The biscuit shall rise again!
June 19, 2009 9:48 AM   Subscribe

How do I make fantastic southern-type biscuits?

There are only a few ingredients (I think), and people regularly produce them...but my Cali-Yank pedigree will not allow me to make them? I'm referring to savory soft biscuits, not the cookie-tin biscuits, of course.

I've done tons of recipes but nothing turns out like I've tasted. Water, flour, baking powder, crisco/shortening, baking soda, butter, and (butter)milk are all the ingredients I need (right)?

I've seen people using lard, but I don't eat lard...and the restaurants/individuals who have made biscuits I ate told me that besides dairy, there are no animal products in the recipe.

How do I make fantastic biscuits...and the hell with cutting calories/fat. I just want good biscuits.
posted by hal_c_on to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
Edna Lewis and The Best Biscuits.

And once you eat them, you'll want her every recipe: The Gift of Southern Cooking.
posted by foooooogasm at 9:55 AM on June 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

We always used lard in Louisiana; she does too, but you can use shortening. Everything but the fat should be room temperature, including the buttermilk.

Do not over work them goes without saying, ja?

Do not use bread flour or whole wheat or anything other than all-purpose, or you'll make hockey pucks instead of biscuits.
posted by foooooogasm at 10:00 AM on June 19, 2009

Also preheat the oven to 525 F and then immediately lower it to 450 when you put the biscuits in. If you heat to 450 F, you'll lose about 50 F just opening the oven door, so over compensate by going to 525 F.

She butters them before they go into the oven; we usually do so after 10 minutes.
posted by foooooogasm at 10:03 AM on June 19, 2009

Drop biscuits are easier than rolled by a long shot -- it prevents the overworking. But don't feel too bad. Even Southerners "cheat."
posted by janet lynn at 10:05 AM on June 19, 2009

The kind of flour you use makes a difference, too. White Lily or other low protein flour makes a lighter, fluffier biscuit. This brand is common in the South, but I don't know if it is available where you live. This baker says half cake flour and half all purpose makes a pretty good substitute, but I have never tried that myself.
posted by mkim at 10:08 AM on June 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Half cake flour is an excellent substitute for Southern biscuit flour. Measure by weight, not volume. That's how I finally conquered biscuits.

Personally, I find biscuits with butter infinitely superior to biscuits with lard or shortening.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:11 AM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are different kinds of biscuits.

My foolproof recipe for flaky baking powder biscuits that separate into steamy, fluffy layers and chunks and have a crisp, nubbly exterior is:

2 cups (9 oz) AP flour
1 tsp table salt
1 tsp baking soda
3 tsp baking powder
4 Tbsp cool but not cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon chunks.
3/4 - 1 c buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 450 F.

Stir the dry ingredients together in a bowl or whiz them in a food processor. Add the butter chunks and cut them in with two knives, a pastry cutter, or with your fingers (or pulse the FP) until the mass looks like variegated-size crumbs (no single pieces larger than a pea) and no unincorporated flour. Pour in the smaller amount of buttermilk and stir just until things come together in one big lump - add a little more if you need it.

Press or roll into a big sheet about 3/4 of an inch thick and cut out closely-spaced rounds with whatever you have handy. Gather and reroll scraps one time.

Place about an inch apart on ungreased baking sheets and bake about 7 to 9 minutes, until they are golden brown and puffy.


- cutting the butter is important to get right. What you want is little balls of butter surrounded by flour that will melt and produce lots of little steam-opened pockets in the finished biscuit. It's simple and quick in a FP; you should work quite quickly if doing it by hand to prevent the butter from melting. If doing it by hand, I prefer to roll smaller chunks in the flour first, then kind of lift chunks along with some flour into the air and rub my thumbs with pressure from pinky to index finger, sort of rubbing the flour into the butter. Keep going until it's crumbly. Keep your hands dry and cool.

- don't overmix the dough. When you add the buttermilk (it provides the acid to activate the leavening ingredients), sort of run a plastic or sillicone spatula along the bottom of the bowl, turn up, and cut back into it. Repeat. Keep a really light hand and stop when it just comes together - it shouldn't be perfectly smooth.

