You don't have to be from the South to appreciate freshly baked cornbread. Whether you add sugar or not, the corn's own natural sweetness gives it a winning flavor, making it suitable for use as a side dish, a snack in its own right, or – with a drizzle of honey or something sweet – even a quick dessert. Despite its easygoing charm, cornbread has one distinctive flaw: It can be dry and crumbly, if it's not done right. Longtime bakers have several strategies for coping with this.
Strategies to keep cornbread from being crumbly mostly center around adding moisture, fat or protein to the basic recipe.
Understanding the Problem
So what makes cornbread crumbly? Mostly, it's the ground-up grain's thirst. Cornmeal is relatively coarse, compared to the wheat flour that's used in most baking, so it takes longer to absorb the liquids from the recipe. While wheat flour is fully hydrated within seconds, cornmeal keeps absorbing moisture even after it's baked. That's how you can have a perfectly good texture when it's fresh from the oven, and then maddeningly crumbly cornbread just an hour later.
One of the simplest techniques for non-crumbly cornbread, unsurprisingly, is simply to let it sit for a while after it's mixed. The cornmeal has more time to absorb moisture before it's baked, and the end result is a moister cornbread. Sometimes, though, the extra rest leaves your batter too stiff to pour into the pan. In that case you'll just need to stir in some extra liquid, to loosen it again. It doesn't have to be milk or buttermilk, though these are both common choices. Plain yogurt adds a buttermilk-like tang, for example, and creamed corn doubles down on the corn flavor and natural sweetness.
Adding Fat and Sweeteners
Another strategy calls for the addition of extra fat to your basic cornbread recipe. This doesn't actually moisten your cornbread, as adding extra liquid does, but – because it softens the cornbread's crumb and makes it feel moister – makes it less crumbly and more pleasant to eat. The extras can come in many forms, from oil or egg yolks to melted butter or shortening. The sweeteners in your cornbread also play a role in softening its texture. Southern-style recipes usually omit sugar, but it's useful. Changing your recipe from plain granulated sugar to a moisture-enhancing sweetener such as brown sugar, honey or corn syrup can help too.
Unless you're a serious purist, your cornbread recipe probably includes wheat flour as well as cornmeal. That's because gluten, the protein in wheat flour, helps hold the cornbread together after it's baked. A cornbread with flour in it is lighter and softer than one without it, and much less crumbly. You can convert your existing version to a non-crumbly cornbread recipe simply by reducing the cornmeal slightly, and increasing the flour. Yogurt increases your protein content as well, but your real ace in the hole is eggs. When you add an egg, you're adding protein, moisture and fat all in one convenient package, so they should be your go-to tweak for any tasty-but-crumbly cornbread.