A cooking style created through pain, survival, creativity, and resilience.
Here on Divas Can Cook, there is no shortage of traditional Southern-style recipes. From creamy grits to all things smothered in gravy, it’s my favorite kind of cooking! Of course, my deep North Carolina-Georgia roots probably have a lot to do with that!
Nonetheless, the spirit of down-home Southern cooking is enchanting. Those rich flavors, generous portions, and aromas that can travel miles have a way of bringing people together and warming the soul.
But what exactly is Southern cooking, and how did it evolve into the comforting, hospitality cuisine that it is today?
Grab a glass of sweet iced tea as we journey past the crunchy hot fried chicken and fluffy buttermilk biscuits. We’re going to explore the diverse and complex dirt roads of all things Southern cooking!
What is Southern cooking?
In the United States, Southern cooking is the style of cooking developed in the American South. These southern states include North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Florida, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Arkansas, Delaware, & DC.
As you can see, many states make up the South, which means lots of different influences, opinions, and modern interpretations of its cuisine! In essence, Southern cooking is truly a potluck, with several cultures and backgrounds bringing different cooking styles to the Southern table!
Southern cooking is divided into several cooking styles based on the different regions of the South.
Before we dive into Southern Cooking’s history, let’s look into regional Southern cuisines that have helped shape Southern Cooking: Appalachia, Creole, Cajun, Soul Food, Low Country, Gullah, and Floribbean.
Common Types of Southern Cooking Cuisines
Appalachia: Southern Appalachian cooking refers to the central part of the Appalachian mountains, which spans several Southern states. This cuisine is authentic farm-to-table, hearty and homegrown. The mountains provide ample foraging and wild game like rabbits, wild turkeys, and venison, along with herbs, berries, ramps, sumac, and sorghum. Popular Appalachian recipes use home-canned ingredients preserved during their peak season. Chili beans, chow chow, berry cobblers, biscuits & gravy, and chicken and dumplings are all said to originate from Appalachia.
How To Make Fresh Old-Fashioned Blueberry Cobbler
Creole: Bring on the bread pudding, crawfish etouffee, and gumbo! Creole cooking originated in Louisiana and utilizes cooking techniques from France and Spain. This cuisine uses spicy seasoning combinations passed down from Native Americans and African cultures to create savory meals. The “holy trinity” (onions, celery, and bell peppers) makes an appearance in many flavorful Creole dishes.
Cajun: Jambalaya, dirty rice, and frog legs are popular Cajun dishes in the South. Cajun cooking originated when the French Canadians migrated to Southern Louisiana in the mid-1700s. The swampland provided plenty of alligators, crawfish, and frogs for eating.
Soul Food: The term “Soul Food” became popular in the 1960s during the Black Power Movement. It was a way for African-Americans to honor their often overlooked contribution to Southern cooking. Before being called Soul Food, it was known simply as down-home cooking. When Southern African American families moved to larger cities to seek more opportunities, they took with them the comforting, familiar dishes of home, like fried chicken, macaroni & cheese, collard greens, and candied yams; these Southern dishes were called Soul Food. We’ll look into how this food initially came about in the next section.
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Low Country: Venture to the South Carolina coast, and you’ll discover the best authentic low country cuisine. Low country cooking takes advantage of the coastline to create savory seafood dishes that resemble Creole and Cajun meals. Rice is prevalent in Low country cooking. Popular dishes are shrimp and grits, okra soup, Hoppin’ John, and rice puddings.
Floribbean: Floribbean cooking is a combination of Floridian and Caribbean cuisines. This style of cooking is found throughout Florida, but mainly on the Southern tip of Florida. Floribbean cooking combines influences from the Caribbean, Hispanic and Asian immigrants who settled in Florida. It’s known for its healthier, lighter approach that consists of fresh, often organic ingredients like fish, lemongrass, key limes, coconut, mango, papaya, rum, and honey. Popular Floribbean dishes are stone crab, red conch chowder, and the famous key lime pie birthed in the Florida Keys.
How To Make Key Lime Pie
Gullah: Former slaves who migrated to the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Northeast Florida are responsible for Gullah cooking. This style of Southern cooking is nearly identical to West African cuisines. The recipes remain intact, carefully preserved, and passed down through generations. Gullah cooking contains many dishes that use seafood, rice, and plenty of vegetables. One-pot meals are popular with Gullah cooking as well as mastering the art of pairing spices. Popular Gullah dishes include okra soup, Frog-more stew, and seed wafers.
The History of Southern Cooking
To truly understand Southern cooking, it’s necessary to go back to its foundation. Southern cooking is the combination of influences from Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans. Let’s take a look at the very early days of Southern cooking.
