Essay

The Truth Behind My Grandma's (Not-So-Secret) Corn Casserole

And how I found out that everyone eats it too.

October  1, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland

I grew up eating what I know of as corn casserole and what you may know of as spoonbread or corn bowl. It’s not quite cornbread, but also not a layered casserole or gratin. To call it magical might be a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. Every Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember, my grandmother served corn casserole as a side dish alongside other classics: mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, dinner rolls, the works. But corn casserole is in a league of its own. Grandma always serves it in an opaque brown glass Pyrex bowl with a large spoon for serving big scoops. You don’t have to do it this way, but in my book, it’s the only way to do it. It’s Grandma’s way.

If you’ve never tasted corn casserole, it’s creamy and soft, golden brown on top and pale yellow beneath the surface. It’s studded with whole corn kernels so you get a slight crunch without distracting from the uber-moist casserole. On Turkey Day, I help myself to seconds and thirds and take some home for a late-night snack (aka 8pm on Thanksgiving night, approximately five hours after we finished eating).

I thought I was in an elite class of 11 family members who had the distinct honor and privilege of eating corn casserole on Thanksgiving.

For years, I thought corn casserole was something that my grandma invented. After all, she is the superstar behind other Caron family chart-toppers like anise sugar cookies at Christmas, a perfectly meaty, cheesy, saucy lasagna for Father’s Day, and banana cream pie for my grandfather’s birthday (it’s his all-time favorite and one of mine too). I thought I was in an elite class of 11 family members who had the distinct honor and privilege of eating corn casserole on Thanksgiving.

I was shocked that it wasn’t an entirely from-scratch recipe she had made up.

But when I was 10, I asked my parents to help me film my own home cooking show. I was thoroughly obsessed with Giada de Laurentiis and wanted to play the role of Food Network host. The show was titled “Seasonal Cooking with Kelly Vaughan” and the theme song was performed by yours truly on a clarinet. (Naturally, I won a few Emmys and Grammys.) In the first of just two episodes, I decided to try my hand at making Grandma’s corn casserole. I asked her for the recipe and she gave me a handwritten card that called for just six ingredients—Jiffy Corn Muffin mix, sour cream, eggs, melted butter, a can of creamed corn, and a can of whole kernel corn. I was shocked that it wasn’t an entirely from-scratch recipe she had made up.

The History of Cornbread

Let’s rewind a bit to the 16th and 17th centuries. Long before Grandma was making corn casserole with corn muffin mix, long before a regular cornbread recipe called for buttermilk, eggs, sour cream, and melted butter and was cooked in a cast-iron skillet or muffin tin, Native Americans were making bread with ground corn, salt, water, and bear or hog grease, according to Charles Reagan Wilson, editor of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that home cooks started making other variations of cornbread like hushpuppies, griddle cakes, and corn muffins, and would experiment with adding ingredients like sugar, eggs, self-rising flour, and onions, says Wilson.

The bread would either be baked in a fireplace with coals (a style of bread known as “pone”), on field hoes (for what we now know of as hoecakes), or cooked in boiling water (for a version of a johnnycake). It wasn’t until the 19th century that home cooks started making other variations of cornbread like hushpuppies, griddle cakes, and corn muffins, and would experiment with adding ingredients like sugar, eggs, self-rising flour, and onions, says Wilson.

Spoonbread (aka corn casserole) made with butter, milk, and eggs wasn’t introduced until after the Civil War. However, it made a big splash once it debuted in society. “Spoonbread is perhaps the highest culinary attainment of cornbread,” writes Wilson. “[Writer] Redding S. Sugg Jr. called it ‘the apotheosis of cornbread,’ and [restauranteur and author of Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking] Bill Neal referred to it as ‘an elegant soufflé; the fabled spoonbread, a mainstay of the aristocratic southern table.’ [Journliast and Civil Rights activist] John Egerton has described it as a ‘steaming hot, feather-light dish.’”

