If you were to open the crackling pages of my great-great-grandmother’s ledger-style cookbook or thumb through the butter-stained entries in my great-grandmother’s tiny black recipe binder, you’d find exactly zero recipes for cornbread. For them, it wasn’t something you had to write down; you simply invited the requisite cast of characters to the bowl, stirred to reach the proper consistency, then baked until it was done. Making cornbread was a reflex, like breathing, an action their hands practiced with barely a passing thought.When I close my eyes, no matter how hard I try, I can’t remember seeing my grandmother, May, making cornbread. But memory readily serves up many images of my mother tackling the task: Her hand, insulated by a hard-living pot holder, pulling the hot skillet from the oven like a blacksmith drawing a sword forth from the forge. Her hurried pour of just-whisked batter into that lava-hot skillet. The satisfying sizzle as the batter hit the pan. Her sigh of relief after the oven door was shut: a task complete, second-degree burns avoided, the cornbread left to become itself.As a baked good, cornbread is relatively forgiving, generally tolerant of tinkering, and open to most inclinations of culinary mischief. She’ll allow for stir-ins like cheese and greens; she’s down for whatever seasonings you throw at her; she’s comfortable in just about any pan that’ll have her. That’s why I’m such a big fan of cornbread. As a creative cook who loves to bend the rules, I appreciate a recipe that can stand up to my whims and musings—and especially my missteps. It’s a baked good with inherent grace.However, there are exactly three rules I follow, without fail, every time I make cornbread. The first is that I preheat the cast-iron skillet in the oven to get it screaming hot. You want the batter to literally sizzle when you pour it in to achieve a crispy crust. But before you pour the batter in, there’s rule #2: Salt the skillet. My friend Lane Snider taught me this trick from his Granny Ollie—to fling a pinch (or two) of kosher salt into the hot skillet before pouring the batter in. This transforms the delightfully crispy (but sometimes bland) crust into a savory almost-cracker that you can’t get enough of … if you follow the final rule: Turn the cornbread out of the skillet immediately after baking, and let it cool bottom side up on a wire rack. Why? The crust, of course. If you let the cornbread cool in the skillet, it will steam. And every second it spends steaming robs you of that crispy crust you’ve worked so hard to create. So be a good cook, follow the rules, and protect the things you love.This recipe is an amalgamation of best practices across families and generations. It will keep its crunch and retain its structure if cubed and folded into a dressing for Thanksgiving (like my Cornbread Dressing with Buttery Sage Croutons). It’s also delicious all by itself. Well, with a pat of butter tucked between split slices, naturally. But most importantly, this recipe will politely indulge your whims and inspirations—your stir-ins and substitutions—and become whatever it is you’d like it to be.