Corn is vegan. Bread is vegan. Why wouldn’t cornbread be vegan? If it were only that simple. Cornbread is a popular variety of quick bread made of cornmeal, that originated in Native American cuisine.1
Nowadays, it’s a staple food in the Southern US.2 It’s also used to make a number of dishes, especially around the holidays.
Is it vegan? No, cornbread is not typically vegan. The only time cornbread qualifies as vegan is in the event a modified recipe was used. But, 99.9% of the pre-made cornbread and recipes you’ll encounter will contain one or more animal products.
However, because cornbread is simply a quick bread, no animal products are absolutely necessary to make the food product. One or two tweaks of the traditional recipe should render the food perfectly suitable for vegans. I make it myself every few weeks.
Anyway, I get asked quite a bit if cornbread is suitable for vegans—probably due to its unique texture. After all, any time a food product has a unique texture or mouthfeel, one has to wonder whether any animal products were needed to achieve it.
What we’ll do here is cover the various reasons most cornbread is considered non-vegan, and what can be used to replace the offending ingredients.
Why Most Cornbread Is Non-Vegan
Milk and Buttermilk Are Common Ingredients
Nowadays, the typical US cornbread recipe calls for cornmeal (or half wheat flour/half cornmeal as in the Northern states), mixed with other dry ingredients and then added to oil and milk or buttermilk.
Like pancakes and biscuits (breakfast biscuits, not the cookies), buttermilk is a fairly standard ingredient. It provides all of the useful properties of milk along with a source of acid (for leavening) and a nice tangy flavor.
If you’re making yours at home, you can simply replace the milk with your favorite plant milk in a 1:1 ratio. That’s what I usually do, and I can’t personally tell the difference.
Most Recipes Call for Egg
Egg is a very common ingredient, even more so than milk. Remember, corn doesn’t have gluten, so it needs a network of protein to help the ingredients remain cohesive.
Despite the use of egg, cornbread is still known for its’ crumbly texture. But, it holds together much better than if you forego a binder altogether.
Not only does a binder help ingredients stick together, but it also helps the leavening process. Cornbread is a quick bread, so it relies on steam and chemical leaveners (e.g. baking soda) to help it rise.1,3
If the ingredients don’t stick together, then the mixture can’t trap the steam and CO2 given off by the water and baking soda, thus it wouldn’t be expected to rise very much.
So, you need some kind of binder or the cornbread won’t rise. For this reason, all cornbread you encounter in food service establishments will contain egg.
The main protein in corn is called zein, and it’s incapable of fully mimicking the plastic and elastic properties of flour containing a higher gluten content.4
One way around this is to use half wheat flour and half cornmeal—the variant mentioned above that’s common in the Northeast.
If you prefer to use 100% cornmeal, then you’ll need to get a hold of a vegan egg replacement, or use flax meal. I’ve never used flax in cornbread, so I can’t attest to how effective it would be.
Butter Is Commonly Used
If butter isn’t baked in, you can be sure it’ll be served alongside the cornbread or slathered in the middle of an open slice.
The obvious remedy here is to use margarine. Some margarine contains dairy in the form of milk derivatives, but most margarine I run across these days is simply oil, water, an emulsifier, and vegan-friendly additives.
Lard (Animal Shortening)
This one is somewhat common, though less so than the aforementioned ingredients.
For example, Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix (my favorite prior to becoming vegan) contains:5
- Wheat Flour
- Degerminated Yellow Corn Meal
- Animal Shortening (Contains One or More of the Following: Lard, Hydrogenated Lard, Partially Hydrogenated Lard)
- Baking Soda
- Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate and Monocalcium Phosphate
- Wheat Starch
- Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid, Tricalcium Phosphate, Citric Acid, and Tocopherols (vitamin E)
- BHT Preservative, BHA Preservative, and Silicon Dioxide
Lard is just hog fat, so it’s never vegan. Don’t confuse animal shortening (another name for lard) with vegetable shortening, which is just fully hydrogenated vegetable oils (soybean oil, etc.).
So, vegetable shortening would be a good replacement here. Think Crisco, etc. Not exactly healthy, but good if you’re craving some vegan soul food.
Other Non-Vegan Cornbread Applications
One variant on the cornbread recipe that I grew up eating is Mexican cornbread. It’s the basic recipe, but with onions, peppers, and loads of cheddar or pepper jack cheese thrown in. Far from vegan.
Then, there’s stuffing. If you’ve ever celebrated American-style Thanksgiving, then you know what I’m talking about.
Stuffing refers to the bread or cornbread mixture that’s placed into the cavity of a bird during cooking. Since we’re talking about placing bread into the carcass of a dead bird, any egg or milk products used in the process are the least of our worries when it comes to vegan-friendliness.
But, in all seriousness, not all stuffing need be consumed with poultry. When not placed inside of an animal, the food product is referred to as dressing.6
It’s the same basic ingredients—cornbread, bread crumbs, oil, eggs, and herbs/spices such as sage.
A quick internet search should render plenty of vegan dressing recipes. Just know that 99% of the dressing and stuffing you encounter in restaurantes and catering will be unsuitable for vegans.
Finally, there are corn dogs. While they don’t contain dogs, they are still non-vegan. They are hot dogs dipped in corn batter. I know that you know that corn dogs are non-vegan. But, I bring this up to say that Field Roast puts out some really delicious vegan-friendly corn dogs these days.
That’s it for the vegan status of cornbread. Thanks for reading.
You may also want to check out the following related articles:
- Cornbread. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornbread
- Cuisine of the Southern United States. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuisine_of_the_Southern_United_States
- Acid-base Reaction. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acid-base_reaction
- Dombrink-Kurtzman MA, and JA Bietz. Zein composition in hard and soft endosperm of maize. Cereal Chemistry 70(1):105–108, 1993.
- (6 Boxes) Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix, 8.5 Oz. Cheryl- Evelyn – https://www.walmart.com/ip/6-Boxes-Jiffy-Corn-Muffin-Mix-8-5-oz/47241240
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 180-181). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011