I’ve been cooking Southern food since I was seven years old and my grandmother taught me to pan-fry catfish. I won’t lie to you; Southern food, when made properly, is very very bad for you.
But it’s also some of the tastiest food you’ll ever have, and if you don’t eat it every single day, it’s not going to clog your arteries right away.
Basics of Southern Cooking
Southern cooking is known for its use of lard and salt. Southern cooks north of Louisiana don’t use too much sugar; it wasn’t easily available when this style of cooking was developed.
Instead, food is sweetened with fruit or molasses. In the rare case that you need sugar, brown sugar is used much more often than refined sugar.
To do things right, you’ll have to have at least one cast-iron skillet, preferably two. These frying pans should be well-cured with bacon grease (traditional) or a high smoke point oil such a coconut.
In your cabinet of Southern staples, you’ll need: salt, pepper, buttermilk, butter and/or shortening, all-purpose flour (not self-rising), baking soda AND baking powder, corn meal, and for Cajun-style cooking Cajun spice. It’s nice to have cayenne pepper as well if you’re a spice lover.
Typical Southern Vegetables and Meats
Staple vegetables include green onions, greens, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and in some areas okra and black-eye peas.
Perhaps because so many Southerners have Irish ancestry, the most common staple veggie is potato – fried, boiled, baked, or stewed. Cabbage, collard greens, carrots, and black-eye peas are generally boiled, often with butter and usually with salt and pepper. Green onions are eaten whole and raw, as are red tomatoes.
Okra and potatoes are commonly deep-fried, and green tomatoes also are breaded and fried. Breading is commonly done by dipping the vegetable in buttermilk, then rolling it in lightly-spiced cornmeal.
One of the hallmarks of Southern cooking is its use of cheap, plentiful, and often cast-off parts of animals and plants. Turnip greens, for instance, are boiled and eaten with vinegar, or blended in with pork or potatoes. You can really see this tendency in the choice of meats.
Pork is possibly the most common source of meat: bacon, ham, ham hocks, pigs feet, pork chops (try our honey mustard pork chop recipe!), sausages. Every part of the pig is used, from the face, in souse or head cheese, to the intestines, in chitlins or sausage casings.
Or as the old timers used to say – “everything but the squeal.” Today, most Southern cooks prefer hams and aged meats from the pig as opposed to the more gross parts like the feet or intestines, but you still find all of it being used.
Chicken is the other very common meat choice, mostly because like pigs all you have to do to raise chickens is turn them out and let them fend for themselves (unless you have a lot of hawks and/or owls around).
In wetter states, you’ll find a lot of seafood. Catfish is ubiquitous, and is always breaded and fried. Crawfish, found throughout all the river and creek systems in the South, are eaten primarily in Louisiana and up the Mississippi River basin.
They’re boiled whole in large pots and then eaten either by sucking the meat out the neck after breaking off the head, or by shelling out the meat and using it in other dishes.
Snapping turtles, if you boil them long enough, make a pretty good soup, and just about any other water critter you can find in the South has made its way into a dish at some point.
“Critters” are commonly eaten out in the country. Venison from deer is probably the most common wild game eaten, and though you won’t find it in a restaurant, every Southern family has its own recipe for venison chili, stew, or burgoo.
Squirrel and rabbit are fried or stewed.
You’ll find everything else eaten, from armadillo in the deep South to possum all over the region.
There are five basic regions in the South as far as cooking goes: the Appalachians, the Atlantic and Gulf Coast, Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta, Texas, and then the Alabama-Mississippi region. Each area’s foods are based mostly on what was widely available in the region.
The most famous Southern variations are from Louisiana: Cajun and Creole foods. Both these types were heavily influenced by French and Spanish cuisine, so you’ll find a lot of spices and cream-based sauces here.
Creole foods are more French, as this style was developed by a wealthier class of people who were able to afford saffron, cream, and other expensive ingredients.
Cajun cooking is much more exciting. This style was developed by the French Acadians, who first settled in Canada before the British resettled them in Louisiana.
It’s a style of food based on whatever they could find to eat, and is also heavily spiced with four key spices: red pepper, onion, celery, and garlic — not much salt. Almost everything tastes good with Cajun seasoning – french fries (or our oven-baked green bean fries!), hamburgers, potato salad, you name it.
Most other Southern cuisines are the same as what African Americans call “soul food” – fried chicken, fried potatoes, fried green tomatoes, fried fish – you see a trend? — and things like greens with vinegar, snap beans, and corn bread baked in a cast-iron skillet.
