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Brown Butter Cornbread: Anatomy of a GF Recipe

Brown Butter Cornbread: Anatomy of a GF Recipe
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Gluten-Free Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread

This is some special cornbread. Crispy and puffy, chewy but light. Lightly sweet, and (like me) faintly nutty.

Gluten Free Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread

Look at that crust along the edge, the gentle rise toward the center.

But you shoulda seen the in-between. It was quite the awkward adolescent. Just look. And the only reason it wasn’t even messier is because I have made many types of gluten-free cornbread in the last 7 years – first unsuccessfully, and then successfully. But still. But still it takes trial and error.

You’ve given me a penny for my gluten-free recipe development thoughts. It’s not possible for me to explain how I even start where I do. Where that first go-round comes from. Why this much flour to that much cornmeal, why milk instead of water, why butter rather than oil.

Instead, I will show you my starting point — how I diagnosed what went wrong the first time, and how I set about to fix it. Lucky for me, the second time was the charm today – only because I’ve been around the block more than a few times. But if we do this for a while, make it a blog series, I bet you’ll be able to convert that old family favorite cake or quickbread, so you can enjoy it once again, safely gluten-free.

Gluten Free Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread

First, let’s brown some butter. If you’ve never done that, the idea is simple: isolate the milk solids and give them a very gentle toasting at the bottom of the pan. It all happens pretty quickly. I like to start with a cold pan, add the butter and then turn the heat to medium low.

Gluten Free Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread

Once all the butter has melted, you whisk and whisk. And it begins to froth like this. Keep stirring.

Gluten Free Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread

Then the froth recedes, and it bubbles. These big, shiny bubbles. It’s separating. Keep whisking. Now, I never have any luck waiting until I see actual brown bits on the bottom of the pan. When I try to wait for that, it burns. As soon as you start to see a brownish cast coming from the corners of the pan, take it off the heat immediately. Whisk and wait to see if the butter is lightly browned. If not, put it back for a moment and whisk. Try again.

Gluten Free Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread

It should look like this — amber-colored. And it will have a sweet, lightly nutty aroma. Different than butter. Keep smelling for something different than butter. Let it cool a bit. We’ve got work to do.

Gluten Free Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread

Turn on the oven & place a 10 inch seasoned dry cast iron skillet in the oven as it heats.

Whisk together the dry ingredients.

Gluten Free Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread

I use a kitchen scale. This is my scale.

Gluten Free Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread

Your ingredients should all be at room temperature. If you forget to bring eggs to room temperature, just let the egg float around in a warm water bath for a few minutes. It will bring your egg up to temperature.

Then add the wet ingredients, including the brown butter, to the dry, and blend.

Gluten Free Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread

Remove the hot skillet from the oven, and place two tablespoons of butter in it to melt. Tilt the skillet a bit to evenly distribute the butter, then pour the batter into the pan. Shake it a bit. Some of the brown butter may not have been fully absorbed by the batter. It’s fine.

The edges will begin to cook immediately in the screaming hot skillet. That’s good. That’s very, very good.

Put it in the oven until Piggy says 18 minutes have gone by. Peek at it nervously without opening the oven door, if you must. But it’s going to be fine.

Gluten Free Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread

Take it out when it looks remotely like this. Allow it to cool slightly. Slice and serve warm. I served my family a dinner of a thick slice of cornbread with roasted and salted broccoli and baked sweet Italian sausage. There wasn’t a crumb left.

Gluten Free Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread

That’s the “after.” Now the “before.” The first time around, I used less buttermilk, less baking powder and less brown butter, the oven was set 25 degrees F hotter and I melted the two tablespoons of butter directly in the skillet while it was heating. The batter was too thick (I had to spread it out)…

Gluten Free Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread

… and the product was too dense and flat and even kinda dry. Still tasty, but the mouth feel wasn’t right.

Gluten Free Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread

Here’s where it gets pretty wonky. If you’d sooner stick your fingers in your ears and shout the Star Spangled Banner than learn about GF recipe development, kindly skip ahead to the printable recipe.

Here’s how I rescued the recipe, and made it sing.