- cut with the sharpest thing you have, and don't twist; just push straight down. You don't want to create a sealed area along the side wall of the biscuit - you want the side walls to be able to rise and grow in layers.

- cut as many rounds as you can once, and only reroll scraps once. Every time you reroll, you're working the dough more and losing on rising power (the buttermilk starts working as soon as it hits the dry ingredients). Subsequent rolling-outs will bake up flatter and flatter.

- don't space the biscuits too far apart in the oven. The steam one makes helps the ones around it rise.


- Use yogurt instead of buttermilk. It'll be a crisper biscuit with a more pronounced tang.

- Add herbs, cheese, bacon, whatever dry ingredient you want. Adjust the salt ratio accordingly.

- You don't need to cut biscuits. You could drop big spoonfuls onto a baking sheet. Or just roll it out once and cut with a sharp knife into squares or triangles so you don't have any waste. -t doesn't cut out his biscuits at all, but just piles the dough in clumps and crumbs into an 8x8 cake pan, roughly piled up into four mounds. These are really fun to eat, with a lot of craggy, crispy surface area for absorbing sausage gravy :)
posted by peachfuzz at 10:17 AM on June 19, 2009 [10 favorites]

I have very few actual goals in life, and most of the ones I do have I only made up so that I can say I have goals. My one true, actual, really-gonna-do-it goal is to master biscuit-making.

So basically I can't help you. But I do know one thing: The very most important thing is not to touch the dough any more than you absolutely have to. Do not over mix. Do not over work. Just don't touch it if you don't have to. This is arguably as important as the recipe you use.

Here's a recipe that was in the LA Times a few months back. Haven't tried it yet (because I disagree with the egg), but it got rave reviews.

Harris Ranch buttermilk biscuits
Total time: 45 minutes
Servings: 10 biscuits

1 egg
1 1/3 cups buttermilk
2 3/4 cups flour
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons sugar
Heaping 1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of baking soda
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons baking powder
2/3 cup lard or cold butter, cut into 1-inch pieces.

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg and buttermilk.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Cut the lard or butter into the flour mixture using a pastry cutter or fork until it is reduced to the size of small peas.

3. Stir the buttermilk and egg mixture into the flour mixture just until combined to form the biscuit dough; do not over-mix.

4. Remove the biscuit dough to a lightly floured board and pat to a thickness of 1 inch. Cut the dough into rounds using a 2 1/2 -inch cutter and place the biscuits close together on an ungreased cookie sheet.

5. Bake the biscuits until light, fluffy and golden-brown, about 30 minutes.

Each biscuit: 283 calories; 5 grams protein; 32 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 15 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 35 mg. cholesterol; 360 mg. sodium.,1,3436591.story
posted by mudpuppie at 10:17 AM on June 19, 2009

I'm gonna be a heretic over here, but I'm a damnyankee anyway, so six of one --- but have you tried James Beard's cream biscuits, done drop style?

The reason why I think these work better is that you use heavy cream for all the fat, so there's no messing around with cutting the fat in, all you have to do is not overmix --- just 10 or so turns of the spoon, until the flour's pretty much incorporated. The further step that my clumsy, warm-handed self takes is to skip the rolling and just use a spoon or a measuring cup to scoop out a clump of dough, and drop it on the pan. For extra decadence you can dip them in melted butter.

It's overworking the flour that all the trouble comes from, this method is probably the least you can do to it and still have a delicious fluffy (slightly irregular) biscuit.


Recipe here.
posted by Diablevert at 10:21 AM on June 19, 2009

A few ideas from another yankee who also finds this an admirable goal:

-For a long time I resisted using the food processor to cut the flour & butter b/c I wanted the whole thing to be simpler, but for me anyway the food processor makes it easier to get this step right. (True for pastry dough too.) After doing it with the processor a bunch of times I got a better sense of what I was going for and got better at doing it just with a fork.

-Agreed that the cream biscuit technique is dead easy and yields delicious results.

-Adding grated cheese is delicious and helps the texture b/c it's more fat mixed in.
posted by yarrow at 11:33 AM on June 19, 2009

as sad as it makes me as a southerner and a vegetarian - you really need to be using lard.
posted by nadawi at 1:03 PM on June 19, 2009

Good Eats: Southern Biscuits

Above: don't overmix the dough.

