In some parts of the country, “sweet cornbread” is essentially blasphemy. But when you grow up on Trader Joe’s boxed mix cornbread (ahem, me), you develop a palate for cornbread of the sweet and cakey variety–what some people would characterize as northern-style cornbread. (But the whole northern vs. southern-style cornbread is a topic for another time. This is a great read on the topic.)
So if you’re looking for a rustic southern-style skillet cornbread, look away now! In this bake off, we were searching for a cornbread that specifically read as sweet, with a great texture to go with the sweeter flavor. Excitingly, in our test of 12 different recipes, one stood out head and shoulders compared to the rest.
- 28 total tasters
- All 12 recipes were baked fresh the day of and tasted at room temperature
- All tasters ranked each cornbread on a scale from 0-10 for flavor, texture, and overall as a whole
- All cornbread was baked in pans as specified by the recipe (i.e. loaf pans, cast iron skillets, 9″ metal cake pans, and an 8×8 glass Pyrex pan)
- I arbitrarily characterized recipes as a “sweet” recipe if they had approximately 1/4 cup of sugar per regular-sized recipe of cornbread
- Unbleached Gold Medal all-purpose flour
- Unsalted Land O Lakes butter
- Quaker yellow cornmeal (the most consistent product that I could easily find in stores)
- Diamond kosher salt
- Kroger sugar
Best Sweet Cornbread Results
If we get right to it, Mel’s Kitchen Cafe was the distinct winner when it came to overall rankings (once you read below, you’ll see why).
However, when it came to flavor, Cleo Buttera’s recipe just edged out Mel’s recipe (given the small data sample, it was essentially a tie), though the texture rating brought it down to third overall. Similarly, Huckleberry seemed to be a crowd favorite during the tasting, and while it scored very well on flavor, the texture was very divisive, dropping it to 7th place.
You can see the average overall ratings in the top chart, and the average scores for flavor and texture in the bottom chart:
Best Cornbread Rankings Factors
Sugar: Looking at the average overall ratings, I think the thing that set apart the top three cornbreads was the sweetness level. A lot of cornbreads that hung out in the middle got mixed ratings, but generally lacked flavor. And the lowest rated cornbreads tended to either be not very sweet or very lacking in flavor. Of course, these cornbreads also had to have good texture and since sugar is a tenderizer, I think having a higher ratio of sugar in these recipes helped boost the flavor profile as well as create a more tender, cakey crumb (which is what we were after).
Fat: The only types of fat used in these recipes were butter or oil. Only 4 recipes used oil (or a blend of butter and oil)–the top two rated (Mel’s and All Recipes – Golden), Huckleberry and King Arthur Flour. Similar to the findings in the chocolate cake bake off where oil-based cakes did better than butter-based cakes, oil is key for a cornbread that is cakier-textured, which most tasters enjoyed (though not quite sure how to explain KAF’s sad texture rating–probably not enough sugar to tenderize to our preferred level). Generally in any baked good, using both butter and oil is a good move as you get flavor from butter and moisture from the oil–cornbread is no exception.
Cornmeal: I standardized on Quaker yellow cornmeal (which I think is a medium/medium-fine grind), which I used for any recipe that either specified medium grind or didn’t specify what type to use. For those that called for coarse/fine grind, I used cornmeal from Whole Foods’ bulk bin (Alex Guarnaschelli called for coarse and Serious Eats called for fine; everyone else was standard). I thought the fine grind would definitely make for a lighter, cakier mouthfeel but surprisingly the medium grind of Quaker did the trick for a lot of the cakier recipes! And the finer cornmeal in the Serious Eats recipe really didn’t lend itself to a finer crumb–it still felt quite coarse. I think the bigger factor over the cornmeal itself is the ratio of flour to cornmeal–a higher ratio of flour and less cornmeal leads to a cakier crumb while more cornmeal, or even a 1:1 ratio of cornmeal:flour, will lead to a coarser crumb.
Technique: One of the things I loved about this bake off is that cornbread technique is so simple, which made for a very easy testing process. The majority of the recipes used a simple muffin technique (combine dry, combine wet, and then mix the two). Only Cook’s Illustrated, Huckleberry and Cleo Buttera involved slightly more complex blending and creaming techniques. In this bake off, I don’t think technique really had a part to play in any of the results.
Analysis of the Best Sweet Cornbread Recipes
King Arthur Flour: a close-textured, blank canvas that would be good for savory mix ins (cheese, corn, jalapenos, etc.)