I added more browned butter (since the process of browning butter reduces it, so the browned butter has less liquid than it did before), another 1/4 teaspoon baking powder (I knew I wanted to stay under 2 teaspoons total for the chemical leaveners – and I didn’t want to increase baking soda because too much baking soda will leave a very bad aftertaste — and baking soda is only there to balance the pH of the acid in the honey and the buttermilk), more milk (I started with 1/3 cup more, and figured I’d add more by the tablespoon if the batter wasn’t pourable and fragrant, but it was) and some honey (the first batch needed some sweetness with depth, and granulated sugar alone was too neutral).

Keep in mind that, although you won’t experience the batter in the same way you will the finished cornbread, the batter should still smell and taste pleasant. If it doesn’t, the problems will only be magnified in the final product. I taste everything when it’s raw. And smell it, and feel it. I need all my senses to develop recipes. I also lowered the oven temperature because the outside baked too fast in the first batch. The bottom and sides began to darken long before the top had a chance to brown.

The result was so beautiful, I knew right away. As soon as I poured the batter in the hot skillet. I knew. Like the way you know about a good melon.

I can’t shortcut all the baking experience I have, but I can peel back the curtain a bit. I tried. I hope you are still awake. If not …

WAKEY WAKEY. It’s time to bake…

Brown Butter Skillet Cornbread: Anatomy of Creating a GF Recipe
Recipe Type: Cornbread
Author: Nicole @ Gluten-Free on a Shoestring.com
Prep time: 10 mins
Cook time: 18 mins
Total time: 28 mins
Serves: 8
Gluten-free Brown Butter Cornbread
  • 1 cup (170g) coarsely-ground yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup (140g) all-purpose gluten-free flour (I use Better Batter)
  • 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum (omit if using Better Batter)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons (8g) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons (14g) honey
  • 1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 1/3 cups buttermilk
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, browned and cooled
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Place a 10 inch seasoned cast iron skillet in the oven as it heats.
  2. In a large bowl, place the cornmeal, flour, xanthan gum, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar, and whisk to combine well. Add the honey, egg, buttermilk and brown butter, mixing to combine after each addition. The batter should be pourable and smooth, except that some of the brown butter may sit on top of the batter, and that’s fine.
  3. Remove the skillet from the oven, and place 2 tablespoons butter in the skillet. Allow the butter to melt, which should happen after just a few moments. After the butter has melted, pick up the skillet with potholders and turn it gently until the entire bottom of the skillet is coated. Put the skillet down and carefully pour the batter into the center of the skillet. Shake the skillet gently to even out the batter. The outside of the batter will begin to cook almost immediately.
  4. Return the skillet to the hot oven and bake for about 18 minutes, or until the cornbread has just begun to brown nicely.
  5. Allow to cool briefly. Slice and serve warm.


P.S. If you haven’t yet, please pick up a copy of Gluten-Free on a Shoestring Quick & Easy! I can’t keep the blog going without your support.


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  • Michelle Dunton Olejar on Facebook

    I have successfully done brown butter in a recipe that called for it using earth balance. Do you think dairy free options would work in this. I am looking for a killer corn bread recipe. it is the only GF bread I can get my husband who is anit-gf to eat.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gfshoestring Gluten Free on a Shoestring on Facebook

    I’ve never tried that, Michelle, so I can’t say. Give it a shot!

  • JoAnn C

    I will gladly leave the recipe development to others and then tweek the recipe once I’ve made it. I gave myself permission to write in my cookbooks changing ingredients, or omitting them altogether; something I would never do before all the health issues with my family members came to light. Recipe development, (primarily for baking), is too science-y and scary for me. Still, it is fun to see your notes and know you are in your element. Cool.

    • Nicole

      Can I be honest, JoAnn? That’s a total relief to me! So many readers asked so many recipe-development questions in every available outlet for long enough that I thought — I must do this! But it’s so hard it makes my brain hurt all over. Oh how I wish others would weigh in, JoAnn! Do you all want to know about this, or would you rather it remain cloaked in mystery?
      Thank you, JoAnn!
      xoxo Nicole

  • http://www.facebook.com/bettygayle.cole Betty Gayle Cole Dove on Facebook

    I’m totally with JoAnn!

  • http://www.facebook.com/gfshoestring Gluten Free on a Shoestring on Facebook

    What a relief, Betty, for all of us! Anyone else?

  • Heather

    Thank you for showing this to me! Many times I have tried an old non-GF recipe and come back with horrible results! It is because of YOU that I now know the importance of the temperatures of eggs, butter etc. when adding them to my recipes. I can honestly say that I hadn’t much though about that before?!? I will be working on some old non-GF recipes soon and let you know how they turn out!