Native American Influences
Native Americans laid the foundation for Southern cooking. Before the Europeans arrived in North America, the Native Americans were already thriving on the land; growing pumpkins, tomatoes, yams, and tobacco, to name a few.
Southeastern Native American tribes like the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw were skilled farmers and hunters. They knew what crops grew best in the Southern soil, even how to improve upon the harvest by replanting only the seeds from the best yields. Corn was a staple food and was used to make grits, cornmeal, and cornbread.
For meat, they hunted animals like turkeys, squirrels, and opossums. Nothing on the animal went to waste. A practice that remains in Southern cooking reflecting in dishes like chitterlings and neck-bone soup.
The soaking of beans to soften them, salt preservation techniques, grounding corn into grits, and smoked meats are all Native American contributions to Southern cooking.
When the Europeans stepped onto American soil, it was like an entirely new world for them. It had flourishing plants and animals they’d never seen, people of different languages, unique foods, and practices.
They picked up many Native American planting methods, using the already established and successful blueprint to plant extensive gardens and build homes. Soon they begin introducing their European recipes and planting and harvesting European crops that would grow successfully in Southern soil like turnips, radishes, and spinach.
Europeans also brought over domesticated animals like cattle, pigs, and horses. Popular Southern recipes like pound cake, macaroni, and cheese & fried chicken are said to have been introduced to the South by European travelers and immigrants.
Enslaved Africans have significantly contributed to the flavor of traditional Southern food and recipes as we know it today.
During the transatlantic slave trade, Africans came to America against their will to work the land. Their native food came along with them. The selection of food they were allowed to bring was intentional because it lasted a long time after harvesting and grew well in the Southern climate. Black-eyed peas, okra, red beans, watermelon, rice, and various spices were just a few of the delicious plants that grew in Africa.
As more Africans arrived in America, these African plants became prevalent and familiar in the South. The enslaved people were used heavily on the plantation, including cooking and creating meals for the slave master’s family and guests. They improved upon the European recipes given to them and developed their own from the rations they were provided or grew in their own gardens.
They used discarded animal parts like pig feet and bones to create savory broths. Dandelions, turnips, and collards were seasoned, cooked down, and eaten, along with the nutrient-rich liquid that resulted in cooking greens known as potlikker. Seasonings and meat added flavor, especially hot peppers that were staples in Africa.
This “slave food” wasn’t accepted by upper-class white Southerners until the Antebellum period. Eventually, popular dishes like collard greens and black-eyed peas became staples of the southern food culture and makes up what many people today consider traditional Southern food and Soul food.
So, the next time you sit down to a traditional Southern dinner of fried chicken, macaroni & cheese, turnip greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and yams, you’re witnessing a complicated history. On your plate is the cultural exchange between Native-Americans, African-Americans, and Europeans. It was through hardship, creativity, wisdom, and resilience that Southern Cooking was established.
Creating a classic Soul Food dinner!
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The Future Of Southern Cooking
Southern cooking continues to be shaped and influenced by the locals and new immigrants who call it home. As people of different backgrounds migrate to the South, they bring along dishes from their cultures, adding to the story of Southern cooking.
You can see this evolution taking place with the rise of Southern restaurants that offers Thai-soul food and worldly takes on classic Southern dishes like smoked turkey & collard green egg rolls, and black-eyed peas hummus. It’s an exciting time for Southern foods, and creativity continues to be at the forefront!
Common Ingredients Used in Southern Cooking
A traditional Southern cook’s kitchen and recipes are sure to include some of the following ingredients. These common ingredients are popular with creating authentic Southern dishes of all kinds.
Lard- Used for frying, sauteing, grilling, a replacement for butter, and creating a flaky texture in biscuits, pie crusts, and other baked goods.
Vegetable Shortening- An alternative to butter or lard. It can also be used for frying and gives a nice texture to baked items.
Butter- Used heavily in Southern cooking for baking, as a spread, to enhance the flavor and texture of dishes.
Buttermilk- Used often for baking, tenderizing meats, or as a base for dressings and sauces.
Sweetened Condensed Milk- Used to add sweetness to pies, cakes, and other baked desserts. Or as a sweetener in coffee, teas, and other creamy drinks.
Pecans- Used for adding into baked goods, toppings, and snacks. Pecan Pie is a popular Southern pie.
Peanuts- Used for adding into baked goods, toppings, and snacks. When traveling throughout the South, it’s common to see tourist stores advertising their boiled peanuts, a common snack in the South.
