There is Southern Cooking and then there is SOUTHERN COOKING! You can follow a recipe and still come out with a dish that does not resemble what the recipe intended. The reason is technique and the little secrets that are not included in the recipe.
Technique is as important as the ingredients and proper technique helps you avoid the following common mistakes made by novice cooks. You can find many free Southern recipes on the internet, but few web sites provide the additional information needed to to be a real Southern cook. So when you find a site that does, bookmark it and stick with it for your Southern recipes. (See Resource Box below for recommendation).
7 Biggest Mistakes:
1. Failure to Properly Preheat Oven When Baking.
Have you ever made cornbread that came out soft and crumbly without a crust? Or biscuits that did not rise and have a gray color? It was probably due to the fact that your oven was not properly preheated. When baking, the crust is set in the first 10 minutes. So, if you want a nice, golden crust on your cornbread, be sure to get the oven up to 400 degrees before you put the cornbread in.
Ovens vary in how long it takes to reach a given temperature. Some ovens will reach 400 degrees in 4-5 minutes. Some will take as long as 15 minutes. A good practice is to get a thermometer (any food thermometer that goes up to 425 degrees will work) and time how long it takes your oven to reach 250, 350, 400 and 425 degrees. Write it down and keep it handy if you can not remember. Then always allow the alloted time to reach the desired temperature before beginning your baking.
2. Undercooked Vegetables
Keep in mind we are talking about Southern cooking. Not Chinese or West Coast casseroles. Many vegetables, Southern Style, are cooked considerably longer than most people tend to cook them. Specifically, green beans are cooked until soft and dark green in color. They are not crunchy and bright green. Okra and green tomatoes, are cooked until some burned edges appear and are very crunchy. As a general rule boiled vegetables are cooked until very tender and fried foods are cooked until crunchy (this goes for cornbread, fried chicken and pork chops, too).
3. Failure to Use Cast Iron
I have never researched all the reasons why, but Southern cooking is best cooked in cast iron cook-ware. The cast iron holds and transfers heat unlike any other type metal. Food just does not cook the same in aluminum or steel. Especially cornbread. Besides, it is the traditional way to cook Southern.
Older cast iron tends to have problems with rust and food sticking, but the newer cook-ware comes already cured (seasoned) so it is not as much a problem. However, it is not difficult to cure your cast iron if you have an older style. You can get complete, free instructions in the web referrals below.
4. Failure to Use Onions and Bacon
Onions and bacon (or bacon grease) are used extensively in Southern cooking. Some cooks, however, stray away form cooking real Southern because they (or family members) do not like onions and/or concerns about the fat content in bacon.
They do this because they fail to understand the reason for using bacon and onions. They are NOT in the recipe so that you taste onions or bacon. They are there only to provide subtle flavor. A unique Southern flavor. If you do not like onions, use only a small amount and remove the onion from the dish before serving (put onion in cheesecloth while cooking and it is easy to remove). If you are concerned about the calorie content of bacon, do not use whole bacon. Just add 1/2 tsp of grease from previously cooked bacon. And, accept the fact that Southern cooking is not inherently low fat. It is meant to be flavorful and robust. So, use that bacon and onion for real Southern dishes.
5. Overworking Dough
Southern breads are meant to be light and fluffy. Even cornbread should not be heavy and solid. Many Southern cooks never learn how to make good biscuits. And homemade Southern Biscuits are the trademark of good Southern cooks.
Three errors cause bad biscuits (and other breads). First, do not overwork the dough. Biscuit dough should only be kneaded three times. No more. Just enough to shape it for cutting out the biscuits.
Second, when cutting the dough, do not push down and twist the biscuit cutter. Push straight down and straight back up. Twisting compacts the edges of the dough and causes uneven cooking.
Third, remember the previous mistake above…preheat your oven. A cold oven can result in flat, hard biscuits.
6. Yellow Cornmeal and Sugar in cornbread
Everyone has their own preference, but, please do not use yellow cornmeal in cornbread. It may be mental, but it just does not taste the same as white cornmeal. Besides it looks funny. And, NEVER, NEVER put sugar in cornbread if you want authentic Southern cornbread. Cornbread is bread to accompany a meal. It is not dessert. It is not cake! It is BREAD. So, if you like sweet cornbread…go ahead and use your sugar…but, do not call it Southern Cornbread!
7. Failure to Use buttermilk
All good Southern cooks use buttermilk in everything except desserts. Regular milk does not add the flavor that buttermilk does. Especially in any dish with cornmeal (cornbread, hush puppies, tamale pie, etc.). If you do not have buttermilk, you can make a reasonable substitute by stirring 1 tablespoon of white vinegar in a cup of regular milk. Allow to sit for a minute before use.
These are some of the most common mistakes (or lack of Southern cooking technique) made in Southern cooking. You can ignore all of them and make eatable food, but it will not be traditional Southern. Even some good Southern cooks fail to comply with all the above, but they have probably developed a variation of these same techniques.
So, get in that kitchen, fire up the stove and make your family a real Southern dinner tonight.