Elevate Your Skillet Cornbread By Stirring In Some Bacon Fat

While biscuits are a famous Southern staple, cornbread has been a key source of sustenance in the American South since the first American settlers made contact with Native Americans. Corn remains a more successful Southern crop and cornbread is a special source of pride in Southern diets. In the Lowcountry, skillet cornbread reigns supreme, with its crunchy, buttery, browned edges achieved by adding the batter to a piping hot skillet before baking it in the oven. While modern recipes use butter or oil to coat the skillet, bacon fat is the ingredient that will elevate your skillet cornbread to the richest, most savory heights.

Pork fat and lard are long-standing staples used in Southern recipes like biscuits and grits. Pork skin and grease as cornbread ingredients were and remain a mainstay in the Lowcountry, so much so that people refer to this type of skillet cornbread as "crackling cornbread." James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock brought crackling cornbread to national attention and praise with his iron skillet cornbread recipe which he shared with Food Republic.

Brock swaps rinds for more flavorful bacon and bacon fat, mincing raw bacon strips into a paste-like consistency, then frying the bacon in a pan to create a sizzling skillet of bacon cracklings swimming in bacon grease. After separating the cracklings from the grease using a strainer, Brock's recipe adds the cracklings to the batter and the grease to the skillet, heating it to a sizzle.

Bacon fat vs lard

If you've ever enjoyed fresh bacon, hot off the skillet, you know how inimitable its flavor is. The smoky, umami richness transfers beautifully into the bacon grease used in skillet cornbread. Bacon grease's concentrated umami flavor and smoky finish make an unbeatable complement to the earthy savoriness of cornmeal and tang of buttermilk. The bits of cracklings further develop that wonderful bacon savoriness while also delivering a crunchy contrast to the fluffy cornbread crumb.

While bacon fat and lard are both pork products used in Southern recipes, their taste and texture are distinct. Lard is a solid fat that adds richness and ensures a flakey biscuit or pie crust but lacks the savory, smoky profile inherent in bacon fat. Furthermore, bacon fat is liquid and more suited to coating pans like oil or melted butter. Consequently, you can use bacon fat instead of oil to saute veggies, eggs, and even other cuts of meat.

Another way to make bacon fat with less prep work is to oven-bake bacon strips on a baking rack over an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet. The grease will fall through the rack onto the baking sheet, leaving you with crispy bacon strips and a pool of grease you can funnel through the foil into a container. Any leftover bacon fat you don't use in your skillet cornbread would make the perfect foundation for gravy.

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