Thanksgiving is more than a little overwhelming. There's a turkey to roast, potatoes to mash, and pies to bake, not to mention hors d'oeuvres, first courses (green salad with cranberry dressing or butternut squash soup?), sauces, and condiments.
And while you'll never catch me scooping cranberry sauce from a can, or dipping my drumstick into bottled gravy, I will confess to baking last-minute cornbread from a box. Incredibly cheap, impossibly easy, and ready in minutes, cornbread mixes are a decent option when you're short on time yet still want to serve fresh-from-the-oven bread with your holiday meal.
With so many cornbread mixes on the market, I decided to limit my taste test to the three least expensive, most basic brands. With each, the yield was enough for an 8x8-inch pan of cornbread.
- Hodgson Mill, Whole Grain Cornmeal and Wheat Four Cornbread and Muffin Mix ($1.69)
- Jiffy, Corn Muffin Mix (40 cents)
- Key Food (supermarket generic), Quality Easy Corn Muffin Mix (45 cents)
This mix looked very much like oat bran: pale brown with flakes of whole grains in various shapes and sizes. In order to make basic cornbread (the box also provides instructions for a Mexican version with minced onion, cheddar cheese, and jalapeño) I simply added 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, an egg, and 3/4 cup of milk. I stirred everything together with a fork, noting that the batter looked very runny. Indeed, this cornbread turned out gummy, spongy, and extremely thin. It also lacked the familiar sweetness I was hoping for, and any corn flavor was overpowered by the intense taste of bran. While this was certainly the healthiest version I tried, a food's fiber content isn't really something I'm concerned about at Thanksgiving.
According to the box, this was a recipient of an "American Academy of Taste Gold Medal Award." The mix poured out of the box the color of dandelions and smelling of sugar, just as I remembered. It needed only an egg and 1/3 a cup of milk—1/2 a cup less than the Hodgson Mill, despite the fact there was an ounce more of mix (8.5 ounces to Hodgson's 7.5 ounces). This cornbread baked up puffy and even with buttery brown edges and grainy, toothsome crumbs.
The last version I tried was Key Food, the supermarket generic. For all appearances, this mix was very similar to Jiffy's, but even brighter yellow in color. The additions—one egg, 1/3 milk—were also identical. Yet ultimately it baked unevenly, darkening too quickly at the edges, and the taste was much too sugary. A careful reading of the nutrition facts revealed that the Key Food mix, which weighs in at 7.5 ounces, contains 8 grams of sugar. The slightly heftier Jiffy mix has only 7 grams of sugar.
While you can't judge a book by its cover, maybe you can judge a baking mix by its box: Jiffy's declares itself "America's Favorite," and it certainly was my top choice out of the three I tested.
I would recommend it as a solid, if not sensational, addition to your holiday bread basket. And if you find yourself with an extra minute or two, take a cue from Jeremy Jackson, the author of one of my favorite cookbooks, The Cornbread Book, and try one of these toss-ins: 1 cup of fresh corn kernels; 1 clove of minced garlic; 1'2 cup of diced sun-dried tomatoes; 1/4 to 1 cup of poppy seeds, pumpkin seeds, or sesame seeds; 1/4 to 1 cup of walnuts or pecans; 1 cup of chopped dried figs; or 1/4 cup minced fresh herbs.