Olde Tyme Butter Batter Cornbread
By Tim H. Martin
Preserving a Vintage Cast Iron Technique.
Based on recipe by Byron’s Smoke House • Auburn, Alabama
6 tablespoons clarified butter (from 1/2 cup butter)
2 additional tablespoons melted butter for brushing muffin tops
3/4 cup self-rising flour (White Lily)
1 1/4 cup yellow cornmeal mix (plain, whole grain, fine ground; I use House-Autry brand)
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups whole buttermilk
Clarify butter: Melt 1/2 cup of butter (1 stick) in a small saucepan on stovetop’s lowest setting. Pour clear liquid butter into small bowl and discard milky solids at bottom of pan.
Brush inside muffin molds (or other cast-iron pan) lightly with clarified butter. Place buttered pan in oven preheated to 500. Make batter while the pan heats just to the smoking point, about 10 minutes.
Combine cornmeal mix, flour and salt in bowl; whisk to combine. In a separate bowl, whisk egg, clarified butter and buttermilk. Pour dry ingredients into wet ingredients and mix until smooth.
Using heavy oven mitts, CAREFULLY remove muffin pan from hot oven and fill cups with batter. It should sizzle. Leave some room for muffins to rise. Bake between 15 and 20 minutes until firm and golden brown on top.
Remove pan, brush hot cornbread with melted butter and allow to remain in pan 5 minutes more to continue browning the insides.
Important Note About Aluminum
Aluminum won’t handle the heat as well as cast iron, but a cast-iron skillet or corn stick mold also works if you don’t have a muffin pan. I ordered the same type of cast-iron pan Byron’s uses on eBay: a Griswold No. 10, 949 popover/muffin pan. It’s perfect.
Vintage Cornbread in a Box Mix Era
My grandmothers never wrote down their Depression-era cornbread recipes, and I’ve yet to recapture the magical pones they’d whip up faster than you can say, “turnip greens and pinto beans.” I remember watching them use those golden wedges to push pintos onto a fork, sop pot liquor, dunk into soups, and crumble into a cold glass of buttermilk on a hot Alabama night.
In this age of box mixes, finding a cornbread recipe worthy to write about or add to my recipe collection has been disappointing — until a trip to Byron’s Smoke House in Auburn, Alabama.
I ordered the half-chicken plate and chose their cornbread muffin over a roll. After the first bite, I knew the muffin was exactly what I’d been looking for. It had an intense butter and corn flavor, with rich, tangy undertones of buttermilk. And it was incredibly tender; the moisture sealed inside by a thin crust. The muffin didn’t crumble like most dry cornbread. Instead, it acted as a small sponge — perfect for sopping.
The restaurant’s owner, Glen Gulledge, agreed to an interview (below). However, being tight-lipped about his family’s secret recipe, he only shared the ingredients and vintage technique, not amounts or brands he uses. In fact, if you want to know exactly how Byron’s Smoke House muffins taste, I encourage you to visit Byron’s in Auburn.
I now had a project on my hands. But, finally, I got admirably close through countless test batches, exhaustive research and years of trial and error in the kitchen. I was relieved when my kids finally said, “Dad, you did it — this is it!” Now we have an addition to our family cookbook they can pass down to their kids, along with my antique cast-iron pans.
Byron’s Olde Tyme Technique
Glenn Gulledge, owner of Byron’s Smoke House, shares his secrets behind the most flavorful and moist cornbread muffins I’ve ever tasted.
“Our batter is really simple,” said Gulledge, “but the secret to our cornbread isn’t so much the batter as the WAY we make it. I make it the way Mama made it, in cast-iron muffin pans, which are much better than aluminum. You can’t heat aluminum as hot as cast-iron, which is to the point it smokes.
“In fact, as a kid, I can remember hearing the batter sizzle from across the room as Mama poured it into the muffin molds. That sizzle tells you it’s the right temperature for creating a crust, much like you would sear a steak. The crust holds the moisture in.
“Be careful when you pour in the batter and handling the metal; that muffin pan is HOT! I’ve burned my hands too many times to count.
“We tell people there’s no need to butter our muffins because the batter contains butter. But they do it anyway and always say, yep, it doesn’t need butter!” Gulledge said with a grin.
“Some restaurants pre-bake their lunch corn muffins first thing in the morning. We don’t do that at Byron’s. Ours come fresh out of the oven at lunch, and we keep the muffin pans rotating until the lunch crowd is gone.
“When we added vegetables to the menu, we simply had to have good cornbread. I think by doing it the way my Mama did it, we got it JUST right.”