    Thank you! I never much liked baking before turning gluten free…and now, I use it as a comforting break in my day and look forward to the yummy recipes you provide!

    • Nicole

      Hi, Heather,
      I’m glad you found this useful. Temperature is super important whenever you’re baking. When a recipe says, “at room temperature” or “melted and cooled” or “warm, about 100 degrees,” that all matter a lot. Often, people think they are following a recipe to the letter, but they ignore things like that and don’t know why things don’t turn out as promised. It can be something as simple as that. Now you know!
      So glad you’re enjoying baking! It’s one of the great pleasures of my life. :)
      xoxo Nicole

  • Janine

    Yummy! Thank you for this insight, too! It’s nice to see that recipe development is definitely loads of trial and error, and that I can do this too if need be! Like Joann, I write all over my cookbooks with notes about what works best for me and my family. (I’m hoping that someday my kids are going to fight over these books, just a little, as a way to remember me and what we ate together!) Also like Joann, I’m happy that you do so much of it for me already, that I won’t have to develop/adjust all of them on my own!

    • Nicole

      Hi, Janine!
      It sounds like you’d be happy for me to sprinkle some how-to from time to time, but not to get too wonky and technical. I think I can manage that. You definitely don’t have to convert any recipes on your own. I’m here. :)
      xoxo Nicole

      • Janine

        MUAH! Thank you :)

        Speaking of recipes… years ago, I made a wonderful, light, refreshing lemon bar with a buttery, crumby (not crummy, that wouldn’t be yummy) crust. It was from Cooking Light. I have lost the recipe, but have a 7-year old who is finally willing to experiment with lemon taste. Do you already have such a recipe? If not, would you be willing to give it a go?

        • Nicole

          Hi, Janine,
          I have a recipe for Lemon Bars on the blog. Would that do the trick? I do a lot of lemon stuff in the summer, usually. Hope that helps!
          xoxo Nicole

          • Anonymous

            yes yes yes! Exactly what I was hoping for. I like to make lemon bars in the dead of winter for a nice pick me up… and it’s starting to feel like the dead of winter here in Minneapolis! Thanks — as always!

          • Janine

            (That was written by me. On a new computer. Forgot to add my name!)

          • Nicole

            Enjoy them, then, Janine. I like the idea of a summertime treat in the winter. Never thought of that. Thanks!
            xoxo Nicole

  • GoGoGF

    Just weighing in on the recipe development stuff . . . . I find it really interesting how recipes have to be tweaked and adjusted and so forth. I think baking is something I took for granted up until now–I mean, I knew there was a reason it was more precise than cooking, but had no reason to give it too much thought. It’s so much more scientific than people realize.

    That being said, I’m still adjusting to just getting the basics down in GF baking. I’m not ready to start adapting things on my own yet–and who knows if I’ll ever need to, as long as the recipes keep coming from you!

    I did enjoy reading about it, though, and will look forward to the next one. I think the amount of information you provided was spot-on–for me, at least. Enough to give a behind-the-scenes peek at what you go through, but not enough to bog me down.

    Putting myself in your shoes, though, I think I’d get overwhelmed if I had to not only keep providing recipes regularly, but also had to explain every little tweak on every single one. I think it’d take some of the joy and excitement out of the sharing, if that makes sense. (Sort of like book reports in school–reading the book was fun, writing the report not so much.)

    I guess what I’m saying is this–I enjoyed reading about it, but wouldn’t expect you to provide this much depth on every single recipe you provide to us. An occasional behind-the-scenes glimpse would be enough to satisfy my curiosity.

    • Nicole

      Hi, Peggy,
      I agree that baking can be pretty scientific. You do have some wiggle room on some things, but often it’s only the recipe developer who knows where that wiggle room lies. I really can’t thank you enough for taking the time to tell me what worked for you in this post, and what you are and aren’t looking to know/learn. The idea of doing this for every recipe is definitely way too overwhelming for me. That’s part of why I didn’t analyze why I started off the way I did – just how I tweaked it from there when I didn’t love the way it turned out. Thank you thank you. That really helped. :)
      xoxo Nicole

  • Anneke

    I liked reading your thoughts, Nicole, and it just proves to me that I don’t have enough time in my life to take on recipe development myself. So glad you are here to do it for me! There are a few places where I have tried a direct flour substitution plus xanthum gum, but the only place I have found that works is with quickbreads and muffins. You know how I feel about cookies, I can’t make a good chocolate chip with wheat flour, let alone attempt to create one without! It is entertaining and interesting to see a bit of how your mind works, but I’m not going to pressure you to give us all the details — might take the mystery out of our beloved Nicole. Everyone should have a little mystery . . .


