How I mastered the art (and politics) of cornbread dressing

A traditional Southern cornbread dressing, in New York. The correct way to make cornbread dressing is highly contested – with each region, class and custom claiming to reign over the rest.
A traditional Southern cornbread dressing, in New York. The correct way to make cornbread dressing is highly contested – with each region, class and custom claiming to reign over the rest. NYT

I just wanted to learn how to make good cornbread dressing. Instead, I stepped on the third rail of Southern home cooking.

It started last year, when I tamped down my natural proclivity toward Midwestern bread stuffing in deference to a dish practically every cook here in the South bakes outside the turkey for Thanksgiving. How hard to make could a pan of cornbread dressing be?

Very hard, it turns out. My first attempt was lousy. So this year, I got serious. I read every recipe I could find and pinned down the best Southern cooks I know. I asked for help on Facebook, and got more than 100 responses.

It wasn’t long before I realized I had plummeted down a rabbit hole. Cornbread dressing is a litmus test on class, race, regional loyalties and grandmothers.

This came as no surprise to Ronni Lundy, who probably knows more about the food of the Appalachian South than anyone. She was born in rural Kentucky but grew up in Louisville as a member of what she calls the Hillbilly diaspora of the 1950s and ‘60s. Her new book, “Victuals,” is a definitive lesson on cooking and eating in that region.

“Just give it up,” she told me. “There isn’t a cornbread dressing. You’re going to need to acknowledge that.”

Still, I persevered. The first decision I faced was the cornmeal itself: white or yellow? As with most of my dressing questions, the answer depends on where you grew up.

More than a few people told me that white cornmeal is for people and yellow cornmeal is for animal feed. Others were deeply loyal to yellow cornmeal. The regional differences seemed to be based on the kind of corn that grew around you. If the white corn was sweeter, that’s what was ground for cornbread. Same with yellow corn.

After running through a couple of recipes with both, I landed on yellow because it gave my dressing a little more muscle and color. Whatever the color, buy the best, freshest cornmeal you can find. A couple of standard grocery-store brands I tried had an oddly pronounced corn flavor that tasted almost artificial.

Next came what turned out to be the most divisive issue: whether to use sugar.

Jenifer Ward, who lives in Shreveport, Louisiana, but grew up in Arkansas, posted an old video on my Facebook page in which her parents stand in their kitchen and repeat a popular refrain about cornbread containing sugar: That’s not cornbread, that’s cake.

Lundy, the Appalachian food expert, has been writing about sugar and cornbread since the 1980s. She was reluctant to wade into the mess I had created for myself.

“I have black friends who do not put sugar in cornbread and are adamant about it, and white friends in Appalachia who do,” she said, encouraging me to consider instead the effect of generations raised on sweet cornbread from a box.

“I am walking way out on a limb here, but I suspect the Jiffy factor is far more important than the racial divide now,” she said, referring to the popular cornbread mix.

As a white woman with Wisconsin roots raised in Detroit by a mother who rarely made cornbread, I had no stake in the game. I just like my cornbread savory.

The next issue is butter or bacon fat. I sometimes bake cornbread in bacon fat, but butter plays better with the other flavors on a Thanksgiving plate.

Once I had my cornbread, I had to make a call on texture. Some members of my ad hoc cornbread council pushed me toward a drier, chunkier dressing with a craggy, crisp top. Others insisted I make a batter that bakes into something akin to a soufflé-like casserole.

After a couple of batches, I fell hard for the soft, spoonable Southern soufflé style, which doesn’t require cubing and toasting the cornbread. I simply tore it into big chunks and let it dry overnight.

Which brings us to the schism over bread. An all-cornbread dressing has its constituency, but I side with those who say dressing requires a little bread to lighten it up.

Some fancy cooks use brioche. Others take it downtown with a sleeve of saltines or old hot dog buns. Nathalie Dupree, the Southern cook, suggests biscuits. I chose soft sandwich bread with crusts cut off.

