Super Sides

Cornbread vs. corn cakes vs. spoonbread—which wins?

The Whiskey Jar’s Cornbread

Photo by Alicia Walsh-Noel

All hail king corn, that juggernaut crop of the American South that has lent itself to so many preparations since well before the Colonial period. Whether in grits or whiskey or good old cornbread, these sweet kernels are an inextricable ingredient in the Virginia diet. 

The recipes for seemingly similar preparations, like cornbread, johnny cakes, and spoonbread, can be as divisive and diverse as the people cooking them.While spoonbread quivers on the spoon, cornbread—sweetened or not—stands upright and is best eaten with your hands, while johnny (or corn) cakes invite bite after fluffy bite with a fork. One could argue that the most substantial difference between the three dishes is the vehicle for their delivery, with each one having its own myriad variations—including these three from Virginia chefs.

The Whiskey Jar’s Cornbread

Rachel Pennington, The Whiskey Jar, Charlottesville, TheWhiskeyJarCville.com

“Butter makes the cornbread what it is at The Whiskey Jar. It is a cult favorite and one of the most enduring and beloved items on the menu. This cornbread is beyond moist, crumbly, a perfect balance of rich, salty, and a kick of sweet, which can easily be adjusted by lowering the sugar content to taste.”

1 pound butter

2 cups all purpose flour (White Lily preferred)

2 cups yellow cornmeal (Patrick Henry preferred)

1 cup or less (to taste) extra-fine granulated sugar

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon baking powder (non-aluminum)

1 teaspoon baking soda

4 large eggs

2 cups buttermilk

1 dollop honey

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Melt butter over low heat and cool slightly. In a medium bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, and sugar, then add salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Whisk to fully combine dry ingredients. Add eggs and buttermilk; whisk to combine. Add honey; whisk to combine. Slowly add the butter, and whisk to emulsify until a uniform and thickened batter forms. Pour batter into greased baking dish and bake until bread has risen and started to brown on top. If the top browns too quickly, lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees or place a cookie sheet directly on the rack above the cornbread to stifle the direct heat. Bake until a knife or toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Serve warm.

Serves 12-15

Spoonbread Bistro’s Old Fashioned Spoonbread

Michael Hall, Spoonbread Bistro, Richmond, SpoonbreadBistro.com

“Spoonbread is very special to me. I named my restaurant Spoonbread because it means the South to me, and I want it to have that charm and food that the South represents.”

Spoonbread Bistro’s Old Fashioned Spoonbread

Photo by Angela Zanders

¾ cup white cornmeal

¼ cup self-rising flour

1 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons sugar

½ teaspoon baking powder

2 cups milk

¼ cup lard

¼ cup butter, melted

2 eggs, well beaten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, thoroughly mix cornmeal, flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder. Bring milk to a boil with lard and butter. Reduce heat to low, and add the cornmeal mixture. Stir the cornmeal mixture rapidly into the milk, so that no clumps form. Cook for about 3 minutes, or until it forms a medium-thick mush. Stir. Add the eggs, and stir thoroughly. Grease a 1-quart casserole dish, pour in the spoonbread mixture, and bake for 15 minutes or until it puffs up and is golden brown. Serve warm.

Serves 4-6

Market at Main’s Corn Cakes

Rodney Taylor, Market at Main, Lynchburg, MarketAtMain.com

“When I was growing up in rural Amherst County, my grandmother always made cornbread for our Sunday dinners. Sometimes, she would spoon out a bit of the batter to make little griddle cakes for the children. This recipe pays homage to her and the many special meals we ate together as a family.”

Market at Main’s Corn Cakes

Photo by Duane Davis and Davis Dawson

3 tablespoons melted butter

2 eggs

7 tablespoons honey

1 cup milk

½ cup water

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1 ½ cups white flour

¾ cup degermed yellow cornmeal

½ cup stone ground yellow cornmeal 

Mix together melted butter, eggs, honey, milk, and water. In a separate bowl, combine all dry ingredients. Stir dry ingredient mixture into wet ingredients until fully combined; mixture will be thick. Spray griddle, and heat over medium-high heat. Pour batter by the spoonful (approximately ¼ cup) onto griddle and cook until golden on both sides. Serve with butter and warm sorghum syrup or maple syrup.

Serves 4


Photos courtesy of Wade’s Mill

Wade’s Mill: Living History

The best bread starts with authentic stoneground cornmeal. Founded in 1750, Wade’s Mill is the longest continuously operating grist mill in the Shenandoah Valley. Currently operated by its fourth family of owners, the Siegfrieds, Wade’s Mill produces a variety of grains, including heirloom corn, as well as baking mixes and gift boxes. The mill also offers the opportunity to spend a night in an updated historical building located on the property. WadesMill.com

A Few Varieties to Try: 

Bloody Butcher Corn Grits Flecked with crimson, these creamy grits have a distinct, earthy flavor.

Spoonbread Mix A mix of white and yellow corn grits perfect for spoonbread.

Golden Biscuit Mix A classic mix with a touch of yellow cornmeal.


This article originally appeared in our Smoke + Salt 2019 issue.

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