Cornbread with an open mind


One afternoon while I was preparing a Southern meal for friends who were stopping by for dinner, I realized I forgot to bake the cornbread. But since I always have all the ingredients on hand, I knew I wouldn’t have a problem making a quick round. However, when I searched my pantry, I saw that I ran out of cornmeal and instead had a single bag of masa harina on the shelf. “Corn for corn,” I thought, and decided to make my cornbread out of it.

The recipe – my grandmother’s, which I’ve made countless times in my life – using masa harina resulted in a cornbread that was significantly different from what I was used to, but just as delicious. It had a much more pronounced corn flavor and was softer. It was one of those little experiments that turned out to be a much bigger deal in hindsight—the coincidence of its creation opening my mind to what cornbread might be.

Masa harina in cornbread isn’t new, but it’s still not as common as I think it should be. But to understand the brilliance of the ingredient in this application, we must first define what it is and isn’t. Typically, the cornmeal that you and I buy at grocery stores is made from dried corn that is ground to varying degrees of coarseness. It is usually made from dent corn, a variety of “field corn” covered with a hard starch shell covering a soft starch center. (Polenta, a coarsely ground cornmeal, is made from flint corn, which is mostly hard starch.)

However, masa harina is made by first soaking the corn kernels in an alkaline solution such as slaked lime or lye, which dissolves the hard outer shell and leaves the soft starch center. This center is then finely ground and dried to make the masa harina. Soaking makes the corn easier to digest, but also has the added benefit of making the corn taste, well, cheesy.

The softer and finer texture of masa harina is precisely why it is suitable for making dough for tortillas and tamales. But it also serves to make an even more tender Southern-style cornbread when used in place of coarse cornmeal. The fact that I used locally made heirloom masa harina — from Masienda in West Los Angeles — certainly didn’t hurt; it produced such an amazing, mind-altering taste.

At the same time as this revelation, my partner and I were arguing about adding sugar to cornbread, which is our perennial preference. I grew up in a household that didn’t use it and our cornbread was flatter with a crispy bottom. However, my partner grew up eating Jiffy’s cornbread mix, so he prefers a sweeter, more cakey texture.

If you’re from the South, you may know that the sweet versus unsweetened cornbread debate is almost entirely based along racial lines. In her award-winning 2017 Charlotte Observer article, Why does sugar in cornbread divide races in the South?, author Kathleen Purvis writes:

“Until the early 20th century, southern cornmeal was made from sweeter white corn and ground with water. When industrial milling came along, that changed. Steel roller mills used yellow corn that was harvested before maturity, so it contained less sugar. They eliminated the germ like that [the corn] longer shelf life but had less corn flavor. And they ground it finer. They had to add a little flour to make it rise and sugar to add flavor.”

Purvis goes on to posit that because this new yellow cornmeal was cheaper than that made from white corn, “black cooks who were short on cash may have modified their cornbread to match the cornmeal they could afford.”

On the other end of the spectrum, when using masa harina instead of cornmeal in my cornbread, I noticed a distinct corn sweetness that I’d never tasted in regular American cornmeal before—and I wanted more of it. So, in accordance with my partner’s wishes, I added a spoonful of sugar to my next batch of cornbread, then a second spoonful next time, and so on and so on until I ended up with the perfect amount for my recipe.

The sweetness made the cornbread taste more corny, as did the masa harina. What started out as a happy coincidence resulted in an intercultural bread that gave me the opportunity to learn from it the more I worked on it. In my often dulled mind when it comes to cooking, it was refreshing to see my previously held notions of my most nostalgic food broken apart and rebuilt even better than before.

Get the recipe:

Time45 minutes

incomeServed 8 Cornbread with an open mind

Russell Falcon

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