Seems like I’m not the only one who is mesmerized by cloud-like creation that is spoonbread aka Jiffy’s corn casserole.

Wilson explains that as cornbread recipes evolved throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, southerners were more likely to make theirs with yellow cornmeal and northerners gravitated towards white cornbread. Cornbread became integral to American cuisine, particularly in Black American culinary traditions. And if you’re wondering, Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix is made with yellow cornmeal, which means that their corn casserole recipe is more traditionally southern.

Along Comes Jiffy

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that Jiffy invented their now-treasured recipe for corn casserole. At the time, it was developed under the name “Corn Bowl.” The Corn Bowl recipe first appeared in the 1960s as a recipe tear-off sheet in retail grocery stores. In 1976, the recipe was renamed “Spoonbread” and re-published in Jiffy’s first-ever recipe book. In 1995, I was born and probably started eating corn casserole as soon as my pediatrician okay-ed solids.

Although it feels like I’ve been eating corn casserole on Thanksgiving for my whole life, Grandma doesn’t remember exactly when she started making it. However, her most epic feat was making a triple batch for the Vaughan’s Oktoberfest, an annual party hosted by my parents on the weekend of Indigenous Peoples' Day, our own version of the German festival. “I made a triple recipe in a big lasagna pan for the Oktoberfest,” she said. When I told her she should make a triple batch every year for Thanksgiving, she laughed and said “As long as I don’t have to do the turkey.”

If you’re not going to make Jiffy's Original Corn Casserole in a lasagna pan, Grandma has some tips for making a more manageable portion. “It could be done in any four- or five-inch casserole. I wouldn’t make it in a pie plate because it needs to be thick. But you could also do it in a bread pan.” A loaf of corn casserole?! I think we just invented something new, Grandma! A few years ago, I tried making my own version of corn casserole entirely from scratch, no Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix needed. I added fresh sage, swapped in crème fraîché instead of the usual sour cream, cooked it in a cast-iron skillet, and even demonstrated how to make it on a local TV show in Connecticut (my Food Network hosting dreams were finally coming to fruition). The recipe was good, but not nearly as good as Grandma’s.

But once again, we’re not the only ones trying to reinvent the classic. Forty-five years since the first recipe for “Corn Bowl” was published, Jiffy has updated the recipe with a brand-new Street Corn Spoon Bread recipe, a modern iteration of a mid-century side dish staple. It’s the first time the brand has ever changed the recipe. But I’m still sticking to Grandma’s. Whether or not she invented it, she has perfected it.

Have you ever made Jiffy’s Corn Casserole recipe? Is it a staple in your family? Let me know in the comments below!
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70 Comments

haleh F. October 16, 2021
My sister-in-law made this during a family vacation over 20 years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since!! She didn’t put sour cream in it but I’m tempted to add some in next time I make it. I appreciate the comment about finding a GF recipe…my daughter needs GF meals and she’ll be so happy to be able to enjoy the casserole again!
 
Louise C. October 13, 2021
Corn Pudding (what we call it) has been a staple at Thanksgiving for close to 40 years. I prefer frozen corn kernels to canned and of course I use butter and not margarine. As a dedicated scratch cook and baker, it's the only (you'll pardon the expression) semi-homemade thing I ever prepare. Every year I swear I'm going to try a scratch version and every year I wind up asking myself why. My family used to have big TG dinners with all the long-distance family members we never see. I miss those big feasts. Fast Forward to 2021 and I'm introducing this delectable dish to a whole new generation. Whenever I share the recipe, I always include the caveat "Make a double batch. You'll thank me."
 
janet V. October 13, 2021
Say what you want about Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix, but I'll bet just about every chef and/or serious cook has a box in their pantry.
Thanks for the article, recipe and entertaining controversy that followed.
 
