoes, and a lot of seasoning. So, what do you put chow-chow on? Hot dogs and hamburgers would be the obvious answer. But you might also top your cornbread, fish cakes, beans, and even your mashed potatoes with chow-chow. In fact, you can put it on just about anything (outside of dessert, of course) with a tasty result.

Collard greens & bacon

You're probably thinking, "What are collard greens anyway?" Well, they're a leafy green vegetable not completely unlike turnip or mustard greens. Collard greens are often associated with soul food. They can be bitter and tough, if not cooked properly. After washing them well, chop the leaves into inch-long pieces, then simmer them in water. The key is simmer, don't boil. People often throw a hambone, along with garlic and onion, into the pot for extra flavor. However, one of the best ways to cook collard greens is with bacon and onions. When they're done, you will have the perfect side dish for any southern meal.

Cornbread in buttermilk

Warm cornbread is delicious right out of the oven, slathered with butter or honey. But, if you have leftover cornbread, it's not quite as delicious — unless you crumble it in a bowl of buttermilk, that is. You're probably confused by now, but this is really a thing in the South. And you should definitely try it at least once in your life. Break your cornbread into a cereal bowl. Pour buttermilk over your bread, stir it up, and eat it with a spoon. If you must, sprinkle sugar on top, but you really don't need it. Yum!

Country ham with red-eye gravy

Red-eye gravy is made with the grease and drippings of pan-fried ham and black coffee. Sounds gross, right? Well, it's amazing. The coffee is used to deglaze the pan. When the thin sauce is poured into a bowl, the coffee sinks to the bottom and the result is a mixture that looks like a red human eye (even redder if you add red pepper). You can pour the simple gravy over your ham, potatoes, rice, or grits. However, many hungry folks choose to simply sop it up with biscuits.

Crawfish etouffee

Crawfish, crayfish, crawdads, or mud bugs — whatever you call them in your neck of the woods, these freshwater crustaceans are definitely tasty. Of course, you can eat the meat dipped in drawn butter, like you would lobster. But if you ever find yourself in the Cajun areas of Louisiana, do yourself a favor and seek out crawfish etouffee. Crawfish meat in a spicy roux is poured over rice for an amazing dish with deep flavor.

Fried chicken & waffles

As simple as it sounds, don't try to make this dish at home. Instead, hop in a pickup truck and head to one of the awesome waffle places across the county that makes fried chicken and waffles right. If you haven't experienced chicken and waffles before, it can seem like an unusual combination. But, truthfully, it would be a shame to miss this creation during your lifetime. Crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, perfectly seasoned fried chicken makes a heavenly partner for buttery, delicious waffles. This is an amazing meal, whether it's breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a late night snack — and in the South, it can be any of those.

Fried green tomatoes

Fried green tomatoes are a simple Southern side dish that packs a big punch. The key when making fried green tomatoes is to avoid them turning into a soft, soggy mess. The unripened tomatoes should be firm. Slice them in 3/8- to 1/2-inch slices, and then soak them for an hour in buttermilk and hot sauce mixture. Dredge the tomatoes in a combination of cornmeal and cornstarch, then fry them in bacon grease over medium-high heat until they're crispy on the outside... but don't overcook! When eating, you can dip them in just about anything, but a remoulade with mayo, hot sauce, horseradish, and Cajun spices would be what a true Southerner would prefer.

Fried okra

Okra should certainly be on your must-try list. Southerners know everything is better when you fry it, and okra is no exception. To create these golden nuggets of veggie goodness, slice your okra, dip it in buttermilk, and then coat it in cornmeal and seasonings before deep frying it. Some research claims okra is very good for you, but while that is debatable, this southern veggie dish is delicious and you should try it before it's too late.

Hoppin' John

Hoppin' John is a dish made from black-eyed peas, rice, and spicy sausages or ham hocks. There are a number of stories on how this Carolina dish got its name. However, most agree that it's typically served with collard greens and cornbread. Hoppin' John is often eaten on New Year's Day for good luck and prosperity throughout the year. Black-eye peas symbolize coins, collard greens represent money, and cornbread is the gold. Even if you aren't rolling in cash after devouring Hoppin' John on New Year's Day, you'll be happy you tried it before you die, if nothing else.

