I grew up in Philadelphia eating “Northern-style” cornbread that verged on the sweeter side. The cornbread I knew had a subtle sweet corn flavor, with a light, fluffy, and tender crumb. At potluck cookouts, I’d often find cornbread relegated to a supporting act, often at the end of a picnic table buffet line and playing second fiddle to mains like smoked ribs or grilled chicken. It wasn’t until my early adult years that I tried and fell in love with “Southern-style” cornbread and its hearty, corn-forward flavor and more rustic texture.
While I love both of these styles of cornbread, and value the key differences that are described in Joshua Bousel’s Northern-style cornbread recipe, and Daniel Gritzer’s Southern-style unsweetened cornbread recipe, I wanted to try my hand at a cornbread recipe that offers the best of both these styles—neither too cake-like nor too austere. I wanted a cornbread recipe that is tender and sweet, yet bursting with a decidedly savory corn flavor, a sturdy moist crumb, and a dark brown crust.
I found the best way to achieve this was to bake the cornbread on my outdoor grill. By folding charred corn and poblano peppers directly into the batter and baking on the grill, cornbread takes on a complexity that frankly surprised me. It might even steal the show from those meaty mainstays it’s usually served alongside.
I describe at length in my article on the basic techniques of baking on a grill why I love doing it so much. Grill-baking, as I like to call it, is a great way to incorporate complex and often unexpected notes of char into baked goods. Not only does the grill add a smoky flavor to the cornbread itself, but I also use it for charring the corn and poblanos first over direct heat. Applying fire and char to corn can turn it from mild and sweet to earthy and nutty, and charred fresh chiles like the poblano I use in this recipe also transforms them in magical ways.
I made versions with and without the poblanos and I found the fruity and mild background heat of the poblanos to be a welcome addition to the cornbread. The chopped and charred poblano and corn kernel mixture not only deepen the flavor of the cornbread, but add welcome moisture and texture to it. To build even more roasted, nutty flavor into the cornbread, I also toast the cornmeal itself in the dry cast-iron skillet until it is fragrant, stirring to ensure even toasting.
Once these flavor-boosting steps are done, the batter is easy to mix together outdoors right beside the grill. I add a hefty amount of sour cream to the batter for richness and tang; its acidity also helps activate the baking soda, which works to tenderize the cornbread and promotes browning. I added a tablespoon of sugar to the batter as well to balance out the savory char flavor. I recommend having a prep table next to the grill so that the cornbread can be pulled together easily, and having all of your ingredients measured and ready before starting the recipe.
The finished bread comes off the grill lofty and golden, with a delectably crisp bottom, charred edges, and a tender crumb. It’s not fully Southern in style, nor Northern in style, but when cut into hearty wedges, this grill-baked cornbread can hold its own on the dinner table.
For Heating a Charcoal Grill: Open bottom vent completely. Light chimney starter mounded with charcoal briquettes (7 quarts). Once top coals are partially covered with ash, pour into a steeply banked pile against 1 side of the grill. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent. Heat until grill is hot (500°F; 260°C), about 5 minutes.
For Heating a Gas Grill: Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot (500°F; 260°C), about 15 minutes. Leave primary burner on high and turn off other burner(s). (see notes)
Clean and oil cooking grate. Set corn and poblanos over hotter side of grill (close grill lid if using gas) and cook, turning as needed, until poblanos are blistered and charred in spots, and corn is charred all over, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer poblanos and corn to cutting board; let cool slightly. (If using a charcoal grill, use tongs to carefully remove cooking grate and add 1 quart of unlit coals to the lit coals in a steeply banked pile, then return cooking grate.)
Stem, seed, and chop poblanos. Cut kernels from corn; you should have about 1 1/2 cups kernels.
Place a 10-inch cast-iron skillet on the hotter side of the grill. Add cornmeal and toast, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Using grill gloves, remove skillet from grill and transfer toasted cornmeal to a large bowl. Whisk sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into cornmeal. Whisk in sour cream, milk, oil, 1/4 cup melted butter, and eggs until combined. Stir in chopped poblanos and corn kernels.
Brush empty skillet with remaining 1 tablespoon melted butter. Scrape batter into skillet and smooth top. Place skillet on the cooler side of the grill, cover grill, and bake, rotating skillet halfway through baking, until top is golden brown and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 20 to 35 minutes. (For a gar grill, adjust primary burner as needed to maintain grill temperature between 400 to 225°F (200 to 230°C); if using 3-or-more-burner grill, adjust primary burner and second burner, leaving other burners off.Transfer skillet to wire rack and let cornbread cool for at least 30 minutes. Slice and serve.
Charcoal or gas grill, large chimney for charcoal grill, grill gloves, 10-inch cast-iron skillet
The primary burner on a gas grill is the burner that is connected closest to the gas source. It is the burner that you ignite first on the grill.
While I recommend baking this cornbread on the grill, you can make this recipe in the oven. Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and char the corn and poblano peppers under the broiler, turning occasionally until well charred all over, 3 to 5 minutes. Toast cornmeal in skillet over medium-high heat. Adjust oven temperature to 400F (204C) and bake cornbread until golden brown and cooked through, 20 to 30 minutes.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Cornbread can be stored in an airtight container, with a sheet of wax paper between the stacked cut layers, for up to 3 days at room temperature.