The story of cornbread is as old as America—and just as diverse. Nowadays cornbread may be especially associated with the South, but indigenous Americans were growing and grinding corn into meal long before Europeans arrived in the New World and it wasn’t long after that the simple bread became a staple of Colonial tables. From there a kaleidoscope of variations evolved—lightened with buttermilk, sweetened with molasses, peppered with jalapenos, enriched with bacon grease—and made their way onto tables from Maine to Mississippi. Survey the country today and you’ll find as many different recipes for cornbread as there are cooks to bake it. Not sure how to tell a “Yankee” cornbread from a plate of corn pone? Here are a few classic versions that every cook should know:
Savory “Southern” Style Cornbread
Want to pick a fight with a Southerner? Try putting a spoonful of sugar in their cornbread. Indeed, tradition dictates that southern cornbread should be a strictly savory dish: firm, golden, and crusty—and ideally baked in a perfectly seasoned cast iron skillet.
Sweet “Yankee” Style Cornbread
Compared to their counterparts down south, typical “Yankee” cornbreads tend to be sweeter and lighter and more cake-like, thanks to the addition of white flour and sweeteners like sugar, honey, or maple syrup to the batter.
A classic, enriched version of traditional savory Southern cornbread, buttermilk cornbread takes its moist texture, delicate crumb, and lovely tanginess from the addition of a few glugs of cultured dairy in the batter.
Hot Water Cornbread
Think of it as the hush puppy’s kissing cousin. This surprisingly light and soulful Southern staple begins as a thick batter made from nothing more than cornmeal softened with scalding water and mixed with salt—and maybe a few sliced scallions if you’re feeling fancy—that’s shaped into patties before being fried in a skillet of lard or drippings.
One of the most elemental, rustic types of cornbread, the origins of “pone” can be traced back to the Native Americans and early Colonial cooks who learned from them. While the exact recipe is a matter of some debate, most bakers agree that simplicity is key: many versions of pone contain just cornmeal, water, and bacon grease.
Like cornmeal flatbreads, johnnycakes (or hoe cakes) are corn-based griddled pancakes made with a thin batter. What you call them may depend on what part of the country you call home: up north (especially Rhode Island) the Johnycake rules, but down south, the hoe cake is king.
A soft, custardy—and as the name implies, spoonable—variant of cornbread, spoonbread is usually enriched with butter, eggs, and milk or cream and has a texture similar to souffle or a bread pudding.