MomOwl October 11, 2021
As I live & breathe, this is the first I’ve heard of this recipe & I swear by Jiffy Cornbread mix. I’ve been making the Southern Spoon Bread with Herbs recipe from The Spice Islands Cook Book (1st printing 1961) for years. The only corn in it is cornmeal. I’ll have to give the Jiffy recipe a try, it’s a lot quicker to throw together.

I’m going to put in a plug for the best tasting corn meal I’ve ever had. My son sent me a selection of western NC goodies for Christmas among them was Coates Products of Asheville Yellow Corn Grits, stone ground. As a born & raised Yankee I had no idea ground dried corn could taste so corny!

Speaking of corn, if you can find a copy of the Spice Island Cook Book, don’t miss the Corn Fritters recipe on p. 97, the page in my book is covered with spatters I’ve made them so many times. I cut corn off the cob & freeze in 2 cup portions so that can make them all winter.
 
Jane October 11, 2021
When my kids were growing up in the 80's, I would order 25 dozen ears of fresh sweet corn every summer, remove it from the cob, and freeze it for the coming year. Sometimes I'd also make creamed corn using an instrument like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5T4r3e2lgU. Either way it was SO much better than canned or grocery-frozen corn. Since it's the main ingredient in this casserole, it would probably take it to a new level. I'd bet that it would be worth the time and forethought to freeze a little fresh corn over the summer for a meal as special as Thanksgiving.
 
dpogoda October 11, 2021
I make it every year, and it’s always a hit. I use Paula Deen’s recipe (available on many cooking websites) but I omit her addition of cheddar cheese -- too rich for my blood! It’s 15 minutes to prepare, from gathering the ingredients to popping it in the oven, and it’s amazing. My son introduced it to his in-laws and he makes it for holidays there, too. A winner!
 
Trishington October 11, 2021
Love the story! I don’t think the Jiffy mix is available up here in Vancouver, BC. Regardless, I need a GF option so have been making Cooks Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen Skillet Cornbread for years. It’s from their How Can it Be Gluten-Free Cookbook Vol. 1. Super easy and soooo yummy!
 
Jeanne C. October 10, 2021
I first tasted Corn Pudding about 25 years ago when a friend brought some to a large birthday potluck, and was immediately enamored. And begged the recipe. I was only slightly horrified that it was not “scratch”, and certainly not enough to prevent me from making and serving it for Thanksgiving ever since, even though I consider myself somewhat of a cooking purist. Heaven knows there are plenty of other labor-intensive dishes that need to be made for Thanksgiving dinner! The recipe I have uses no eggs at all and almost double the corn, but is amazingly delicious although certainly a different texture. My point is that the recipe is extremely forgiving and adaptable. The kids who started eating it as toddlers (now adults) would probably pass on the family dinner if they thought this wasn’t being served.
 
MacGuffin October 11, 2021
I like your perspective! These old quickie recipes have persisted for a reason.
I don't think there's anything wrong with "not from scratch." Knorr Vegetable Soup has a recipe for a spinach dip that uses, among other ingredients, it and thawed frozen spinach. The Mori-Nu tofu people used to print a spin on it that included a block of their tofu (either Firm or Extra-Firm--your choice) that I make to this day--I believe it called for low-fat sour cream and mayo (no way, José). It's DELICIOUS, everyone loves it, and the only fresh ingredients it contains are chopped scallions--I like it on those ak-mak crackers.
 
jellysquare October 10, 2021
I have made this frequently from a friend's recipe called Farmer's Corn Pudding. The only additions would be 1 cup chopped ham and a 4 oz. can of diced mild green chilies. Very good!
 
DMStenlake October 10, 2021
Here’s something also to consider, is your cornstarch non gmo? Is the canned corn also non gmo? There’s ingredients and products we don’t even think about because the product has just always been there. But if you choose Organic and wisely you will have a purer product. Not always easy to find though. There’s a recipe in allrecipe for corn pudding from scratch. Take care.
 
cinamibun October 10, 2021
Just because the grandmother of this author used a box of cornbread mix as the base doesn't mean that a good cook can't adapt it to a "from-scratch" recipe as there's plenty of good cornmeal flour products on the market. The box mix just has some of the ingredients needed for the full recipe.
 