    • Nicole

      Hi, Anneke,
      I promise to keep the mystery alive! Much of it a mystery to me, too, so that’ll help. :) Of course you don’t have enough time in your life for recipe development! It’s what I do 7 days a week, 10+ hours a day and have for years. Look, when I go to yoga (okay I haven’t gone in years but you get the idea), I don’t compare myself to the teacher. She does it all day. If she weren’t more adept at it than I, something would be very wrong.
      Quickbreads and muffins are good bets for a 1:1 Better Batter substitution. If you ever have an old favorite that you’d love to see GF, I’m always happy to hear suggestions. It helps, actually. I still refuse to give up on your making cookies. They’re so easy! Just keep the dough cold. We’ll work on it together.
      xoxo Nicole

  • Tara S.

    I really enjoyed the insight into the recipe Nicole! I am still taking baby steps in transforming my favorite dishes into great g free ones. Sometimes the results are good…other times a big FAT FLOP! Thank you for showing us your method and I hope for more peeks inside the recipe development process! Keep up the great work!

    • Nicole

      Thanks, Tara. I’m glad you enjoyed the peek. More than a peek now and again and I’m afraid I’d really scare everyone!
      xoxo Nicole

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeanette-Martens-Gitzel/1331265147 Jeanette Martens Gitzel on Facebook

        Just made it, was wonderful! Thanks

  • gfnoor

    Hi Nicole,
    Thank you for the inside view, of recipe development. I used to think that a recipe should come right on the first try when I was baking non-gf.I used to have a habit of jotting down notes on any spare bit of paper I can find, be they margins of recipes, or sticky notes taped all over the books. Baking GF had me frustrated that most recipes needed tweaking to some degree to fit in with my dietary restrictions, and recently I’d given up with the doodly notes. Reading about how you keep testing a recipe till you get it right and the process behind all the huge and subtle changes was helpful. I guess I should start taking notes again, and start with simple changes, while using your tried and tested recipes as my guidelines.Thank you once again.

    • Nicole

      Hi, gfnoor,
      I think you have exactly right idea. That’s what I was hoping for — that you would use my recipes as guidelines. And know that, if you’re venturing out on your own, it probably won’t turn out exactly as you had hoped. And that’s okay. Thank you for expressing that!
      xoxo Nicole

  • http://www.jaayimeeslife.blogspot.com Jamie

    I agree! While I do have questions I’d rather just follow a recipe that some one else developed. Also, reading this just caused me to have more questions that would require you to go to very basics and I’m sure we all want to avoid that LOL.

    • Nicole

      Hi, Jamie,
      I’m grateful that you stopped short of asking for a wide-ranging tutorial. That would be its own book!
      xoxo Nicole

  • Gaile

    I don’t have any iron skillets, can this be baked in a round or square cake pan?

    • Nicole

      Hi, Gaile,
      I don’t see why not. I’ve never made this particular cornbread recipe in anything other than a cast iron skillet, but it should work just fine in a cake pan. It just won’t get as crispy around the edges and might take a bit longer to cook through. I’d go with a square glass pan if you have one.
      xoxo Nicole

  • Lois

    I like seeing the pictures step by step. It helps me to know what to expect and if I’m doing it right. You never get that in a cookbook but that’s a wonderful thing about blogs.
    I like hearing about why certain ingredients work, especially because I tend to substitute when I don’t have things.

    • Nicole

      Hi, Lois,
      To be honest, unless it’s a substitution you’ve made before with success, and you know why it was successful, it’s not advisable to make any substitutions at all the first time you make something. When it goes wrong, you’ll have no idea why. And neither will the person whose recipe you made. When you make even just 1 significant substitution, it’s really a different recipe for all intents and purposes.
      xoxo Nicole

  • http://deliberatelycreative.blogspot.com/ Stephanie B

    Yum! Corn Bread– I have a question about using coarse ground Corn Meal. Is there a way to get the texture of the ground corn to be softer. The hard non-chew of coarse ground corn has me stumped. How weird would it end up if I put the corn in the buttermilk and let it soak for 1/2 an hour or so and then make up the recipe?

