The Spicy Ingredient That Elevates Boxed Cornbread (And It's Not Jalapeños)

Boxed cornbread mix is a usual suspect at family barbecues and holiday meals for a good reason. It's a tasty, reliable product on its own, but can be made extraordinary by simply adding one or two pantry items to kick up the flavor. Typically, to bring heat to the dish, you'd add some chopped jalapeños, but there's no guarantee on how spicy the peppers will be. And what if you're making sweet cornbread? Luckily, you can use a delicious, shelf-stable pantry ingredient that ensures the sweet and spicy (or "swicy") flavor you're after: hot honey.

Usually, there's no taste comparison between homemade and store-bought baked goods, but this way of upgrading boxed cornbread gives a from-scratch version a run for its money. Not only does hot honey cornbread taste delicious, but it's so easy to prepare that the convenience factor may inch it up a rung, in some cooks' books. To make hot honey cornbread, prepare the batter according to the manufacturer's directions. Incorporate two tablespoons of the honey before baking the mixture in a well-greased cast iron skillet or similar pan.

To measure the honey accurately, grease the spoon before pouring it in, so the sticky ingredient doesn't cling to the surface. Keep in mind that adding more than two tablespoons may affect the cooking time, as honey browns quickly (even faster than sugar). Be prepared to make adjustments and keep an eye on the bread to avoid overbaking.

More ways to add hot honey into boxed cornbread

Nervous about adding an extra ingredient to your cornbread? There are a few ways to incorporate hot honey without changing up the batter. When the cornbread comes out of the oven, you can drizzle on the honey, causing it to melt and seep into the crumb. If you wait until the bread has cooled, the condiment won't absorb as well, so work quickly. Incidentally, this is a good solution for overbaked cornbread, since the honey will add moisture. 

You can use your favorite hot honey brand, or make it yourself to control the spice level. Just combine honey with red pepper flakes and an acid, like apple cider vinegar, to cut through some of the sweetness. If your hot honey winds up crystallized, going from liquid to thick and scoopable (or even crunchy), it's helpful to gently warm it before adding it to the batter. Unless you're stirring the thickened honey into warm liquid to dissolve it first, you'll have trouble evenly mixing it in, and overmixing leads to dense bread. 

That said, a study published by the National Library of Medicine (NIH) warns of the adverse side effects of heating honey to high temperatures, as it can develop a dangerous compound called 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). While results are inconclusive and further studies are warranted, it's best to gently heat your honey just until it's pourable, and avoid bringing it to a boil.

Additional recipes to use up hot honey

If you love the taste of your hot honey cornbread, try blending the honey with softened butter to make a "swicy" spread to slather on each piece. You can also try this addictive condiment in any recipe where you would normally use the plain Jane version. Drizzle it on pizza or fried chicken; use it to sweeten marinades; or place it on cheese boards to jazz them up. If you're tired of regular grilled chicken, combine hot honey with oil and lime zest to glaze the poultry at your next barbecue. Pork would also be a delicious partner.

Hot honey works just as well in drinks, too. Try the spicy ingredient in your morning latte for a warming boost to wake you up. It's also a great mid-day pick-me-up when stirred into a cup of tea or a hot toddy (we won't tell if it's before five o'clock). Black tea and honey are a solid marriage, but the hot stuff also complements ginger or lemon tea.

When it's cocktail time, use hot honey as a simple syrup and instantly turn your favorite margarita into something "caliente." This is a more straightforward way to prepare spicy margaritas, as you would usually need to soak hot peppers in tequila for at least two days. Instead of the traditional salt, rim the glass with a spicy salt mixture like Tajín and garnish the cocktail with a pickled jalapeño or lime wheel.