DMStenlake October 10, 2021
Wow! I agree we purchase or try “pure” ingredients in packaged food. I believe Marie Calendar has a cornbread that’s organic. No GMO. Could that be usd. I’ve only made corn pudding a couple of times and did it from scratch, only because the didn’t know any granny secrets! Friends, it’s just a recipe, but there’s some great conversation here.
 
MacGuffin October 10, 2021
I can't use Jiffy because I'm vegetarian and it contains lard. I imagine Bob's Red Mill would work just fine.
 
ustabahippie October 10, 2021
I’ve heard there’s a veggie version available. Never have seen it. But if one is conscious of healthy diet to be vegetarian, why even consider jiffy?
 
Georgianne P. October 10, 2021
They make a vegetarian version, also Martha White is lard free
 
MacGuffin October 10, 2021
As long as we're "why even considering," why even consider that people become vegetarians for all sorts of reasons?
 
Terry B. October 10, 2021
I didn't grow up, I guess thankfully (?) on corn casserole. I grew up eating scalloped corn, which I continue to make to this day. I made my own creamed corn, also heat frozen corn however much I need, crushed saltine crackers, dabs of butter between and on top of the layers (corn, creamed, corn), and topped off with 2 eggs and milk, pepper, whisked together, pored over, baked at 375° for 1 1/2 hours depending on your oven.....delicious! Tried the corn casserole once, took it instead to Thanksgiving dinner, nobody ate it! Oops...lol 😊
 
Clara October 10, 2021
I have used a corn casserole recipe for years that is similar to this one but has cheese instead of sour cream. I have given out the recipe numerous times but I have one good friend that says that hers isn’t like mine when she makes it, I would never purposely give someone the wrong recipe. For the folks that are aghast at the ingredients in Jiffy corn mix, I don’t think that an indulgence like this once or twice a year will hurt anyone. I also have a recipe for a ‘desert like’ corn bread. It uses one box Jiffy cornbread mix plus one box Jiffy yellow cake mix. Just add the ingredients called for in each box, dump it all together and bake. Again, I consider this an occasional indulgence and not a regular part of any healthy diet.
 
ustabahippie October 10, 2021
It’s true once or twice a year isn’t bad in an otherwise healthy diet. Just think,tho, of all those who keep those boxes of jiffy flying off the shelves who never bother or don’t care about the ingredients. I find it sad and IMO irresponsible of the manufacturer.
 
cinamibun October 10, 2021
Those who buy those boxes that seem to fly off the shelves are more interested in two things in their purchase (and I am not putting them down)--1. Price is affordable and 2. It is easy to make.
This article just gave us another way to use that same box of cornbread mix.
 
janet V. October 12, 2021
The muffin mix/cake mix version is a copy cat recipe for Boston Market Corn Bread. Cake mix? Yes! That's why it tastes so sweet and feels so fluffy. I'm tempted to put frosting on those muffins!
 
NancyFromKona October 10, 2021
Kelly thank you for this piece. 30+ years ago while working in Arkansas I had a corn pudding so good I could have eaten the entire pan. One of the biggest regrets of my cooking life was failing to get that recipe! I’ll try this one. This also reminds me of the time I fearfully asked my boyfriend’s grandmother for her fabulous and, in her grandson’s mind, secret recipe for German chocolate cake only to hear her laugh as she told me ‘oh honey, it’s just the one on the back of the Hershey’s German chocolate bar!’.
 
Tinalawlor October 11, 2021
That German chocolate cake recipe IS a GREAT one!!!
 
