Why There's An Argument About Whether Sugar Should Be In Cornbread

Cornbread is an American staple, a soft, yet firm bread made with a simple combination of cornmeal and salt. Although it's typically associated with Southern comfort food, corn was one of the essential ingredients for Native Americans, who made the first version of what is nowadays known as cornbread. In the past, it was the daily bread for everyone but the wealthiest Southerners, who were able to afford bread and biscuits made from wheat flour. Such baked goods were reserved for the remainder of the public as treats for special occasions or Sunday dinner (per Serious Eats).

Cornbread is traditionally made in a scorching hot cast iron skillet or Dutch oven that's been well-greased and placed over hot coals. The heat of the skillet ensures that the edges of the bread will be well browned once it's fully baked. Over time, cooks started to add a pinch of baking soda and buttermilk to their cornbread, and later on, many recipes included baking powder and eggs as well, helping the cornbread rise in the process. However, in the 20th century, sugar and wheat flour started to emerge in many cornbread recipes. But should sugar really be a part of cornbread?

How the development of industrial mills resulted in sugary cornbread

According to Serious Eats, cornbread was originally white in color, and since it was made with stone-milled corn that produced coarsely ground cornmeal, it resulted in a more substantial cornbread. The change came with the rise of industrial mills that used cylindrical steel rollers. Corn was ground very finely, with its germ and much of the corn kernel eliminated, and as a result, the corn lost much of its natural sweetness and nutrition. 

Due to the fact that the texture of the cornmeal changed, cooks were forced to adjust their recipes by adding wheat flour to bind the ingredients together, otherwise, the cornbread was too crumbly. As for the loss of sweetness, they also added sugar. However, there's really no need to add sugar when using high-quality corn that is coarsely ground. According to Simply Recipes, the only flavoring needed is bacon grease. Thankfully, today it's a bit easier to find true stone-ground cornmeal so you can make a traditional, easy cornbread recipe without any adulterations such as sugar or wheat flour.