Genius Recipes

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

Traditional style, but with a snazzy new star ingredient.

October 24, 2018

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.

Photo by 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.”

Photo by 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).

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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.

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Top Comment:
“Cornbread is fried or baked, almost everyday at my house. Soooo good with homemade vegetable soup. I do prefer the non- sweet cornbread. Sometimes I do add drained pineapple tidbits and have been known to drain whole kennel corn, not to much, maybe half a can. Mush here is served more like oatmeal or grits, and you can add anything to it, always good. I will say, popcorn is new to me. I think I will give it a try! ”
— Sharon O.

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.

Photo by 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.

Photo by 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.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Nancy
  • Jeff
  • Millie Jenkins
    Millie Jenkins
  • Franchesca
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Nancy May 20, 2019
I grew up on hot water cornbread, albeit quite a bit different than this recipe. In east Texas when my grandmother, aunts and mother made hot water cornbread it was simply corn meal (always white corn meal as I recall), a little shortening, salt and water and the bread should have been fried in hot vegetable oil. It was perfect served alongside freshly cooked summer green beans. The addition of popcorn would have tickled those ladies!
dealdeborah August 29, 2023
JEN L. January 1, 2019
Ugh. I was excited about this recipe, but it's an mess. The batter is so sticky even with flour. I tried making several and it was a disaster not to mention the recipe was for 10! I'm usually a fan of this column, but my frustration lead me to make a comment.
Kristen M. January 4, 2019
Hi Jen, I'm sorry to hear it. As we're learning, the fineness of the cornmeal makes a big difference in the consistency of the batter—we used Indian Head brand, one of the finer-ground varieties available to us in New York City grocery stores. For anyone else running into this problem as they go, adding a bit more flour (or cornflour or other very finely ground flour) until the consistency is easier to work with could help.
JEN L. January 7, 2019
Thanks for the suggestion! Happy New Year
Jeff November 15, 2018
I love the idea of this (the hot water batter and popcorn), but I'm not excited about fiddling with frying little cornbreads. Have you or anyone else tried this making one large cornbread in the skillet in the oven? Timing? I might go ahead and experiment, but if anyone's tried this before, thoughts appreciated. Thanks!
Kristen M. November 18, 2018
It's worth an experiment, but I would try it out yourself first before rolling it out for guests. (And we've seen that cornmeals can vary, so I'd recommend if you find one where you love the results, make a note of it!)
Millie J. November 1, 2018
How do you recommend popping 1 Tbsp of popcorn? I love the idea of these corn cakes but am not in the habit of making popcorn and have no popping equipment.
Kristen M. November 4, 2018
Popcorn is really easy to make in any lidded pot on the stovetop with a little oil. For this small amount, I do it in a small skillet with a tight-fitting lid, shaking till I hear the pops slow down (check out the video above).
Franchesca October 31, 2018
My mom made these (sans the pizzaz) as an accompaniment to her navy beans. She called it a depression era meal; we always found it deeply satisfying and good. It's a great cheap meal and healthy when served with salad...
Tzerris October 28, 2018
This sounds great (and easy). I have been making skillet cornbread my whole life. Just wondering, will this recipe keep in the fridge?
Kristen M. October 29, 2018
Yes, it will! To crisp it up again, Todd Richards recommended reheating in a skillet on the stovetop with a little butter or oil (and even sizzling flavorings in the pan with it—I mentioned a few above).
Paul October 27, 2018
Somethings wrong. Either I read the recipe wrong or there is a mistake. The rcipe never says to add the flour other than to use floured hands to shape the cornbread. Even with the flour, my batch was so thin I had to pour it like pancake batter into the pan. Tasted good but what did I missw?
Kristen M. October 27, 2018
Hi Paul—sorry to hear it. The flour is just used to keep your hands from getting too sticky so you didn't miss anything. I've had the batter be quite runny when I've used medium-grind cornmeal instead of plain finer-ground stuff (my husband happened to LOVE the thinner pancakes I got that time). I'll update the recipe to clarify that this should be fine-ground. Thank you!
Fresh T. January 1, 2019
I've had this problem too.... so runny, there was no shaping only pouring, I rewatched the video to see the consistency of your batter.... and Soul doesn't specify fine ground either. I've added lots of flour to the batter to see if I can get it to work. All I have is Bob's Red Mill out here, nothing else in the stores..... Sigh. Frustrating..... I've made different cornbreads and know what a huge difference the grind and different brands can make....
Kristen M. January 4, 2019
Hi Fresh Tomatoes, I share your frustration! I didn't realize quite how regional even things labelled as fine-ground cornmeal could be. The brand we used in the video was Indian Head, one of the more finely-ground varieties available to us in NYC.
Sharon O. October 25, 2018
I was very surprised when I read this recipe/article. Then I remembered, I have lived in Tennessee all my life! Cornbread is fried or baked, almost everyday at my house. Soooo good with homemade vegetable soup. I do prefer the non- sweet cornbread. Sometimes I do add drained pineapple tidbits and have been known to drain whole kennel corn, not to much, maybe half a can. Mush here is served more like oatmeal or grits, and you can add anything to it, always good. I will say, popcorn is new to me. I think I will give it a try!

