Article by Ken, site owner
First, let me emphasize that all that follows is based entirely on the author's opinion and experience being born and raised in Alabama. It is intended to be helpful to those that are unfamiliar with cooking Southern food.
These techniques are not necessarily what every Southern cook uses. You may cook differently and pride yourself on being an authentic "Southern cook". The point is...please do not be offended if your Southern cooking techniques
differ from mine. Be aware that some old cooking habits and techniques vary by region. Cooks in South Carolina may not cook exactly like cooks in Texas, for example.
Southern cooking has some characteristics that are unlike other styles of cooking. Additionally, some unique cooking techniques are employed. To become a good Southern cook
, you should master these techniques. Don't worry, there is nothing difficult about Southern Cooking. It's just different.
Southern dishes utilize a lot of vegetables, fried foods and crunchy food. And it is not, unfortunately, low fat. Southern food is not intended to be low fat. It is robust, stomach-filling, flavorful food. So I urge you to go for it and make it as it was intended to be.
One of the most important techniques in Southern Cooking is the use of cast iron cookware
. Cast iron retains and transfers heat unlike other materials and is particularly suited for Southern dishes, especially CORNBREAD
. All that aside, it's simply the traditional way to cook Southern. See our article on CARE AND USE OF CAST IRON
Many recipes in Southern cooking require cooking longer than you may be accustomed to. For example FRIED OKRA
may be cooked until it is slightly burned around the edges. This gives it a tasty crunch. Also GREEN BEANS
are frequently cooked until they are a dull, brownish, green color. They are not bright green (like canned beans...uuugh!). SOUTHERN FRIED CHICKEN
is also cooked until it has a nice crunchy crust.
Milk/Butermilk and Cornmeal
Milk and cornmeal are used a lot in Southern cooking. Of course cornmeal is the main ingredient in cornbread, but it is also used in breading (coating) fried foods such as chicken, okra, pork chops and fried green tomatoes.
Southern cooks generally have their own preference for white or yellow cornmeal, but I recommend using white cornmeal, except for the MEXICAN CORNBREAD
and TAMALE PIE
recipes you will find on this site (and they are not really Southern dishes).
There may be little difference between white and yellow cornmeal, other than color, but the white cornmeal seems a finer grind and I prefer it.
When recipes call for milk, Southern cooks will typically use buttermilk (except in desserts). It simply adds more flavor. If you do not have buttermilk on hand, you can make a substitute by adding a tablespoon of white vinegar to a cup of regular milk, stir well and let sit for a minute before use.
Made From Scratch
Southerners pride themselves in making dishes from "scratch". That is, using all original ingredients, as opposed to pre-packaged, frozen, boxed, store-bought, ready-made food.
Although the store-bought "boxed" foods are convenient and perhaps more fail-safe, they do not come close to "made from scratch" for flavor. And certainly, with their chemicals and preservatives, they are not as healthy as home made (in my opinion).
Use of Butter and Bacon Grease
Real butter is preferred by most Southern cooks rather than low-fat substitutes. Yes, it is high calorie, but the flavor just can't be beat.
Bacon grease is used to enhance the flavor of many dishes such as black eyed peas, green beans, turnip/collard greens and cornbread. (see RECIPES
on this site)
Cooking by sight and taste
Finally, recipes provide cooking times but they should be regarded as only guides. For a variety of reasons cooking times provided in recipes are often incorrect (such as...when you set your oven temperature to 400 degrees...is it really 400 degrees)? Most really good Southern cooks I have known make their fabulous dishes employing a lot of taste and sight. They will frequently taste their food as it is being prepared and cooked. And they have learned when a dish "looks right" through each stage of preparation.
For example, when making biscuits, they know by sight when the dough "looks right". They have learned that the secret to making good gravy is knowing when it "looks right". And, cornbread batter is mixed until ...you got it...it "looks right".
Unfortunately, this skill of knowing when it looks right is not something that can easily be gained from a recipe. It is learned through experience and/or the "first hand" guidance of an ol' time Southern cook (like my mom).
Although one can easily write down the ingredients in a recipe it's hard to write when it "looks right". But, if you are new to Southern cooking, do not let this deter you. We all learn through experience and, yes, mistakes.
Many recipes on this site include tips so watch for them.
And now, grab a recipe, tie on that apron, get in the kitchen and begin cooking some real Southern food.