Anne Y. October 10, 2021
I am from Virginia, many generations back. Spoonbread is more like a souffle (as one of the citations mentioned) and does not have creamed or kernel corn in it. Corn pudding in my family consists of whole corn kernels (frozen ok), eggs, a small amount of sugar, and a stick of melted butter. The butter is melted in the glass baking dish in the oven and swirled around to coat the bottom and sides; the rest is poured into the corn mixture before it's stirred and put into the baking dish. Yellow corn, cornmeal all around.
 
ustabahippie October 10, 2021
Could you please explain this recipe more clearly? When does the “cornmeal all around” come in? Interested.
 
Anne Y. October 10, 2021
didn't use enough words. Was just trying to say we use YELLOW corn, in corn pudding which really is not very puddenish, and yellow cornmeal, never white, in spoonbread, and in cornbread.
 
ustabahippie October 10, 2021
If jiffy isn’t available, its really not too challenging to mix up a cornbread from scratch and turn it into this casserole. Just an option not yet mentioned.
 
ustabahippie October 10, 2021
And now it has been.
 
dapfel October 10, 2021
Instead of using the Jiffy mix, with some unnecessary chemical preservatives, why not use the real stuff, I.e., flour, corn meal, baking powder, sugar & salt, oil or lard. Why stick to a mix for sentimental reasons (that's the way Grandma made it). Do you really want these ingredients: WHEAT FLOUR, DEGERMINATED YELLOW CORN MEAL, SUGAR, ANIMAL SHORTENING (LARD, HYDROGENATED LARD, TOCOPHEROLS PRESERVATIVE, BHT PRESERVATIVE, CITRIC ACID PRESERVATIVE), CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF EACH OF THE FOLLOWING: BAKING SODA, SODIUM ACID PYROPHOSPHATE, MONOCALCIUM PHOSPHATE, SALT, WHEAT STARCH, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, ...
 
ustabahippie October 10, 2021
Reading ingredients turns me off to most short cuts. Try finding no added salt options!!!!!
 
Georgianne P. October 10, 2021
They make a vegetarian version, no lard, I’ve tried making my own “mix”. Kids just don’t like it as well. Once or twice a year it’s just easier to make it like Gran
 
Phyllis L. October 10, 2021
This recipe is shocking with the use of erzast ingredients - margarine and the appalling list chemical components in Jiffy noted recently by dapfel.

I had thought FOOD52 to be a responsible organization. Now I am super wary.
 
Lisa October 10, 2021
Puh-leeze!!
 
Maggie October 10, 2021
Food 52 never had claimed to be a site about health. It's about food. The definition of "food" varies from person to person; for instance, I find it puzzling that people actually consider pumpkin an edible substance. But Jiffy mix, margarine, and pumpkin are all food to someone.

I think what's more important is honoring those whom we remember fondly. Go back far enough in any family tree, and you'll find an unsettling number of people who did all manner of things of which your modern self would not approve. I think the use of a packaged baking mix once in a while is a relatively minor infraction.
 
Foo-D October 10, 2021
Every food can be expressed as a chemical formula, so even though there chemical-sounding ingredients in the list they aren’t appalling.

TOCOPHEROLS (vitamin E), BHT (anti-oxidant found in olives and lychee), CITRIC ACID (vitamin C), SODIUM ACID PYROPHOSPHATE, MONOCALCIUM & PHOSPHATE (aluminum-free baking powder) NIACIN (vitamin B).

Still sound appalling? I didn’t think so.

Also, this recipe is essentially a baked good. Baking is a chemical process. All of it. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a baking mix has chemical agents in it.
 
txgreyhound October 10, 2021
Here, here!
 
dapfel October 11, 2021
And Jiffy mix is essentially some simple ingredients most of have at hand and there is no box to discard!
 
[email protected] October 10, 2021
Such a wonderful article. In my hey day, I have made fried corn bread (oh my gosh so good), corn bread always in cast iron (sorta like a law in our house) and corn casserole. Thank you for making my mouth water and memories flood my soul.