Kristen M. October 27, 2018
:) Hope you like the popcorn experiment (and you can always pop a little extra for a pre-dinner snack).
Jessie October 25, 2018
I make a corn CAKE recipe that has me soak the corn meal in hot water before adding the rest of the wet ings. I've fallen asleep with the mess still in the pot (I've a chronic illness) and the recipe wasn't ruined in the least.
I imagine this recipe would be just as forgiving. Just wish that where I live now I could find cornmeal! T,T I love cooking with it!
Never thought of adding popcorn. Will have to give it a try when I go back home!
Kristen M. October 27, 2018
Great to know how forgiving your recipe is, Jessie. I imagine this one could hang out a while till you're ready to fry, too. Hope you like this one when you get the chance to try it!
Cheryl October 25, 2018
My aunt used to make a version of these for us many years ago, but they were much simpler.... white or yellow cornmeal, salt and hot water. Never knew her measurements, I think she just eyeballed it, the consistency was firm enough to make a patty. She then fried the patties until edges were crispy but the center was tender. We ate them with lots of butter! They were so good! Think I’m gonna have to go make some, it’s been a long time! This recipe sounds great too, I’m interested in trying all the additional ingredients!
Kristen M. October 27, 2018
Love it! Sounds like a great way to go when you have nothing in the fridge and find a sack of cornmeal in the pantry.
Brenda November 28, 2018
My mom made your recipe for years. In the early years she used bacon grease in the batter for flavor. We always called them Corn Pones!
Denise M. April 15, 2019
That’s what my mother always made it and me too we just got corn meal and put some salt in it and pour boiling water in it and then shifted into patties and fried it. I love it
dealdeborah August 29, 2023
Perfectly said and yes that is the simple recipe I use and remember from childhood!!
dealdeborah August 29, 2023
Bobbie H. October 25, 2018
This recipe sounds great! I would like to make it for my supper club, but we have gluten free members. Can I substitute a GF flour with good results?
ctgal October 25, 2018
I am planning to use a g.f. flour too. I have seen a similar one like this recipe on a site called Southern Living. And there may not be any flour in that one.
ctgal October 25, 2018
Oops! Taste of Southern is the site, not Southern Living, the magazine.
Kristen M. October 27, 2018
Absolutely, and look for a certified gluten-free cornmeal too—the corn is gluten-free but it's good to know it's processed in a gluten-free facility if anyone has a serious allergy.
Lisa October 24, 2018
I can't wait to try this! The addition of popcorn to this mix sounds like a fun idea.

Can you tell me where I can find the glass measuring cup that was used to pour the oil in the skillet? I have been looking for a glass measuring cup with the engraved lines forever..
Linda K. October 25, 2018
Lisa, I found a glass measuring glass (up to 12 oz.) in a thrift store in Seattle - $0.99, not engraved but printed green with a nice spout. Wish I knew who made it. Would send you a photo if I could.
Kristen M. October 27, 2018
Lisa, that's one of our Art Director's vintage finds, so sadly, I can't point you to a shop. She scours flea markets, thrift stores, estate sales, and antique stores for many of our props we use in photos and videos. You can also try searching on sites like Etsy or eBay and sometimes find good stuff.
Lisa October 27, 2018
Thanks Kristen for the information. I did a search a couple of years ago and couldn't find one in the 16 oz size. I have one from Pampered Chef in the quart size.. I think it is time to do a search again. :)
Kristen M. October 29, 2018
Good luck!
rox L. November 10, 2018
Lisa, The measuring cup is actually a measuring beaker used by photographers to measure liquids for developing. I found a couple an 8oz & 16oz at a flea market a few years ago. I thought maybe knowing this you might have better luck in your search.
Lisa November 10, 2018
Thanks Roxanne! I will try searching for "measure beakers" and see what happens. I did find a glass cup at Wal-Mart of all places, but it had 3 places to pour from, no handle and it just look to weird for me :)