Hot Brown

The Hot Brown sandwich originated at the restaurant in The Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1920s, and it is still served there. The Hot Brown is traditionally an open-faced turkey sandwich with tomatoes covered in Mornay sauce, baked, topped with bacon, and then broiled. Some people say it was originally created with peaches rather than tomatoes. Others swear it's a great hangover cure. All agree that its gooey, cheesy deliciousness should be experienced at least once in your life.

Hushpuppies

If you've ever eaten at Long John Silver's, you've probably had hushpuppies. However, the ones you can get at a southern restaurant or fish fry are a lot more flavorful than the Long John variety. Hushpuppies are basically balls of fried cornmeal batter that are often served alongside fried fish or shrimp. Though hushpuppies are relatively simple, they are kind of like potato chips in that it's virtually impossible to eat just one.

Jambalaya

If you're looking for something a little out of the ordinary to fill you up, consider jambalaya. A favorite in Louisiana, jambalaya is a mix of sausage, chicken, seafood, and vegetables, such as onion, celery, and bell pepper, cooked in the same pot with rice and stock. Creole jambalaya contains tomatoes, while the Cajun version does not. However, both are extremely tasty. In Cajun jambalaya in rural Louisiana, you might find a variety of game meats used as well as alligator, crayfish, and even turtle.

Livermush

Pig liver comes together with cornmeal and spices to form livermush. Does it sound appetizing? Absolutely not. But it's worth trying before you die because many in the southern United States — particularly in North Carolina — find this stuff to be an amazing breakfast food. Livermush is sold in loaves, sliced, and then fried before eating. At breakfast, you might find it served alongside eggs and grits. Some people also use it as a sandwich bread or even as a pizza topping.

Old fashioned banana pudding

When it comes to southern comfort foods, you have a wide assortment of amazing desserts to choose from. One of them is good old fashioned banana pudding. This stuff isn't simply a bowl of Jell-O instant pudding from a box. It's expertly placed layers of creamy homemade pudding, fresh bananas, and vanilla wafers baked with meringue toasted over the top. If you're from the South, it's a near certainty that your grandma made this for you when you were a youngin.

Peach cobbler

Speaking of dessert, peach cobbler is another one that's a must-try. If you can't find your way to a Georgia cafe for a scrumptious peach cobbler, you can learn to make one at home. It's not that difficult, but just be careful to not over or undercook it. Warm peach cobbler with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top is truly dessert heaven.

Pecan pie

Southern pecan pie made with a splash (or a few splashes) of high-quality bourbon is hard to beat. If you don't have a restaurant in your area that makes killer pecan pie, it's not difficult to make at home. However, you'll want to experiment with the amounts of corn syrup, brown sugar, and bourbon until you find the combination your family loves. Don't worry, they won't mind you making pie after pie until you figure it out.

Pepper jelly

If pepper jelly isn't a staple in your household, it should be. Spicy-sweet pepper jelly and cream cheese spread on crackers is a Southern snack that will get you through even the toughest afternoon. And pepper jelly isn't just for crackers. You can use it to glaze meat, spread it on cornbread, mix it in barbecue sauce, and even use it for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Don't be afraid. It's absolutely delicious.

Pimento cheese

If you aren't from the South, then you probably aren't a connoisseur of pimento cheese. Basically, pimento cheese is a mixture of cheese (cheddar, American, or even Velveeta) mixed with mayo and pimentos. It can be spread on crackers, stuffed into celery, and scooped onto chips. Some people add it to scrambled eggs or grits, while others use it as a relish for brats, burgers, and hot dogs. In Louisiana, they make it spicy by adding hot sauce or cayenne pepper into the mix. The possibilities for pimento cheese are endless, and once you start incorporating it into your daily life, you won't stop for the rest of your living days.