Why I chose this recipe: a standard butter-based cornbread recipe that uses milk instead of the more typical buttermilk (Cleo Buttera was the only other recipe that also uses milk + butter).
My thoughts: This recipe offers a variation to sub half of the butter for 1/4 cup of oil for a moister cornbread, which I tried. It did result in a nice cakey crumb (sticks to the mouth a bit), and I had no complaints about moisture, but it tasted virtually flavorless. This recipe is advertised as a compromise between Southern and Northern cornbread (and can easily be made savory with the right mix ins), and my guess is that it’s probably better off with added mix ins. This is a good blank canvas for stronger flavors.
Tasters overwhelmingly thought this cornbread was bland and a little dry. “No detectable flavor,” said one. Some agreed the texture was great (a few thought it was a little grainy), but all agreed the flavor could use some work.
Serious Eats: a skillet-baked, buttery but non-sweet cornbread with a bouncy, coarse crumb
Why I chose this recipe: uses brown butter and sour cream in addition to butter and buttermilk.
My thoughts: With a 1:1 ratio of cornmeal to flour and hydrated with butter, sour cream and buttermilk, this cornbread seemed promising. Browning the butter is a welcomed hands-off process–you stick the butter in a skillet in the oven until browned, before mixing in all the other ingredients. While our resulting bread had a nice sturdy crumb, it was a bouncy rather than tender crumb that had a strong butter flavor and not much else. I couldn’t really taste the cornmeal–rather, it felt like a kind of tough, coarse buttery bread.
Most tasters commented that this bread was “dry,” “so bland” and forgettable. “Dry. Do not love flavor,” said one. “Sourdough like,” said another. A few noted an odd, slightly bitter aftertaste, and several commented that it was not sweet at all. For those looking for a more Southern-style cornbread, this might be your jam.
Ina Garten: a dry, non-sweet, slightly crumbly and bland cornbread
Why I chose this recipe: another recipe that uses sour cream in addition to butter and milk.
My thoughts: The only cornbread to be baked in a loaf pan, Ina’s cornbread was intriguing to me as the photos show it being sliced and toasted, indicating a very sturdy cornbread. Interestingly, our resulting cornbread verged slightly on the drier, crumbly side with a medium fine crumb. There was a slight sweetness, but I couldn’t detect any tanginess from the sour cream. Overall, I liked the texture but felt the taste was lacking.
“Claggy mouthfeel,” said one. “Should be disqualified and saved for the savory cornbread bake off,” said another. Tasters complained that the texture was dry, crumbly and chalky, though I actually thought the texture turned more cakey. However, pretty much everyone agreed that it was very bland and almost flavorless. This may be another good candidate to transform into a savory cornbread with mix ins.
Alex Guarnaschelli: a coarse, sturdy and non-sweet rustic cornbread
Why I chose this recipe: a higher ratio of cornmeal to flour, less sugar than most, and a combination of milk + buttermilk.
My thoughts: Alex’s recipes have great reviews online, so I was excited to try hers even though I suspected the small amount of sugar didn’t bode for a great result. This recipe also uses a hot skillet method (pouring prepared batter into a hot-from-the-oven skillet) for crisp edges. Our resulting cornbread had the most open, coarse crumb of the bunch (Alex calls for coarse grind cornmeal). The flavor was very buttery but not overly corny–like Serious Eats, I didn’t pick up on much other flavor. But who knows, maybe this is a great Southern-style cornbread! (Of which I would be a terrible judge!)
Virtually all tasters commented on the large, coarse crumb of this cornbread. Some liked the hearty, spongy texture, noting that it would “hold up well to buttering” while others thought the dry, slightly tough texture was off-putting.
Jiffy: a very dry and somewhat satisfyingly flavored corn muffin
Why I chose this recipe: for a boxed mix control, similar to Pillsbury in the sprinkle cake bake off. We tried both the vegetarian and regular Jiffy mix (which contains lard). Though I think they taste every so slightly different, I think they were similar enough so that we used both interchangeably for the tasters.
My thoughts: My roommate and I used to make Jiffy in college, which was probably the last time I had Jiffy. The crumb was much drier than I remembered, but it still had the slightly addicting, sweet corn flavor that I remembered. It dissolves into a satisfying mouthfeel once you chew, and for me the nostalgia factor probably ranked it higher flavor-wise than it deserved. Overall I thought the flavor was much superior to the dry texture.
For the most part, people agreed this cornbread was unremarkable but fine. “Driest of the dry,” proclaimed one taster. “Sweet, savory balanced flavor, but a little stale tasting,” said another. One described it as “like fluffy pleasant air, very middle of the road.”
Cook’s Illustrated: a soft, cakey cornbread that’s slightly lacking in flavor
Why I chose this recipe: because Cook’s Illustrated. Also another butter + buttermilk recipe with the addition of frozen corn blended into the batter.
My thoughts: This cornbread was a breeze to throw together–all the wet ingredients (including the thawed, frozen corn) gets pulsed in a blender while the dry ingredients are mixed in a bowl. Fold dry into wet, add butter and voila! The resulting cornbread had a soft, cakey crumb that was lightly sweet. It reminded me of King Arthur Flour’s cornbread, but moister. Despite the addition of real corn, I didn’t detect a ton of corn flavor in this one either. For me, it landed on the positive side of mediocre.
“Classic cornbread, not a sweet cornbread,” said one. “Annoying that it’s neither salty nor sweet” said one. Overall thought seemed to be that this cornbread was so-so, with a moist, yet somehow crumbly texture.
All Recipe (Grandmother’s Buttermilk): a spongy, slightly cakey, slightly dry cornbread with a slightly sweet corny flavor
Why I chose this recipe: 9,000 reviews and a 5-star rating on All Recipes, great representation of many popular online recipes with 1:1 cornmeal/flour ratio
My thoughts: Another skillet recipe that is a breeze to throw together, this cornbread was a little stiffer than Cook’s Illustrated, but the taste was distinctly sweeter. I wished the texture was a little more tender, but this was a cornbread where I finally picked up on a level of sweetness that I was more familiar with.
Tasters thought this cornbread was “good but not great.” “Dry” was a common descriptor, with one calling it “the cornbread version of cornpops cereal: looks healthier than it tastes but somehow I can’t stop eating it.” Other issues: “dry and forgettable, too crumbly,” “buttery but still somewhat dry”. Most agreed the flavor was a little off, though some liked the level of sweetness.
Sally’s Baking Addiction: a sweet, honey-laced cakey cornbread
Why I chose this recipe: honey and brown sugar made this butter + buttermilk cornbread stand out from the crowd
My thoughts: With the most distinctive color of the bunch, Sally’s honey-tan cornbread had a distinct honey flavor with a cakey texture. This verged into slightly more moist cornbread territory (with a couple exceptions, nearly all the cornbreads we tried were on the drier side), which was a welcome change. This was also a breeze to throw together.
Many commented that this one was more cakelike, but many were thrown off by the flavor. “Is it a corny pumpkin bread loaf?” questioned one. “Sweet, bland and crumbly,” said another. A few thought it was too eggy, close-textured and too sweet. Overall, people were split between thinking it was weird and eggy vs. having a good sweetness and flavor and cakey texture.
Huckleberry: an unusually springy, rich, very moist cornbread
Why I chose this recipe: uses butter and oil plus whole wheat flour…plus milk AND buttermilk, honey, and more eggs than most.
My thoughts: This was the only recipe that called for a mixer, which seemed a bit overkill. After creaming the butter and sugar together, you incorporate 4 (four!) eggs, dry ingredients, what seems like way too many wet ingredients, and then fresh corn if it’s in season (it was not in season, so we omitted the corn). I had to bake this bread for maybe 15 minutes longer than the stated time and even after resting, it was VERY moist. Like it almost squished when you bite into it. The texture was a little chunky with a surprisingly coarse yet very moist and springy crumb that holds together well. Simultaneously sweet and salty, this cornbread was a cacophony of flavors compared to many of the other recipes we tried. This was by far the most unique cornbread we tried (for both technique and taste) and although it is undeniably delicious, it was a bit greasy for me and I doubt I will bother getting my mixer out to make this very often.
Tasters praised the crust for being chewy and crispy at the same time. Most noted the oily texutre, which some loved and some hated. Some commented that this bread was simply too dense, greasy and oily, while others loved the richness. It is significantly saltier than other cornbreads; I think it could stand to be reduced, especially if you’re watching your sodium.
New York Times: an aggressively buttery, not-too-sweet cornbread with a coarse crumb
Why I chose this recipe: the only recipe to use brown butter and all maple syrup (no sugar!)