VEGETABLE & STARCHES
Sweet Potatoes & Yams– Used interchangeably for making candied yams & sweet potato pie. Great for roasting, grilling, and baking.
Potatoes- Used for making mashed potatoes and potato salad. Great for baking, grilling, and roasting.
Tomatoes- Used in savory dishes like Hoppin’ John, as a topping, or dipped in cornmeal and fried like with fried green tomatoes.
Bell Peppers: Used in savory dishes like Jambalaya. Great for stuffing, baking, and sauteing.
Onions-Use to flavor many Southern savory dishes.
Celery- One of the “holy trinity” ingredients. It’s often used in savory meals or salads.
Greens (Collards, Turnips, Mustard)– Greens are often mixed together and cooked down until tender. They are served as a side or main meal with salted meat.
Okra- Usually served breaded in cornmeal and deep-fried. It is also used to thicken sauces and gravies.
Cornmeal- Used to make cornbread and as a coating ingredient used before baking or frying foods.
Grits- A popular porridge often served for breakfast or dinner.
Rice-Served as a side or main meal mixed with meat and vegetables.
Peaches– The state fruit of Georgia. Used often in peach pies and cobblers.
Oranges– State fruit of Florida used in many Floribbean dishes.
Apples- Lots of apple varieties originated from the South including the popular Golden Delicious apple. Apples are used for home-preserving apple pies and other apple dishes. Fried apples are a popular Southern side dish and are often served with pork.
MEATS & BEANS
Beans: Used in many Southern dishes like red beans and rice, also used to thicken soups and bulk up vegetable dishes.
Pork- All parts of the pig are used in Southern cooking.
Chicken: Usually eaten fried, roasted, or stewed.
Seafood (crab, shrimp, crawfish)- Used in dishes like shrimp and grits, and crawfish etouffee.
Mayonnaise- Besides being a popular condiment, mayonnaise is used often as a dressing for classic dishes like chicken salad, egg salad, and potato salad.
Self- Rising Flour- Self-rising flour is used for the quick preparation of biscuits, pie crusts, and cakes.
Hot Pepper Sauce- Hot sauce is a staple condiment in the South. It’s put on fish, vegetables, eggs, and even grits.
BBQ Sauce- Most BBQ sauces in the South are homemade and often families have their own recipe.
Broth- Broths are used in place of water in soups or savory meals to enhance the flavor.
SOUTHERN SPICES & SEASONINGS
If it’s one thing Southerners are particular about it’s the way a dish is seasoned. Southern food is often flavored in abundance, offering your taste buds a bold dose of sweet, salty, or spicy profiles.
10 Common Herbs & Spices Used In Southern Recipes:
- Garlic powder
- Onion powder
- Chili Powder
- Seasoned Salt
- Black Pepper
- Celery Seed
A TASTE OF THE SOUTH
18 Of The Most Famous Southern Foods:
It’s no wonder Southern food is known as American comfort food. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular Southern recipes on Divas Can Cook. Below is my growing-by-the-week collection of famous Southern dishes, including video recipes on how to prepare them!
Fried Chicken is usually one of the first things that come to mind when we think of Southern foods. When it’s well-seasoned, crunchy, and hot, fried chicken is hard to resist! Surprisingly fried chicken did not originate in the South. Deep frying chicken in fat is originally a Scottish practice. This meal was reserved for special occasions since spring chickens were hard to come by, as well as extra fat for frying.
Biscuits & gravy is a popular Southern dish often served for breakfast. Its roots date back to Southern Appalachia in the 1800s. This dish consists of buttermilk biscuits topped with white sausage gravy.
Who should take credit for creating the first red velvet cake is still up in the air! Waldorf Astoria hotel claims they are the birthplace of this cake. However, The Adams Extract Company, which sold red food coloring to make red velvet cake, claims they are the reason this cake exists. Nonetheless, Southerners have embraced Red Velvet Cake with open arms, and it’s now one of the most popular cake flavors of the South.
Pound cakes are as Southern as it gets! Pound cakes are said to have originated from Europe. The ingredients in the cake measured precisely 1 pound, hence the name. Pound cake is a dense, moist cake made in many flavors.
Collard greens did not originate from the South. However, the technique of cooking them down with other greens and salted meat to form “potlikker” is of African origin. Many types of greens like turnip, mustard, and Polk greens are also popular in Southern cuisines.
Candied sweet potatoes are said to have originated in Europe, but candied yams (used interchangeably) are an American dish. It’s baked slowly in the oven in butter and sugar until it is fork-tender.
