Crispy corn cakes suited for snacking and savory-soup-soaking, this Hot Water Cornbread will be welcome at your dining table any time!
As foodies, many memories are permanently imprinted on our psyches through food. Maybe it was that pasta dish on your honeymoon, or the chicken soup your best friend shared after a big break-up, or Aunt Ida’s infamous congealed salad that made an appearance every Thanksgiving.
One of these tasty memories for me is being at my grandmother’s house and watching her skilled hands pat out little pieces of Hot Water Cornbread. She’d serve these warm, crispy crunchers with homemade soup and chili, and we’d occasionally coerce her into making them for an afternoon snack because we could never get enough of them.
Unfortunately, like many old family recipes, this one was documented in her head not on a piece of paper, so bringing those memories into my own kitchen was a challenge.
Since cornbread is a Southern favorite, I looked for guidance from trusted resources – maybe a hot water cornbread Paula Deen version or a Patti Labelle hot water cornbread recipe. Ultimately I found success on my own, though, after lots of trial and error, I came up with something close to the texture and flavor I remember.
Later, when I decided to experiment with the recipe, a little Southern Living inspiration lead to the addition of green onions and fresh thyme, both of which bring beautiful color and aroma to the intense corn flavor of these little gems. It’s like my grandmother’s recipe with a little “me” thrown in.
Let’s talk about How To Make Hot Water Cornbread!
Simple cornbread recipes date back to the 1600s, and there are so many types of this corny treat – sweet and savory, baked and fried, light and dense, thin and thick. It’s cooked in big casserole dishes, muffin tins, and cornstick pans (the ones shaped like little ears of corn), and used as a delicate dunker for soups and stews or a substantive base for stuffing.
If you’re not familiar with this particular cornmeal concoction, Hot Water Cornbread is made by softening seasoned cornmeal with hot (boiling) water, then forming the dough into patties before frying.
Most cornbread recipes use both cornmeal and flour, and many make hot water cornbread with self-rising cornmeal V. “SELF RISING”, which adds leavening too. Even the hot water cornbread Southern Living makes uses self-rising cornmeal. While this simplifies the recipe, I think the corn flavor gets diluted by the flour, and the added baking powder definitely changes the texture. (This is also one of the reasons why if you want to make hot water cornbread Jiffy mix won’t work.)
My Hot Water Cornbread highlights the natural flavors of the cornmeal – no filler needed!
By the way, big popcorn kernels, grits, and cornmeal all come from the same corn (which is field corn – more on that in a minute). Even cornmeal ranges from coarse to fine. While grits and coarse cornmeal will cook over time in water, there isn’t enough frying time in this recipe to adequately re-hydrate it, so stick with a finely ground cornmeal.
My recipe uses a touch of salt to accentuate the corn, as well as a little sugar. While I know in some places sweet cornbread is a jail-able offense, that isn’t what you end up with in this recipe.
That field corn I mentioned earlier is nothing like the sweet corn you slather in butter (or use to make my amazing Mexican Corn Salad). It’s naturally NOT sweet, even a little bitter, so a touch of sugar really rounds out the flavor and improves the taste without making it blasphemous to cornbread connoisseurs.
Although the green onions and thyme aren’t part of my grandmother’s version, it’s a great addition when I want something a little different. The onions (use both the white and green part) add a touch of heat, and the slightly minty quality of the thyme adds a brightness that really complements some of the soups I make. Fresh is definitely the way to go with the thyme too, and I think my grandmother would approve.
I recommend using a small scoop, one that holds a generous tablespoon, to scoop out the batter for uniform size and cooking times. You’ll want to wet your hands a bit to press the dough into small patties before gently placing them into the hot oil. Since frying can take a little time, feel free to keep these warm in a 300 degree oven until you’re ready to serve.
So, now you know how to make Hot Water Cornbread on top of the stove. The next step is learning how to EAT Hot Water Cornbread and sharing some of my family memories with your own.
Frying – There are three types of frying. First, pan-frying, where there’s barely enough oil/fat to coat the pan. This is the choice for searing steak, adding butter flavor to a chicken breast before roasting, or making perfect Saturday morning pancakes. In shallow-frying, the oil is deep enough to cover the soon-to-be-crispy thing about half way; in deep-frying, it’s completely submerged, even floating in the hot oil. Both of these options create a nice crispy exterior and completely cook whatever you’re frying. Obviously deep-frying works for chicken and French fries, but you need to shallow-fry delicate things like crab cakes and fritters – and this Hot Water Cornbread – that would fall apart in a big pot of oil. Just remember to use a frying thermometer for consistent temperature, don’t over-crowd the pan, and keep your attention on the stove (even if you’re tempted to sneak away and enjoy a piece of warm cornbread).
What about the oil – My grandmother used Crisco shortening for frying, and its high smoke point makes it a perfect choice. If you’re not familiar with “smoke point,” it’s the temperature where you’ll literally see smoke rising from your pan. Too far past that, and you risk funky flavors, scorching, and having to call the guys in the big red truck. Highly processed, filtered oils (even clarified butter) will have a higher smoke point and are more suitable for frying than things like extra virgin olive oil and butter. The ideal frying temperature is somewhere between 360 and 375 degrees, and 365 is the sweet spot for this recipe. You can cook this Hot Water Cornbread without shortening, just be sure to use vegetable or canola oil.
Fear of Frying – If all this talk of frying and smoking and time-consuming pan-watching is too much, you can pour the mixture into a greased casserole dish (I like my cast iron skillet), and bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes. If you let the greased pan sit in the oven while it preheats, it’ll help make sure you get a nice crispy exterior so even Hot Water Cornbread baked will satisfy that craving for something crunchy.
Water – Evaporation is not your friend when you’re trying to boil just the right amount of water. I usually heat about 2 ½ to 3 cups of water in a saucepan, while the oil is heating, to account for whatever’s lost in water vapor, then I pour the boiling water into a Pyrex measuring cup to make sure I add exactly 2 cups. My experience with trying to boil water in the microwave is that it’s hard to tell if it’s really boiling without using a thermometer and, if you’re like me, my one kitchen thermometer is already in the hot oil!
Hot Water Cornbread Recipe
- Canola Oil or Crisco - 2 Cups (About)
- Yellow Cornmeal - 2 Cups
- Salt - 1 1/2 Teaspoons
- Sugar - 1 Teaspoons
- Green Onions, Thinly Sliced - 1/4 Cup
- Fresh Thyme Leaves - 2 Teaspoons
- Boiling Water - 2 Cups
- Add enough oil to large cast iron skillet, to reach half way up the sides of the skillet. Heat oil over medium-high heat.
- Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, salt, sugar, green onions, thyme. Add boiling water and stir until smooth.
- Spoon the batter into large tablespoonful's and gently flatten with wet hands. When the oil is hot (insert temperature range) fry in batches, turning once until crisp and golden brown, about 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve