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The Secret Ingredient That Makes This Pan-Fried Cornbread Really Pop

Golden brown, salted cornbread chunks sit on a white plate on a blue table cloth.
Rocky Luten

Chef Todd Richards wants us to know this: There’s much more to cornbread than we think, and certainly no one right way to make it. In fact, there are four—very different—recipes in his beautiful cookbook Soul alone.

“I wanted to show the versatility of cornbread and how it’s used in many different manners and ways,” Richards told me over the phone. “It really speaks to migration throughout the Americas.”

A saucepan of popcorn sits on a table counter next to a variety of spices.
Rocky Luten

The recipe that put a genius twinkle in my eye is Richards’ Hot Water Cornbread, a traditional style that’s shaped into small cakes and pan-fried, which he says was a staple in times when there was no real dairy available (though his version adds some tangy buttermilk back in).

The “hot water” in the name is important—it’s the key to the handiest parts of the recipe. Unlike in skillet-baked styles of cornbread that can often take 45 minutes or more to bake through, here the hot water acts as a fast-forward button, hydrating the cornmeal and speeding its cooking along, so that the mini cornbreads can finish cooking as they crisp up in the pan, without having to get the oven involved.

The quick steep in hot water also prompts the other flavors—the nutmeg, cayenne, whatever else you want to throw in—to wake up and absorb into the cornmeal as it plumps up.

Popcorn mixed with a golden yellow paste sits in a bowl on a white counter top.
Rocky Luten

But what Richards does next is perhaps even more surprising, and has the most hidden and powerful genius effects: He tosses a handful of popped popcorn into the batter. “Popcorn has a different kind of corn flavor. It has a nuttiness, and it has a little bit of bittering quality as well. It gives balance to the dish,” Richards told me, when I asked about his inspiration for this move. “Texture-wise it does a great deal of things: softness, crunch, a little surprise in every bite.”

It’s such a natural, yet why-didn’t-I-think-of-that? addition that Richards includes popped corn in three of the four cornbread recipes in his book. Toss a handful in next time you make this or any other cornbread recipe, then sit back and count the many dimensions it adds. (Then thank Richards.) If you’re really smitten, you can even start DIYing your own popcorn meal.

A bowl of golden yellow dough sits next to a cooking pan with evenly spaced flattened circles of dough.
Rocky Luten

His recipe is infinitely versatile: You can eat the cornbread as-is for breakfast, maybe with just a little maple or honey (or, best of all, according to Richards, cane syrup). Stir in herbs or chopped, cooked shrimp or bacon.

Serve it as a side at dinner, along with greens or saucy meats like pot roast. And, Richards says, he might like them even better reheated in a skillet the next day, with a little ground coffee and spices or sliced jalapeño sizzling in the butter first.

We’ll let you take it from here.

A Genius Hot Water Cornbread—No-Bake and (Almost) No-Wait

• 2 1/2 cups (20 ounces) water
• 2 teaspoons kosher salt
• 2 cups (about 8 1/2 ounces) plain yellow cornmeal (finely ground, not medium or coarse)
• 1 teaspoon raw sugar
• 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or less if you’d like it less spicy)
• 1 tablespoon popcorn kernels, popped
• 2/3 cup (about 6 ounces) buttermilk, preferably whole
• 1/2 cup (4 ounces) vegetable oil
• 1/2cup (about 2 1/8 ounces) all-purpose flour

See the full recipe on Food52.

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