The Secret Ingredient That Makes Southern Cornbread So Delicious

Southerners are mighty particular about their cornbread. If someone ever asks you if you like it sweet or a little salty and piquant, play it safe and take a middle of the road answer. Trust us. There's actually a pretty deep divide between those who like their cornbread sweet and those who prefer it a little more on the savory side. However, it turns out as much as we love sweet cornbread – especially with honey butter – it may be more of a modern twist on this favorite bread of the British colonists with whom it seems to have originated.

According to the Charlotte Observer and Michael Twitty, a culinary historian devoted to preserving and promoting African American foodways, breads baked up with cornmeal by those first colonists were not created as a sweet nor were they sweetened. The paper quotes Twitty as saying, "Why would you put sugar in something? It was a valuable commodity. They didn't need to put sugar in it, they used molasses on everything. That was the poor man's condiment. Quick energy, quick carbohydrate, and a source of iron in the diet."

So how do you achieve the more authentic savory version of this Southern staple? Well, after a little internet sleuthing, we've found there's a secret – or perhaps not-so-secret ingredient -that makes savory Southern cornbread absolutely mouthwatering. What is it?

Bacon drippings help create the most delectable cornbread

The secret ingredient to make your cornbread smoky and tasty is bacon drippings. Yep, you read that right. What could be more Southern? On the Epicurious site, Sheri Castle describes using this salty grease as a must to form a "crispy bottom crust that tastes like a good hushpuppy." While Simply Recipes notes that bacon drippings make certain the cornbread doesn't stick to your cast iron skillet – the "it" pan to bake your cornbread in. And, of course, any time you add bacon's delectable flavor to a dish, it greatly increases its umami level.

This savory type of cornbread tends to be more crumbly and just less cake-like overall in its taste and appearance. It is quite satisfying to both your taste buds and your olfactory – a win-win. However, Simply Recipes also suggests that if you want to, you can add a tablespoon of sugar. They insist this will not sweeten up the bread, but it will enhance the taste of the cornmeal. So, if you want to up your cornbread game and cook it like a Southern pro, don't forget the bacon drippings.

Don't stop at bacon drippings, use the bacon too

You don't have to stop with the bacon drippings. You can also chop up some of that crispy, crunchy bacon and add it right to your cornbread batter. Spicy Southern Kitchen notes that if you fry up some bacon in your cast iron pan, you can actually leave a little bit of the drippings in the pan for when you are ready to cook your cornbread. And because we are huge fans of the phrase, "Waste not, want not," take the remaining bacon drippings and store it in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. 

The fried bacon in the batter will add both texture and a little extra flavor to the cornbread, giving this Southern staple a taste of French je ne sais quoi. Not to mention, the addition of the chopped up bacon will leave all of those salivating bacon lovers satiated. Leites Culinaria confirms that cornbread with corn, bacon, and bacon drippings is just "as God intended." The site provides a recipe that is said to produce a pudding-like cornbread that is admittedly sweeter than the traditional Southern-style but nonetheless sounds liable to leave your taste buds wanting more. 

Add what you like to your cornbread

While the South might be divided over sweet v. savory cornbread, Southerners are united in the belief they know how to make cornbread and everyone else does not. Times-News quotes Mark Twain as saying, "The North thinks it knows how to make [cornbread], but this is gross superstition. Perhaps no bread in the world is as good as Southern [cornbread], and perhaps no bread in the world is quite so bad as the Northern imitation of it." But as Southern Living observes, Native Americans were making and eating cornbread long before U.S. Southerners, who imitated their version. And Pine Straw Magazine writes that Native Americans added seeds, nuts, and even berries to their version of this dish. 

Honestly, while everyone else is arguing over ingredients that make cornbread authentic and delicious and who makes it best, many of us just want to eat it. At the end of the day, cornbread's appeal is how versatile it can be, offering limitless possibilities to personalize and make this dish your own. Whether you use bacon, cheese, jalapenos, apples, applesauce, herbs, garlic, or even honey to up your game, your cornbread should reflect your or your family's preferences. So, don't be shy about adding what you like to whatever classic cornbread recipe you might be using.