Despite its relative utility, chemistry never held much sway. Instead of chemical compounds and balanced equations, I preferred studying the subjunctive tense for être and avoir, or drawing the shape of parabolic curves, or studying the machinations of medieval European princes. Even looking at plant cells seemed more interesting than mixing chemicals.
Admittedly, some of my classmates saw things differently. Walk into a French, Algebra, or History classroom, and the setting is sedate and similar: rows of desks, facing a blackboard. Walk into a chemistry classroom, and the mood is one of potential and excitement: Bunsen burners, microscopes, lab coats, test tubes, fire extinguishers, and an emergency chemical-bath. As one of the Chemistry teachers liked to boast, “You can’t die in English class.”
And yet, all I could muster up was a stifled yawn. Chemistry was that class. The one where the minute-hand seemed immovable, where the homework seemed obtuse, and where the reading cured all insomnia.
Which is too bad. Chemistry, it turns out, is the linchpin of cooking.
Cakes and breads rise, not by fiat, but by acids reacting with leavening agents. The ensuing chemical reaction helps enlarge natural bubbles within the batter. Understand this, and you understand that when a recipe calls for buttermilk, it’s not just calling for buttermilk – it’s calling for something to react with the baking powder. When the recipe calls for baking soda, it does so to neutralize the acidity.
Understand those reactions, and you have the power to make substitutions. Which is where we are now.
Most cornbread recipes use plain milk, which lacks the acidity of buttermilk. And for that reason, they tend to be just that: plain. Without that acidity, the cornbread lacks that airy texture. On the other hand, buttermilk can be fairly thick, counteracting its own advantages.
But here’s the solution. Yogurt and sour cream share buttermilk’s acidic properties, but bring a lighter texture to the table. Adding either sour cream or yogurt spurs the batter towards its leavening reaction, without weighing it down, giving you the perfect cornbread recipe.
And that’s just what the Doctors of Chemistry ordered!
Sour Cream & Honey Cornbread
PREP TIME: 15 minutes
COOK TIME:25 minutes
YIELD: Serves 6
WHAT TO GRAB:
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup low-fat sour cream
1 cup stone-ground, medium-grind cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup honey
HOW YOU DO IT:
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a nine-inch baking dish.
2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Continuing cooking the butter until it is turning light brown, and has a nutty smell – between 5 and 10 minutes. Do not skim the butter.
3. In a large bowl, sift together the cornmeal, flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder. In a separate bowl, whisk together the sour cream, eggs, and honey. Working in batches, add the dry ingredients to the wet, mixing until just combined. Finally, whisk in the melted butter.
4. Fill the baking dish with the batter, and smooth with a rubber spatula. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the cornbread is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve with a heaping of red beans and rice!