Pineapple casserole

Canned pineapple gets an upgrade in this yummy dish. Maybe this doesn't sound like an appetizing combination, but you owe it to yourself to try it at least once. The main ingredients of this tasty, sweet casserole are pineapple chunks, Ritz crackers, and cheddar cheese. Yes, it sounds unappealing, to say the least, but soon you will be licking the bowl to make sure you got every last drop. Make it and bring it to your next potluck. Your popularity among your coworkers will rise exponentially.

Potlikker

Potlikker (or pot liquor) is the liquid that is left behind after you boil greens. So, what do you do with it other than pour it down the sink? Some people save potlikker and use it in place of stock in their next stew or soup, while others pour it over rice or potatoes. But the best thing to do with potlikker is drink it. Yep, drink it. That way you can reap all the nutrients that have boiled out of the greens.

Pralines

You've undoubtedly heard of pralines, as Pralines 'n Cream is the best flavor of Baskin-Robbins ice cream in existence. But what is it exactly? While French pralines originally used almonds, southern pralines is candy made from sugar, butter, cream (or milk), and pecans. The consistency is like a nutty fudge. You can eat pralines on their own, fold them into cookie dough, use them to top cakes, incorporate them into sauces, or even stuff them into chicken breasts.

Red beans & rice

Red beans and rice is a staple dish in Louisiana Creole cuisine. Traditionally, families used ham hocks and other bones along with vegetables and beans left over from Sunday dinner to create a scrumptious dish of spicy beans on Monday that were served over steamed white rice. Cayenne pepper, Tabasco sauce, and other seasonings can turn up the heat on this hearty meal to whatever level you like. Some people like to add in sausage or other meats, but if you boil bones for the base, you'll get the flavor you want without having to add anything else.

Seafood gumbo

Gumbo is sometimes confused with jambalaya but it's not the same thing. In jambalaya, the rice is cooked with the rest of the ingredients. With gumbo, the rice is cooked separately. Gumbo is a stew created with a strong, robust stock, sausage, shrimp, other shellfish, and the "Holy Trinity" of vegetables — bell peppers, celery, and onions. Authentic gumbo needs to have a great roux as its base. If you aren't headed to New Orleans anytime soon, try to find a friend or neighbor from the Big Easy to teach you how to make proper seafood gumbo at home.

Shrimp & grits

St least one time in your life, you must try grits, preferably with shrimp. Grits are a "love it or hate it" food. There's not often any middle ground. Shrimp and grits is a traditional dish in the South. And though you might consider shrimp a dinner food, this combination is often eaten for breakfast too. It's not guaranteed that you'll love grits, but you should find out.

Southern mac and cheese

Real macaroni and cheese does not come out of a box. It does not come with a packet of powdered cheese. Real, good old fashioned, Southern mac and cheese is a completely separate dish. It's often created with a combination of cheeses — everything from smoked cheddar and Monterey Jack to Gruyere and Velveeta. The recipes feature heavy whipping cream, evaporated milk, or both. And the dish is baked in the oven until the sauce is creamy and the top is crispy. No matter how much you love macaroni and cheese, you've never really tried it until you've had Southern mac and cheese.

Spoonbread

Spoonbread is more like a savory pudding rather than a bread. Think of it like a cornbread custard, if you will. It's extremely popular in many states in the Southern U.S. In fact, in Kentucky, they have an annual festival dedicated to spoonbread. The recipe for spoonbread is simple, consisting of not much more than cornmeal, butter, eggs, and milk. However, you can add in scallions, peppers, herbs, and other ingredients to boost the flavor profile.

Sweet potato casserole

You might have seen sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving dinner and passed it by, but you need to stop sleeping on this delicious dish. Though some folks love it topped with marshmallows that are charred under the broiler, others prefer a topping made with brown sugar and pecans instead. If you've never eaten it, hurry up before your final day arrives. Once you've tried it, you'll figure out that this often overlooked Thanksgiving side dish should find its way onto your dinner table throughout the year.