The first time Pableaux Johnson asked his grandfather to teach him how to make the family’s coveted cornbread recipe he ran into a few snags.
Baked in a cast iron skillet and served with plenty of butter, the recipe is fairly straightforward—it is a quick bread, after all. But, it took some time for Johnson to get the recipe right because his then 80-something-year-old grandfather didn’t use a recipe—or measuring spoons.
“He did everything by feel,” says Johnson, a New Orleans–based writer, photojournalist and host of a long-running dinner series. “So when I wanted to learn how to do it, I said, ‘How much cornmeal do you put in?’ And he just tipped some out of the bag and said, ‘This much.’”
Undeterred, Johnson eventually created a recipe by stopping his grandfather throughout the process to measure each ingredient.
Now, the frequent guests at Johnson’s dinner table can expect to be greeted with a skillet of delicious buttered cornbread. Until the pandemic brought things to a halt, he hosted weekly Monday night (and sometimes Thursday night) dinners for years that proved to be a hit among his friends. During these meals, he serves red beans and rice or, when the weather starts to cool, gumbo, and “one of the constants is that cornbread,” he says.
When he eventually was convinced to take these dinners on tour, he began traveling to cities across the country for his Red Beans Road Show, which he hosts in restaurants alongside local chefs. The establishment makes an appetizer and a dessert course, while Johnson fixes his red beans and rice and, of course, cornbread. He’s hosted more than 60 of these dinners to date and, naturally, he takes his cast iron skillets along for the ride.
“This is the way of my people, these are my traditions,” says Johnson. His signature recipe and the techniques his grandfather, Achile Leon Hebert of Baton Rouge, passed down to him offer a peek into his family’s history and why the dish is enduringly popular.
Here’s a closer look at Johnson’s recipe for Papa’s Skillet Corn Bread, a few tips for making this versatile side dish at home, and a truly impressive trick that he picked up from Papa himself.
The ingredients list for Papa’s Skillet Corn Bread is fairly standard. It contains cornmeal, baking powder, eggs, buttermilk—all the usual suspects. However, it also includes small measures of flour and sugar. While growing up, Johnson never thought twice about his grandfather sprinkling in sugar for flavor (it’s responsible, after all, for that caramelization around the sides of the bread) and a few tablespoons of flour for a soft, tender texture. Once he left home and began his career as a food writer, however, he discovered just how controversial this simple quick bread—and his family’s recipe—can be.
“I’d come across other folks who are very, very fond of cornbread, but came from different familial traditions,” says Johnson. The staunch cornbread devotees he’s met generally fall into two camps: the “Jiffy people” who love the convenience of the classic boxed bread and the “purists,” who firmly believe that sugar and flour don’t belong in the recipe.
“I have known people who tend to really cop an attitude and say, ‘Well, if it’s got any sugar or any flour, it’s not cornbread, it’s cake,’” he says. “To which I say, ‘I understand what you’re saying, but you can go fuck yourself.’ I tend to say it in slightly different words, but the sentiment is the same. Mine has a little bit of sugar, a little bit of flour—it is the way of my people.”
While you could make cornbread in just about any glass, metal or enameled baking dish, what gives Johnson’s family recipe its edge is a cast iron skillet. “Basically, it allows you to get a good solid flavor for the crust on the outside,” says Johnson.
Before any ingredients are added, the skillet is heated to around 350 to 375 degrees Fahrenheit—roughly the smoking point for canola oil. The vegetable or canola oil you use will be warmed in the hot skillet before it’s stirred vigorously into the batter, which is then poured into the hot skillet for baking.
“When it starts to smoke, you know that it’s hot enough to pour the batter in,” says Johnson. “When it hits [the skillet], the batter sears and makes a nice crispy crust—that’s the key. If you try to do it in a square baking pan, you’ll never get it that hot. And it’d be fine, but it won’t have the thing.”
Johnson says the technique and order of operations for his skillet cornbread “boils down to family tradition,” but he has incorporated a new piece of equipment to make the process less of a guessing game: a radar thermometer. The idea came from a friend who swears by their use with his pizza oven. For the skillet cornbread, it means you know exactly when the skillet is ready to add to the oil. “It’s a nod to modernity that I kind of learned to embrace,” he says.
While the flip technique Johnson uses to get the top of the cornbread “a little bit more brown and a little bit more delicious” is entirely optional, it’s an important step in his family’s tradition. Once the top of the cornbread has just started to brown, he loosens it from the pan, butters the top, and flips it over so that it can crisp up a bit more. While this can be done by transferring it to a plate and easing it back into the skillet, Johnson has adopted the same plate-free technique his grandfather used.
“You don’t use a plate, you throw it in the air and it flips and then lands back in the pan, top side down,” says Johnson. While flipping the cornbread in heavy cast iron makes an impressive show for guests—it’s even earned him the admiration of professional chefs—he notes: “It requires experience and it requires focus.” If you dare try this “advanced move” yourself, be sure that the cornbread is cooked through first.
“There are a lot of things that can go wrong,” he says. During one visit to a friend’s home in North Carolina, for example, he quickly discovered how differently the cornbread baked in a convection oven versus a traditional oven: “Imagine a lava lamp made of corn and buttermilk and people standing around you,” he says. “Everything went into super slo-mo and I had to make sure that I caught it and that it didn’t come apart. It was the longest three seconds of my entire life that did not involve a car crash.”
Though the cornbread is served in the very same skillet in which it bakes, there is one final “key” to amping up its visual appeal, flavor and texture. “It’s hyper buttery,” says Johnson.
“When you flip it, you butter the bottom of it liberally and then let it brown, then flip it back and butter the top of it liberally,” says Johnson. Then, all that’s left to do is slice it and serve.
The final pats of butter on top will slowly melt and pool, making the skillet cornbread irresistible to guests and a worthy pairing alongside gumbo, red beans and rice, or anything else on your menu.
By Pableaux Johnson
- 2 cups Cornmeal
- 4 Tbsp Unbleached flour
- 2 Tbsp Sugar
- 4 tsp Baking powder
- 1 tsp Salt
- 2 Eggs
- 1.5 cups Buttermilk
- 3-4 Tbsp Vegetable oil
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a heat-proof mixing bowl, thoroughly blend dry ingredients with a wire whisk or a wooden spoon. Add the eggs and the buttermilk. Stir until the mixture forms a medium-thick batter.
- In a 9-inch cast iron skillet, heat the vegetable oil until it’s lightly smoking.
- Swirl the oil around to coat the inside of the skillet. Then pour the hot oil into the batter and mix vigorously until the oil is thoroughly blended in.
- Pour the batter into the prepared skillet.
- Bake for about 25 minutes or until slightly brown on top.