Baked macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. It is said to have originated in Italy and was brought back to the South from the travels of wealthy slave owners. Thomas Jefferson was obsessed with macaroni and cheese and brought the recipe back to the plantation for his slaves to prepare.
Deviled eggs are commonly served as hors d’oeuvres in the South. Traditional deviled eggs are hard-boiled eggs stuffed with a mixture of egg yolks, mayonnaise, mustard, relish, salt, pepper and garnished with paprika or cayenne pepper. The original deviled egg which consisted of boiled eggs, stuffed with spicy sauces developed in ancient Rome. It was the British who started calling it “Deviled” because of the spiciness.
The use of sweet potatoes has long been a part of Southern cooking. When cooked, mashed, mixed with spices, and baked, the result is pure comfort. The black scientist and inventor, George Washington Carver, is credited with developing the first sweet potato pie. This pie consisted of sweet potatoes sliced in rounds.
Grits is another recipe that is as Southern as it gets! It is served creamy for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. This dish is often served seasoned with butter, salt, and pepper. However, some Southerners prefer grits sweetened with sugar. Grits originated from the Native-American Muskogee tribe who grounded their corn into bits, giving it a gritty texture.
Not many foods are as Southern as Cornbread. It’s served sweetened and unsweetened (depending on what part of the South you’re from). Commonly served as a side dish, cornbread was created by the Native Americans. Enslaved Africans expanded up this by creating hoecakes, spoon bread, and several other interpretations.
Nuts are plentiful in the South and rich pecan pie is a Southern favorite. The first recipe for pecan pie on record was printed in a church charity cookbook in 1898. It was sent in by a Texas woman.
Although fried green tomatoes are a well-loved dish in the South they did not originate from the South. The first recipe was spotted in a Jewish Cookbook in 1919. Fried green tomatoes are served as a snack, side dish, or appetizer! The green tomatoes are sliced, coated in a cornmeal mixture, and deep-fried until golden!
Southern summer days (or any day) is a good time for sweet iced tea! Served on the rocks with a side of lemon is known as house wine of the South. The first known sweet iced tea recipe was published in 1878 in a book called Housekeeping in Old Virginia.
In the South, biscuits are served with breakfast, dinner, or as a snack. Buttermilk creates a tender biscuit that is perfect for slather on homemade berry preserves. Biscuit originated from Britain and was thin, almost like a cracker. It wasn’t until biscuits made it to the American South where it was transformed into the fluffy, tender delicacy that it is today.
“Who made the “tata salad?” is a common question asked whenever potato salad is served at an event. Potato salad is a classic cold dish served regularly at Southern cookouts. Although it is an easy dish, it must be made just right. “Just right” depends on however you grew up eating it. Potato salad was said to have originated from Germany where it was served hot.
Black-Eyed peas are traditionally served on New Years’, but many Southerns eat them throughout the year as well. They are typically served as a side dish or as a main dish with salted meat and a side of cornbread.
Cobblers made with peaches and every kind of berry is a popular dessert in the south. Double-crusted cobblers are also popular. Cobblers are said to have originated from the European settlers and paired with local southern fruits like peaches and berries.
FAQ’s About Southern Cooking
Is Southern cooking healthy?
Southern cooking got its roots in fresh ingredients, but like all cuisines, can be made healthy or unhealthy. Today’s Southern cooking is often assumed to use mainly cooking techniques like deep-frying, covering things in gravy, and using lots of butter. However, since Southern cooking prides itself on from-scratch cooking, it’s easy to adjust the ingredients and cooking methods while still enjoying Southern classics. Baking chicken instead of frying, using regional honey in sweet tea, using herbs, citrus, and spices to add seasoning instead of salt, and eating local, fresh ingredients are just a few ways to lighten up Southern cuisine.
What is a typical Southern breakfast?
A Southern breakfast can look like many things based on which part of the South you’re in. Here in NC, it may consist of creamy grits, bacon/sausage, scrambled eggs, biscuits/toast, hashbrowns, and fresh fruit.
Check out the Southern Breakfast Recipe Playlist Below!
What is a good Southern Sunday Dinner?
Southern Sunday dinners are often the heaviest meals of the week. It is often full of classic comfort dishes like fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas, baked macaroni and cheese, candied yams, cornbread, sweet iced tea, and some type of cake or pie, like a 7-up pound cake or pecan pie to round off the meal!
What is the difference between Soul Food and Southern Food?
Southern food is the big umbrella that covers several different styles of Southern cuisines. Soul food is a Southern cooking style that got its name in the 1960s inspired by the black power movement. It was a way for African-Americans to honor their contribution to Southern cooking.