    Love the insight into the development of a recipe. Writing in my cookbooks and on recipe printouts has helped me remember all the nifty work that I have done to get an edible recipe. I much prefer using recipes that someone else has taken the time to develop and test. I have so many things that I like to do that not having to figure out a recipe is pretty cool. It is fun to see but not something that needs to be done really often.

    Pulling back the curtain is pretty fun too–kinda like seeing the wizard of oz…I’m sure you must be Glinda the Good and not a crusty old geezer. :) You are making good magic in the kitchen and sharing your spells. Wow, that was sort of out of left field. You are getting me at the end of a work day and no one else is in the house except for the sweet dog on the couch sleeping next to me. Be well and thanks for sharing!!

    • Nicole

      Hi, Stephanie,
      Nice to hear from you. :)
      If you don’t like the chew of coarsely ground cornmeal, you could either pulse it in a food processor before using it, or just use more finely ground cornmeal. Easy enough. :) I really like what you said about how you have so many other things that you enjoy doing that it’s nice when someone else has figured out a recipe for you. That’s exactly the idea! Playing around with ingredients isn’t really so much fun when it’s not your vocation. You’re otherwise engaged. Leave the rest to me. It’s my pleasure.
      I’m glad you assume I’m not a crusty old geezer. Perhaps some day I will be a crusty old geezer. For now, I will endeavor to be more like Glenda. :)
      xoxo Nicole

  • http://www.vestellasvale.blogspot.com Dia

    Hi Nicole
    I encountered your recipe after Mary B P posted a request on FB [Celiac & Gluten Intolerant (or parents of them!)] for a good GF cornbread recipe ….
    I’m also a recipe ‘tweek’ gal – & usually cook egg & dairy free as well –
    I LOVE sorghum flour, so used that & some Pamela’s bread & pancake mix (which did have buttermilk – my daughter’s girls & hubby are dairy free) for the flour; coconut milk w/ a bit of vinegar, coconut oil, coconut sugar, & a flax ‘egg’ – 1 T ground flax, 1/4 C shredded coconut & some extra liquid.
    I just added the flax to the dry ingredients, blended some baked squash chunks with the coconut milk; tho sometimes I mix my ‘egg’ together, then add ….
    I did use a stainless steel square pan, as I don’t have a big C I skillet, could have cooked it a bit longer – but YUM!!!!
    Had it with some bean soup/stew I made earlier in the week.

  • Michelle Dunton Olejar on Facebook

    Thanks Nicole! It is on my list of “to try”. With all your great recipes, the list gets longer every day :)

  • http://designloft.blogspot.com Esther

    Thank you for sharing your process! It has given me encouragement to keep trying. Not only do I have to adapt recipes for gluten free but also for a high elevation. The extra leavening needed/used in many gluten free recipes just doesn’t work for me and it is a little frustrating to play with some of the wonderfully looking recipes out there. Keep up the good work, I’m taking notes!

  • ChristaD

    This looks fantastic. It has been very cold here – Texas- and I mean in the 30’s cold….This is the prefect food to make when winter comes along to kick you in the pants. I want to make this tonight for dinner with some kind of soup or chili. Thank you!

    I love seeing the pictures and step by step method you have here on the blog. It helps me feel more confident when I do make these recipes. I love your cook book but I love your blog better for the step by step process with pictures. Lets face it when you have Celiac you have made and seen your fill of fails. It’s encouraging to see the success before you start the process.

    • Nicole

      Hi, Christa!
      It should be cold here in NY like that. Crazy. Chili and cornbread sounds just right.
      I really appreciate and understand what you said about the pictures. I agree that you don’t need any more fails. The ingredients are expensive! And time is precious.
      Part of my reason for posting sneak peeks for the new cookbook is to fill in where the cookbook leaves off. So that when readers buy the new book, they can use the blog as a companion (& I plan to collate the sneak peek pictures on the blog, so they’re easy to find once the new book comes out). Inevitably, blog readers who don’t want to buy the book will get mad at me, but someone’s always mad at me, and I have to try to help pay the bills somehow!
      Thanks for your feedback, Christa. It really helps.
      xoxo Nicole

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