Southern Cooking Myths You Shouldn't Believe

They're just plain false.

buttermilk cornbread
Photo: Photographer: Isaac Nunn, Prop Stylist: Julia Bayless, Food Stylist: Ruth Blackburn

If you grew up in the South, you've likely heard most of these "cooking rules" before. Grandma probably reminded you of them regularly.

That doesn't mean that they are all strictly true. Many cooking rules that we live by are well intentioned, but when tested, don't actually work. From cornbread to biscuits, beans to buttermilk, we've found that some Southern cooking advice just doesn't add up. Here are a few that we discovered are more myth than truth.

Salting Your Beans Before Cooking Means They'll Never Get Soft

Never say never. Like most things, you want to season beans in layers, while cooking them and after, for the most flavor. Adding salt to both the soaking and cooking water will neither hurt the beans nor up the cooking time.

J. Kenji López-Alt tested this on Serious Eats and found that, "When unsalted beans cook, their interiors can end up swelling faster than their skins can keep up with, resulting in skins that rupture instead of enlarging along with the rest of the bean. Salted beans will grow proportionally, resulting in fully tender, creamy, intact beans that are well seasoned throughout."

Adding Vinegar or Lemon Juice to Milk Is a Good Buttermilk Substitute.

Buttermilk is a Southern staple, but we all run out of it sometimes. You'll find a million suggestions for what to replace it with, from buttermilk powder to an old favorite, milk with vinegar or lemon juice.

Many people say to measure a scant bit less milk than the recipe calls for buttermilk and add a tablespoon or so of an acid, like vinegar or lemon juice, and let sit for five minutes. This curdled milk mixture then can be used just like buttermilk in the recipe.

There's just a few issues with this substitute. Milk is much thinner than buttermilk, which can make for looser batters and breads. Baking is a precise art, and looser dough can spell disaster. Sure, you could use less of the mixture but that throws off the water content in your baked goods, and that can be equally problematic.

Then there's the acid of it all: Plain white vinegar and lemon juice have a much more harsh acidic taste that doesn't really approximate the subtle tang of a good buttermilk. We suggest using another cultured dairy product instead, such as sour cream or plain whole milk yogurt.

Never Put Sugar in Cornbread

It's almost sacrilegious to suggest to some Southerners that sugar belongs in cornbread, but hear us out: Sugar, while providing a subtle sweetness, also helps balance out the flavors in cornbread. Corn is naturally sweet on its own, but depending on the brand of cornmeal you use, some are sweeter than others, and many brands could use a little granulated sugar to enhance the natural corn flavor.

Too much sugar and it might start to taste a bit like a cake, but a tablespoon or two will not only be barely perceptible, but will also help promote beautiful browning.

Plus, if you've ever used Jiffy Cornbread Mix, or really most commercial brands, there's sugar in the mix, and you've probably never even realized it. Just give our recipe for Southern Skillet Cornbread (that yes, has a little sugar) a try, and you might just be converted.

Biscuits Must be Made by Hand

Grandma probably broke up the butter into the flour for biscuit dough by hand, but there is another way. Much like pie dough, biscuits can be made in a food processor. Just pulse the butter together with the dry ingredients. This cuts down on time and hassle, even more so than using a box grater. Then add your liquids, pulse a little more, and turn out the dough onto the counter to finish mixing by hand. As long as you don't overprocess the mixture, your biscuits will turn out just as flaky and tender.

A mixer with a paddle attachment can also do the hard butter breaking work for you. This is how most restaurants make their biscuits, and you've probably never questioned it.

You Can't Cook Tomatoes in a Cast Iron Skillet

Many people say you shouldn't cook tomatoes or other acidic foods in a cast iron skillet because it erodes the seasoning. This isn't strictly true. If you have a well-seasoned pan, you can cook acidic food in it for short periods of time. You should never store acidic foods in a cast iron pan or marinate acidic mixtures in it, but making marinara in a cast iron skillet won't hurt the pan. Neither will using soap to clean it.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles