Blowing Up Cornbread

Reader Glenda writes to say that she recently made a mistake with her cornbread: she put in too much chemical leavening (exactly how much she doesn’t say). Yet the bread with the extra baking soda turned out virtually identical to the cornbread she makes with the normal, lesser amount. Why is that? she asks. It all has to do with gluten, Glenda. Or rather, the lack thereof.

Cornbread recipes typically call for lot of leavening. The reason: because corn flour has no gluten in it. In wheat flour doughs and batters, gluten creates an elastic batter that traps and holds little bubbles of CO2 and steam. As those bubbles continue to heat, they inflate, and the bread rises. A batter made from corn meal doesn’t have that elasticity, so its ability to trap and hold gas and steam is greatly diminished. Indeed, most of the gas and steam created during baking simply escapes out the top and sides. Yet it rises…why?

I think of rising cornbread like one of those obnoxious fan-driven inflatables you see in front of car dealerships on the interstate. Lots of air goes in and lots of air escapes. However as long as the fan attached to it keeps blowing, the thing stands up. Cornbread is a lot like this. Most of the CO2 created by the baking soda and/or baking powder simply bubbles right out of it. However as long as the batter keeps producing more than it loses, it rises. By the time the reaction is over the eggs in the batter have firmed and the bread remains standing.

This is why you need extra leavening to make most cornbread. It’s also why a little more leavening in the mix won’t make a whole lot of difference in the finished product, as the extra CO2 will simply escape like warm air out an open window. Of course that would only work within limits. Double the leavening in a cornbread recipe and the batter would bubble over the edges of the forms and create a mess. Though shapeless masses that resulted would probably still be delicious. Thanks for a fun question, Glenda!

6 thoughts on “Blowing Up Cornbread”

  1. Hey Joe . . . where you goin’ with that pie in your hand. Had to be done.

    Now, seriously, speaking of cornbread, how about a hushpuppy recipe?

    1. I’m a Hendrix man myself. I won’t blame you too much for that.

      But that’s not a bad idea. Maybe when I’m done with the sfogliatelle!

      – J

      1. Surely you meant ‘where you goin’ with that bun in your hand… sorry, couldn’t resist.

        1. Niiiiiiiice Justine. You and my brother-in-law should know each other. His puns hurt every bit as much.

          Many thanks,

          – Joe

  2. Actually I did say…”This recipe calls for 1/4 tsp soda, 2 T baking powder, 1 tsp salt and 2 T of sugar. The first time I put in 1 tsp soda, everything else was correct.” No big deal, please don’t feel like you have to correct yourself on the site, I’m just thankful for your great answer. I wonder how you have time.

    I have always wanted to know how things (are supposed to) work, from motors to plumbing to why everything made with baking powder tasted bitter. (Some of us I discovered, have taste buds that are quite sensitive to the aluminum in bp, and so, when I found baking powder without it, sure enough that fixed my problem.)

    Thanks again.

    1. My mistake, Glenda! I read too fast sometimes. I appreciate you writing back to point that out. And it’s no problem. These sorts of things are fun for me!


      – Joe

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