Is there any more iconic representative of the lore of Southern food culture than a buttery, fluffy, golden brown biscuit sitting on a plate waiting for a topping of preserves or white sawmill sausage gravy? Yet this beloved breakfast staple is in danger of disappearing from the modern Southern kitchen as a new generation of home cooks worries that they’ll never be able to make a biscuit as good as their momma or Meemaw. Besides, when there are experts like the biscuit aficionados at famed spots like The Loveless Cafe, Biscuit Love, Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit, Hominy Grill and Rise who are pumping out amazing pillows of buttery goodness by the sheet pan, it’s hard to feel like even your best biscuits can measure up. Heck, even Hardee’s and Cracker Barrel offer a fairly respectable version of “the bread service of the South,” as long as you slather enough butter and jam on top.
There are plenty of excuses not to try to cook your own biscuits. Maybe you messed up previous attempts for one reason or another and are intimidated. The good news is that even if you end up with a bad batch of biscuits, you’re just a half hour and about $1.50 in ingredients away from trying again. Plus, you can feed some happy squirrels in your backyard with your failed efforts. Perhaps you’d prefer to simply buy frozen or (gasp!) canned biscuits instead. Those are certainly options, but you’d be missing out on the chance to inject your own style and the crucial ingredient of love into your biscuits. Instead, fear not, dear readers! Don’t give up on generations of tradition in favor of convenience. Feel empowered to make your own. You have to risk it for the biscuit!
We spoke to two experts for a little perspective on the history of the Southern biscuit and to offer up some tips and confidence building for your efforts. The first is Greg Baker, the owner of The Refinery in Tampa, FL, and a five time semi-finalist as Best Chef: South by the James Beard Awards. He is an expert in the history of Southern cooking, particularly the traditions of Florida cuisine, which are frequently markedly different from the rest of the region. Throughout much of history, biscuits in Florida were closer in structure to the “hard tack” that stretches back to the days of the Roman Legion.
In fact, the word biscuit comes from Latin bis coctus, meaning “twice baked,” from the original process where bread was baked and then dried out in an oven to create a hard, sturdy biscuit that could survive for weeks and provide sustenance for an army on the march. Leavening ingredients like yeast and baking soda were not readily available or hadn’t been invented yet, leading to dense, short discs of bread. This was certainly a far cry from the fluffy morsels that represent the ideal of a great Southern biscuit.
Greg relates that Floridian biscuits shared a similar history: “When we look at the historical Florida biscuit, it bears little to no resemblance of a biscuit anywhere else. The reason? The lack of flour here prior to the railroads being built. Even then, flour was a luxury to those who didn’t live ‘in town’ because of having to travel to a trading post in order to purchase wheat flour.
“While biscuits were a staple of the table in Florida, the resemblance to others throughout the South was in name only,” continues Greg. “The reason for this is that wheat does not grow well, if at all, in this humidity and mostly sandy soil; meaning that wheat flour was an import from northern states. Most people don’t realize that Florida was still unsettled frontier when most of the eastern part of the country was moving into the modern age with unheard-of infrastructures such as roads and railroads. That lack of support made moving imported goods to the interior parts of the state problematic at best. So, the original settlers made use of the local flour of the native peoples, called coontie, which is in the arrowroot family. The coontie flour would be mixed with a little animal fat, salt, water, milk or buttermilk and beaten to incorporate air in the time before modern leaveners, such as baking powder. The result was not exactly the moist, fluffy biscuit of most people’s dreams, but topped with a little clabber or used to soak up fat or pot likker, they became much more palatable.”
This concept of this sort of “beaten biscuit” has a long history in America. The perfect palette for a slice of country ham or a spoonful of jam, these short biscuits were a half-step between the sturdy hard tack of yore and fluffy Southern biscuits of today. Popular among sailors, beaten biscuits were known as “sea biscuits” in New England. (And now you know where that famous racehorse got his name!) Instead of using expensive and rare yeast to make the dough rise, cooks whipped air into the flour/fat mixture by beating it repeatedly with a rolling pin or a hammer. Really, any blunt instrument would do. The longer you beat them, the higher the final product would rise in the oven. The old adage was “200 beats for family and 500 for company.”
With the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century came more modern mechanized flour mills, which in turn led to the development of the airy Southern biscuit we’ve come to love. The development of baking soda, baking powder and all-purpose flour made it much easier to achieve a tall biscuit without all that physical effort. Of all the ingredients in a biscuit, it’s the flour that makes the biggest difference, and the best flour for the task is made from soft winter wheat grown in the southern half of the country.
Since 1883, the gold standard for biscuit flour was White Lily, milled in Knoxville, TN, using that beautiful soft wheat that has a much lower protein content than northern wheats. Why is this important? We asked Karl Worley of Biscuit Love, the Nashville-based biscuit house that regularly feeds thousands of his flaky golden beauties every day to tourists and locals at three locations. “Protein is what leads to the development of gluten (the proteins that give dough its elasticity). You want a little gluten to give your biscuit structure, but too much traps the fibers and doesn’t allow the leavening to make the biscuit rise as much as you’d want. You don’t want a baguette!”