A plate of tasty fried okra – is it Southern or Soul food or both?
Southern Similarities – And Making It Healthier
All Southern cuisine has one thing in common: its adherence to the primary Southern food groups. That would be fried, salted, cured, and sometimes boiled. Steamed veggies have no place here.
But there are ways to make it healthier. Sure, you lose a little of that home-style flavor. But you get to add a few years to your life to enjoy it.
Every real Southern meal must be served with sweet tea (said as one word: sweetea). That’s what a Southerner is really asking for when he says “ice tea.” You can make surprisingly good sweet tea by using baking-formulated Splenda as a substitute for regular sugar.
You’ll need to experiment around to get just the right mix for you, but I do: a gallon of boiling water poured over six family-size teabags, left to steep for 15 minutes, and then a heaping cup of baking Splenda (1:1 sweetness ratio compared to sugar – for heaven’s sake don’t use Splenda in those little packets!) mixed in well.
My husband prefers a cup and a half of Splenda or a little more. Either way, end result- zero-calorie sweet tea that tastes almost identical to the real thing.
All them things you usually bread and fry? Oven-fry them instead. Bread by first dipping the meat or veggie in a 1:1 egg/buttermilk blend, then dipping in a blend of bread crumbs, corn meal, and seasoning. Lay your breaded pieces in a single layer on a pan, and refrigerate for 1-2 hours. This gets the breading to set well.
Next, spray down a cured cast-iron skillet with Pam or a substitute. Put your breaded pieces in the pan in a single layer, and put just a dab of congealed bacon grease, butter, or lard on top (yes, they’re bad for you, but they also give a unique flavor to your food). Bake at 375°F until the tops are browning, then flip each piece and bake for at least another ten minutes.
Use your common sense: tomatoes don’t need to bake as long as chicken! Look up safe baking times and temperatures for all your meats. Note: if the dab-of-stuff was too gross for you, put a slice of bacon in the bottom of the pan before baking your food; it’ll do almost as good a job.
Oven roasted/fried potatoes make an excellent substitute for pan or deep fried
Fried taters are more problematic; baked, they just taste awful. Try this: cut your potatoes in thin slices instead of sticks, and blend in a thin-sliced onion for each two pounds of potatoes.
Put them in a freezer bag and freeze for 24 hours. This completely changes the cellular makeup of starchy veggies.
Take them out when you’re ready to cook and put them in an oil-sprayed nonstick skillet in a layer no more than about an inch thick. Salt and pepper to taste, then cover and fry at medium-low heat for about ten minutes.
Turn up the heat to medium-high for about five minutes, uncover, and flip. They should be nice and brown on the bottom; if not, cover and cook a few more minutes.
Fry flipped potatoes for about five more minutes and then serve.
Don’t make more than you’ll eat; they don’t keep very well this way. (If your potatoes are sticking, put about an eighth of a cup of water in with them when you start frying.)
If you’re trying to cut back on salt, use Cajun seasoning instead. It’s a little spicier, but it gives you a LOT of flavor without a lot of sodium. Look for Cajun seasoning that leaves out the salt. Also, season more with onion and garlic.
Go ahead and use butter instead of margarine. Science is finding more and more that either one is as bad for you as the other, and butter cooks and tastes better.
The exception: the margarines that are made with Omega-3 and Omega-6. If you have a cholesterol problem, use these instead.
Try the steamed veggies. I like to blend broccoli and carrots with Southern vegetables: snap beans, potatoes, even black-eye peas. The exception: okra is horrible steamed. Just don’t do it.
Eat more fresh vegetables and fewer cooked meats. For instance, Southern tradition is huge on fresh raw tomatoes, cucumbers, and green onions. Load up the table with these goodies.
Southern tradition is also huge on cured pork products: hams, salt pork, bacon, ham hocks, etc.
Eat hams that are honey-cured, not salt-cured, and try to use any other cured pork as a seasoning for other dishes, not as a main dish.
For instance, salt pork or jowl bacon is a perfect seasoning when boiled with butterbeans, and doesn’t add too much salt or fat to the dish if you avoid eating the hunk of meat that’s left in there.
About Lynne Jaques
Lynne is a stay-at-home mother of two boys. As a former US military officer and the spouse of an active duty US military member, Lynne enjoys traveling the world (although not the moving part!) and finding new cuisine and methods of preparing food. She also has the habit of using parenthesis way too much!