Amen! DON'T OVERMIX THE DOUGH!!!! That is the prime mistake when making biscuits. It's better than the ingredients not be fully mixed then that the gluten be stretched out, making the mixture doughy.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:25 PM on June 19, 2009

All the recipes above look good to this southern girl. The only real trick my mom taught me was don't actually roll the dough out with a pin. Put the dough on a floured dishtowel and fold it over on itself a few times. Then just gently pat it out to the right thickness.

We also brush the uncooked biscuits with melted butter before baking and right after. We don't use lard, just Crisco.
posted by teleri025 at 2:38 PM on June 19, 2009

This recipe has been golden for us (I'm an Atlanta girl, and this modifies my grandmother's recipe; she was from Arkansas). This recipe makes ~12 biscuits.

2 cups AP flour (white lily if at all possible)
1 scant tsp salt
2 heaping tsp baking powder
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup (approx) cold buttermilk -- I put mine into the freezer while I mix the other ingredients

Heat oven to 450. Spray a baking sheet. Mix dry ingredients in a bowl and make a well in the middle. Separately, add cold buttermilk to warm butter and stir for a few seconds, until the cold buttermilk makes the butter clump up (the small lumps make the biscuits flaky as they bake). I use a pyrex measuring cup to melt the butter, making this easy.

Dump the wet ingredients into the dry and stir with a fork just until mixed. Dump onto a floured surface, like your kitchen counter. Pat the dough gently (you can use a little more flour to keep the dough from sticking). Cut with a biscuit cutter or floured juice glass or even a small empty can, avoiding twisting. Reroll scraps and cut again if you want. Place biscuits on baking sheet, brush with a little butter if you want, and bake until golden on top (around 12-15 minutes).

Slather with butter and jam, or butter and molasses, or butter and more butter....

This takes me no time at all -- and if you're smart, you'll make up a few ziploc bags of the dry ingredients and you can have biscuits even faster every morning! Just dump the bag into a bowl and add the wet stuff, and go from there.
posted by mdiskin at 3:38 PM on June 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

All right, my tips:

You want a pastry blender. You've seen 'em in the cheapie display of utensils at the grocery store for years. Didn't you wonder what they were for? Now you know.

I use cake flour; the Softasilk brand is the only widely available brand around here. Note that it comes in a box, not in a "flour bag".

You can mix, match, experiment with different solid fats. Notably, regular tub canola-based margarine like this bakes well without being so artery-clogging. Whatever fats you use, they should be soft but solid at room temperature--I avoid recipes that call for oil or melted fats.

Once you've patted out the dough, cut into squares or rough rectangles, otherwise you get scraps that either get thrown out or get re-rolled into less desirable biscuits. If you use a really hot knife, the knife will tend to cut through the dough rather than pressing it down, which helps it retain height.

I have actually experimented with subbing in whole wheat, barley and other flours--done judiciously, they'll work, as long as none of the flours you're subbing in are higher-gluten flours (most 'unusual' flours aren't). By definition, doing this means you'll no longer have classic 'southern' biscuits, of course.
posted by gimonca at 4:08 PM on June 19, 2009

Use self-rising flour. I suspect the type of wheat they use for this is better for biscuits and it is also what every Southern woman I know uses.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:49 PM on June 19, 2009

There is a definite difference in the gluten content of different regional brands of flour. Southern brands (according to Daniel Wing and Alan Scott) tend to be around 9 percent protein and bleached, Gold Medal (according to cursory, unattributed web searches) is around 10, and King Arthur's all purpose flour is 11.7 percent protein and unbleached. Harold McGee probably has more up to date info, but he's out of reach at the moment. The low protein content of southern flours yields lower gluten development, making them ideal for those two cornerstones of southern baking, pie crusts and biscuits. I don't know enough to tell you whether there's a causal relationship between southern growing and milling practices and the development of southern cuisine, but there's definitely a correlation.

White Lily may not be the holy grail it once was since it was acquired by J.M. Smucker and, as of July 2008, is no longer made in Knoxville.

Regardless, I've had excellent results with this drop biscuit recipe from Cook's Illustrated.
posted by clockwork at 5:08 AM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

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