First let us recognize that various regions of the South differ in how they make many recipes. And, wherever you are from, people's taste and preference varies. With that in mind, please accept that what follows is by no means the only way to make cornbread or the right way. The cornbread you like is the right way.
Our belief is that real, traditional, Southern cornbread is not sweet. It contains no sugar. But if you like it sweet, by all means, go ahead and put sugar in it. I just wouldn't call it authentic Southern cornbread as is cooked in most areas of the South.
If you are unsatisfied with your cornbread, try the following tips and see if it helps to get that bread you are looking for.
Keep It Simple
Southern cornbread is simple with few ingredients. It's when you start adding a lot of ingredients and making it fancy that you produce something that does not resemble cornbread. Our preference is for no eggs, no sugar and very little flour. Good Southern cornbread is crumbly with a crunchy crust and soft insides. Remember, it's bread to accompany a meal. It is not cake. It is not dessert and it is not the main course.
Most Southerner's cook cornbread in a cast iron skillet. It's traditional. Cast iron transfers and holds heat like no other material and is ideally suited for baking bread. And, it last a lifetime. Caution: cast iron stays hot enough to burn for a long time after it is removed from heat. Always use hand protection when handling cast iron until you know it is cool.
Always heat a little oil (or bacon grease) in your cast iron skillet and then sprinkle the interior bottom and sides with cornmeal before adding the batter. This will help prevent the cornbread from sticking. If it does stick, run a knife around the inside wall of the skillet while gently shaking the skillet and this will usually free the bread.
Eggs In Cornbread
Eggs act as a binder that gives bread a cake-like texture. We prefer a crumbly bread texture and do not use eggs.
How Much Flour?
Many recipes use equal parts of corn meal and flour. The flour is in cornbread just to hold it together and give it body. Again, we prefer a crumbly texture. Too much flour makes it (again) cake-like in texture and detracts from the corn meal flavor. A good mixture is about 1/2 cup flour to 1 cup corn meal.
Yellow vs. White
Nearly all cornbread recipes on the internet call for yellow corn meal...and some Southerners prefer it. However, it just looks like cake to me and while yellow corn meal is fine for tamale pie, we prefer white in cornbread. It probably doesn't make any difference in flavor but white corn meal seems to have a better texture.
Here's a little experiment you can do concerning color of real Southern cornbread:
The next time you eat in a restaurant that offers Southern dishes, order cornbread. Now, ask yourself, have you ever found real down home Southern cornbread in a restaurant? And...when you taste the restaurant "so-called" Southern cornbread you will probably agree that it is pretty awful.
So, now look at the awful restaurant Southern cornbread. What color is it? "YELLOW"! Need I say more?
I have no evidence that the shape of cornbread affects it's flavor, but I suspect it does. Cornbread is generally cooked in a round shape or as pones or as muffins. To me, Southern cornbread should be cooked only two ways. Round or pones, both cooked in cast iron.
The round shape, of course, comes from the shape of a regular cast iron skillet. This is the most common way to cook cornbread. Pones are also called corn sticks or corncob cornbread. It is made using a cast iron pan that shapes the batter into sticks resembling corncobs.
Southerner's we know look at muffins with disdain and refer to it as "restaurant cornbread".