If you’ve made it this far, take heart. You are almost out of the woods. Everyone agreed that lots of salt and pepper and a good amount of onions and celery sautéed in plenty of butter were essential. There’s a strong lobby for poultry seasoning, that savior of the harried Thanksgiving cook, but I went instead with freshly chopped sage and thyme. It’s what the Southern cookbook author Virginia Willis does, so it’s good enough for me.

I put all of this in a big bowl, heeding the advice of cooks who suggested adding a couple of beaten eggs. Then I turned my attention to the essence of Thanksgiving dressing: lots of good, homemade turkey stock.

The cornbread council was very specific on this point. Add stock until you think you have enough, and then add a cup or two more. The key word is soupy. Massage the mess with your hands. Add more stock, work it in and stop only when the whole thing feels like extra-thick pancake batter with a few chunks. If you have some turkey drippings, stir them in now.

This was a perfect base recipe, ready to pour into a buttered baking pan. Those of you who can’t leave well enough alone may brown a little less than a pound or so of spicy Italian sausage or fresh andouille. Or you could mix in toasted pecans, or even a cup or two of corn kernels. An editor friend insists on a pint of chopped oysters.

Either way, congratulations. You’ve navigated a deceptively simple standard of the Southern repertoire. Just know that there is always someone out there who will tell you it’s wrong.

Southern Cornbread Dressing

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Total time: 1 1 / 2 hours, plus 8 hours for drying out cornbread

For the cornbread:

4 tablespoons/56 grams butter

2 cups/340 grams yellow cornmeal, fine grind (use the freshest, best quality you can find)

1 1 / 2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 eggs

2 cups/473 milliliters buttermilk, preferably full fat

For the dressing:

3 cups soft white bread, crust removed and torn or cut into 1-inch pieces (do not pack)

1 / 2 cup butter (1 stick), plus more for the pan

2 cups chopped sweet onions

1 1 / 2 cups chopped celery (4 or 5 stalks)

1 1 / 2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 eggs

1 1 / 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

3 / 4 teaspoon ground black pepper

4 to 5 cups rich chicken or turkey stock, preferably homemade

1. Make the cornbread: Heat oven to 450 degrees. Put butter in an 11-inch skillet. Cast-iron is best here, but any ovenproof skillet will do. Heat butter in oven for about 5 to 7 minutes, or until butter has melted and is just starting to brown.

2. While butter melts, whisk together cornmeal, salt and baking powder. In another small bowl, lightly beat eggs, then add buttermilk and stir until mixture is combined. Pour egg mixture into dry ingredients and stir well.

3. Remove hot pan from oven, pour butter into batter and stir until batter looks uniform. Pour batter back into the pan and bake for 20 minutes or until the top has begun to just brown.

4. Remove cornbread and let it cool on a rack. Tear or cut it into large pieces and place in a large bowl. Let it sit out overnight to dry out slightly.

5. Prepare the dressing: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine cornbread and white bread in a large bowl, tossing to mix, and breaking cornbread into smaller pieces.

6. Melt butter in a large skillet, and add onions, celery and 1 / 2teaspoon salt. Sauté until vegetables have softened, about 6 minutes.

7. Add vegetables to bread mixture and combine. Lightly beat eggs and add to bowl. Sprinkle in herbs, remaining 1 teaspoon salt and the pepper and toss together.

8. Add 4 cups broth and stir well. Using your hands, work the mixture to get a very lumpy, thick, batterlike consistency. Add another cup of stock if needed. The mixture should be very wet and pourable but without standing liquid.

9. Butter an 8-by-11-inch baking dish. (Any other ovenproof dish that can hold about 2 quarts will work. A deeper vessel could take longer to bake; a more shallow dish less time.) Pour the mixture into the baking dish and bake until dressing puffs slightly and has browned well around the edges, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. If you have drippings from a roasted turkey, spoon some over the top about 30 minutes into the baking time.