Traditionally, White Lily was only available in a limited radius around Tennessee, and more recently their parent company moved production to two plants in the Midwest, much to the chagrin of hardcore biscuit bakers who believed that only White Lily would do. Karl and other biscuitscenti have developed a workaround that he is happy to share. “I mix half A/P flour with half pastry flour, and that’s a pretty good compromise.” All-purpose flour has a protein content of around 12% while pastry flour is closer to 6%. Combine them, and your result has a protein number of 9%, just about exactly the same as what made White Lily so special.
Karl also has an even better recommendation: “There are plenty of small independent mills all around the South that still use winter wheat, you just have to find them because they usually only sell in their own neighborhoods. Google ‘flour mills in ______’ for Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia, and then just call them on the phone. The world is still small enough that you can reach out and learn their stories. Usually, they’ll be happy to ship you some bags or you can order online.” A mill that Karl particularly loves is Our Best Self-rising Flour from Boonville, NC. At just $2 a bag plus shipping, you can have access to the finest soft wheat flour anywhere that the USPS will deliver.
Karl learned about Our Best from Sharon Benton, the wife of Alan Benton of bacon and ham fame. Using just Our Best and Cruze Buttermilk, the product that Worley calls “the best in the world,” Sharon can whip up an amazing batch of biscuits using only two ingredients. While some claim that the water in the South is why our biscuits are so superior, sort of like how New Yorkers say you can only make a decent bagel in their town, Karl thinks otherwise.
“Good buttermilk is the water of biscuit making,” he explains. “If you have the luxury of using whole fat, it’s even better. There’s Cruze, and then there’s everybody else, but if you don’t have access to that, look for a bottle with milk and cultures as the only ingredients. You want full fat, not anything thickened with tapioca.”
Greg offers more advice if you can’t source great buttermilk: “I’ll sometimes use water as the liquid medium for these biscuits. It’s a little-known fact that Florida has excellent water; my drinking water comes from the same source as bottled brands such as Nestle, Zephyrhills and Evian. However, there are these things done to the water like fluoridation and chlorination, so the flavor is altered. My best bet when using water to get to the most authentic biscuit possible is to let the water sit at room temperature to get the off-tastes out. I also try to use pure rendered fat, like chicken or pork over butter and definitely over bacon grease, which adds sweet and smoky elements to the biscuit.”
So feel free to be emboldened by the advice of these masters, and here are a few additional easy tips that should up your biscuit game:
First of all, make sure that your ingredients are really cold. Worley suggests putting your butter in the freezer and then using a cheese grater to shave off shards of ice-cold butter into your flour. This makes it easier to combine them without over-mixing. Which leads to tip #2, don’t overwork your dough. You’re not whipping up a cake batter. Instead of using that stand mixer on the shelf, which is probably already where you store your screwdrivers, use the tools God gave you to just gently “introduce” the butter to the flour. Softly crumble the butter and flour together with your hands so that you end up with a pebbly dough that still has plenty of discrete chunks of butter. When these pebbles melt in the baking process, they will leave those delicious buttery pockets of air that make a flaky biscuit.
The third tip is probably one that most of us mess up. When you cut out your biscuits, fight the urge to give the cookie cutter that little ¼ twist to release the dough from the form. This tiny turn causes the gluten chains to lock and will prevent the final product from rising as close to heaven as Grandma’s biscuits used to. Just push straight down and lift straight up. Finally, if you’re cooking your biscuits in a cast iron skillet (like you should be,) make sure that each raw biscuit touches either the side of the pan or other biscuits so that the heat will be distributed equally all around. If you leave space between your biscuits, they will spread out instead of rising up as they bake, and that will leave you with something closer to a scone. And you don’t want that, do you?!
To help you get started on your biscuit journey, Karl Worley has graciously shared his recipe for his world famous “Family Reserve Biscuits.”
Family Reserve Biscuits
- 2 Cups Flour Low-Protein, A/P
- 3 Tablespoons Sugar Granulated
- 2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
- 1 Teaspoon Salt Kosher
- 2 Tablespoons Butter Very Cold
- 2 Tablespoons Lard Very Cold
- 1 Cup Buttermilk Full-Fat
- 2/3 Cup Heavy Cream
- 1 1/2 Cups Flour Low-Protein, A/P
- 4 Tablespoons Butter Melted
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- Butter the bottom and sides of a 10 inch cast iron skillet.
- Mix together dry ingredients.
- Grate the butter and lard into the dry and cut into dry ingredients.
- Pour buttermilk and cream into dry ingredients and stir until just barely combined. It should resemble cottage cheese.
- Use 4-ounce scoop or spoon to place dollop of dough into a bowl with the remaining flour.
- Sprinkle flour on top. Pick up dough ball and gently shake off excess flour.
- Place into the skillet very close together.
- Bake for 20 minutes until golden brown and set.
- Pour butter over biscuits as soon as they are out of the oven.
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