My thoughts: This skillet cornbread uses the same brown butter method as Serious Eats. However, I think the higher rating for the NYT recipe can be attributed in large part to the generous amount of maple syrup in the recipe, which lent an addicting flavor to the final cornbread. I found the cornbread to be aggressively buttery, and fairly moist, but I wished the crumb was cakier rather than coarse (I think the higher ratio of cornmeal in this recipe as well as the lack of sugar contributed to a tougher crumb). Even with half a cup of maple syrup, it still registered on the savory side of the scale for me–I’d be curious to try making it again with less cornmeal and more flour, and with some added sugar to soften the crumb.
Tasters noted this had a different flavor profile from most cornbreads, picking up on the maple and strong brown butter notes. Many commented on the coarseness/large crumb–for some it was too coarse and grainy, while others loved the open, grainy texture. Most agreed it was nicely moist, though it was missing the corn flavor for some. The subtle sweetness was okay for some, but others wished for more.
Cleo Buttera: a dense, custardy cornbread with a pure and powerful corn flavor thanks to pureed corn
Why I chose this recipe: A riff on the relatively complex Chef Step’s recipe, but adapted for the home cook (i.e. no isolate)
Quite sweet, very corn-forward, tastes custardy and is very dense.
“Corny” was the number one descriptor for this cornbread. “Warm and buttery” said one. “Creamy” “felt like I was eating sweet corn from a can” “Tastes like buttered corn on the cob, feels like corn pudding”. Smooth and moist wtihout being greasy, muffin-like texture. Only complaint? It felt undercooked, and one didn’t like the flavor.
All Recipe (Golden Sweet): a sweet and soft, but slightly coarse texture with a reasonable corn flavor
Why I chose this recipe: the only completely oil-based cornbread I tested with 4,000 reviews and a 4.5 star rating on All Recipes
My thoughts: A breeze to make, this cornbread was a semi-close second to the winning cornbread. Interestingly, the ratios are very similar to the other All Recipes cornbread we tried–the main difference is that this recipe uses oil and milk whereas the other recipe uses butter and buttermilk. With an open but still-soft crumb, this cornbread had a pleasing sweetness and rustic cakiness. As I mentioned earlier, oil seems key for a moist and cakier-textured cornbread. I liked the sweet flavor of this cornbread, though I still would have preferred the texture to be a little softer and fluffier.
“Pleasantly cakey and corny, for those who enjoy cornbread on the dessert side of the spectrum.” Interestingly, while tasters liked the sweetness and flavor of this cornbread, most felt just lukewarm about it. Some thought it was a little too crumbly while others appreciated the close texture.
Mel’s Kitchen Cafe: a cakey, sweet cornbread that would “feel at home in a house of cake”
Why I chose this recipe: like Huckleberry, another oil + butter-based recipe, but with simple technique and more conventional measurements for everything else
My thoughts: Yet another very simple recipe in terms of technique, Mel’s recipe had a higher ratio of flour vs. cornmeal and one of the highest ratios of sugar. This resulted in a cornbread that walked the line of cake in the best way–uber soft and fluffy, with a light corn flavor and distinct sweetness, only the slight coarseness of the cornmeal kept this from feeling like a full on piece of cake. It’s a total winner for a sweet and cakey cornbread in my book–easy to make, moist and fluffy. This was hands down my favorite cornbread.
Tasters agreed, calling it “a cornbread that would feel at home in a house of cake.” “Very fluffy and flavorful” said another. Most commented that this had a nice sweetness and a light, moist texture, almost like “sponge cake,” said one. The only complaints? Some said it was too sweet and lacking a bit in corn flavor.
Best Sweet Cornbread Recipes: Recommendations
My favorite overall was Mel’s Kitchen Cafe–it’s super fast to make and super satisfying to eat. However, I realize that not everyone may be looking for a sweet, fluffy, cakey, perfect cornbread. So here are my very subjective overall category recommendations:
Best sweet cornbreads:
Mel’s Kitchen Cafe, Cleo Buttera, All Recipes – Golden
Most corn flavor:
Cleo Buttera, Huckleberry
Best not-too-sweet, skillet-style cornbread:
New York Times
For a rich, truly moist and decadent cornbread:
Best cornbread for southern cornbread lovers:
Alex Guarnaschelli, or maybe New York Times if a little sugar is okay with you!
For a honey flavored cornbread:
Sally’s Baking Addiction, Huckleberry
Happy cornbread baking! As always, tag #pancakeprincessbakeoff on Instagram if you try any of these recipes–would love to hear your thoughts!