Cornbread. It's so simple really. Just cornmeal, flour, eggs, fat and a splash of buttermilk. But the secret to great cornbread is lard. There. I said it. Lard. Just like the stuff on my behind after an indulgent December. And when it comes to cornbread and lard, pork fat rules. Normally, I'm no fan of pork. I will eat the occasional piece of sausage, but I'm no bacon lover and I could live without sliced ham for the rest of my life and never bat an eye. But when it comes to certain facets of southern cooking, there is absolutely no substitute for pork fat. So if you are like me (which I genuinely hope you aren't!), you can cook the bacon and feed it to the dog. The fat is what you are after anyway.
The second key to great cornbread is buttermilk. Now buttermilk is a funny thing. It makes your baking legendary, but no one really wants to drink that stuff. And to make cornbread, you don't need much. Although commercially available buttermilk tastes better in my book, you can make your own by adding a tablespoon of white vinegar per cup of whole milk. You must use whole milk. Low or no fat milk will not react properly with the vinegar. The beauty of the at-home method is you have no leftover buttermilk on your hands.
Now, for the cornmeal. I use Martha White cornbread mix. You can use any quality commercial mix you like, or you can mix your own cornmeal-flour mix. I've done that before, too. But the commercial mixes already have the flour and cornmeal mixed together in their proper proportions. Cornmeal is cornmeal. Flour is flour. It's not the cornmeal, it's what you do with it.
Now to make skillet cornbread like a true southerner, you start by preheating your oven. I believe 400 degrees is a reasonable cornbread temperature. Take about 5 slices of bacon and fry them over medium low heat in a 8"-10" cast iron skillet. You want all the fat to render out of the bacon, but you don't want the heat so high that you lose volume through evaporation. Now, if you don't have a reserve of bacon grease in a canister on your stove top, first of all, what the hell is wrong with you? Don't you know you should never through away flavor? Bacon grease should always be put in a grease can and kept in your fridge or on the stove top. But let's just say you are a northerner or westerner and you don't have a grease canister. You have a couple of options. The first is to simply use vegetable oil in the mix. It won't be quite as good (OK, it won't be nearly as good) but it will be quicker. The other is to cook bacon until you have enough fat available for the mix. Of course, you'll have to wait for that fat to cool somewhat before you can add it to the vmix, but that's okay because you still need about 5 slices to render fat for the pan. In any event, mix the wet and dry cornbread ingredients and set aside until those 5 slices of bacon have rendered their liquid goodness.
When the bacon is crisp, remove it from the pan and turn the burner up to medium high. You want the oil very hot, but not smoking...say a minute to a minute and a half. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately dump the prepared cornbread mixture into the pan. It should sizzle and pop. Spread it out roughly with a spatula and place in the preheated oven. Cook until peaks on the bread top just start to turn golden brown. Remove from oven, slice and eat with butter. Lots and lots of butter.
Now, there are nearly endless varieties of cornbread that are great. You can add jalapenos. Or New Mexico chilis. Or cheese. All are very good. But the thing about skillet cornbread is the fat-rendered crust you get on the bottom. It will be dark. Almost black. And you will savor every bite.
Because of the fat, skillet cornbread should be kept in the fridge so it doesn't go rancid.
I hope you enjoy your pork-powered goodness.