How can you not love biscuits? Anything that is as delicious on its own as it is with jam as it is with sausage gravy as it is with fried chicken as it is with all of the those things piled on top of each other is not only A-OK in my book, but essentially pure manna from heaven. My earliest memories of amazing biscuits come from my childhood visits to see family in West Virginia. While there, my Great Aunt Bee Brickey – you can’t make this sh*t up – would bake us scratch biscuits with the loving hands of a woman that had been making them for decades on top of decades. Still some of the best I’ve ever had.
But there’s a dark side to the glorious life of the biscuit. Oh yes. You see, the foods with the deepest roots will always form the deepest traditions and emotional connections. So putting this recipe and post together is bound to create all kinds of ruffled feathers, shaking fingers, strong opinions, and other bull honky.
The first thing someone who wants to be a pest is going to say is that one thing or the other is the only way to make “real” biscuits. Let me just say this: I hate any food/drink discussion on the “real” way to make something. It’s all real and it’s all a variation of the recipe that came before it. That’s how we evolve and grow and create wonderful things and why we aren’t still drinking fermented honey water and unleavened cakes of grain. Open your mind to making something a little different and new. You may just be surprised by the results!
I’m going to share two distinct biscuit variations with you. The first is what I call a “quick biscuit” – a super simple and quick variety that we actually use at the hotel because of how fast it is to produce and the high yield from each recipe. The second biscuit variety is a laminated version. This is the flaky, fall-apart variety you’re probably used to seeing in any classic southern biscuit shot. The recipe is essentially the same with just a little adjustment to method. Before we get to that method, let’s talk about where biscuits come from.
These days you can get amazing biscuits all over the country (perhaps the best biscuit fried chicken sandwich I have ever had is at Pine State Biscuits in Portland, OR. I mean holy sh*t, worth a trip just for that sammie), and sure, the south is still the modern torch holder of authentic biscuit authority, but what came before the southern biscuit we’re so familiar with? I am a bona-fide history nerd, especially when it comes to food ways and cultures so I have a few answers.
One of the first issues to sort out is why what we call a biscuit is so completely different from what the British call it (across the pond a biscuit is a cookie/cracker). The word biscuit first dates back to ancient Rome and the Latin name for a hard baked cracker rationed to soldiers known as “bis coctus” or “twice baked.” The Romans did some wandering/conquering in their day and the term made its way to France to become “bisquite” and then to England, all the while referring to a variety of small, hard, over-baked and probably gross bread products.
Flash-forward to the 1700s in Denmark where the Dutch began using the word “koekje” meaning “small cake” to refer to similarly hard, dry, baked products. Both the Dutch and of course the British were present in early America, and both words – not to mention a lot of confusion – made their way to the colonies.
It was also around this time that the American colonists and the British started to have relationship troubles. As any jilted party of a break-up would do, the colonists began to use the word “keokje” over the English “biscuit” to show England that they were, like, totally over them. Throughout usage, keokje became cookie, and it was clear America and England were never getting back together.
The biscuit that we know today was really born in the 1800s, just before the civil war. What’s not terribly clear is how the word biscuit resurfaced into popular vernacular, but that’s exactly what happened. This time it referred to tender breads more closely related to a scone than a cookie. Yeast was hard to come by and chemical leaveners had yet to be available as a mainstream ingredient so the process of kneading or beating air into the biscuit dough is what first gave them the ability to rise. Lard was the first fat used because it’s what most people had on hand, easier to get than butter which needed fresh dairy.
What probably most closely ties biscuits to the south is the fact that wheat grown and harvested in the Southern states at the time was soft wheat – low in protein and able to make a tender biscuit. Wheat grown in the north, which wouldn’t easily make its way south, was a variety of hard wheat and had too much protein to make a proper biscuit.
The old traditions and nuances of making biscuits melded with the new technologies made available, the most notable being baking powder and soda, and the biscuits we enjoy today were perfected in household kitchens all over the country from one generation to the next. Gotta’ love those Romans.
You should already know how I feel about the whole butter v. lard battle after reading my post on pie dough. I prefer butter but what’s most important is that the fat you use is the best quality you can find (so help me, if I find out you used margarine…) and very cold when you add it to your recipe!
One of the old, not-so-secret southern traditions I must agree with is the use of soft winter wheat flour, which is low in protein and so low in gluten strength. Low protein flour like that will make the most tender biscuit. Using cake flour, which is more easily acquired than soft winter wheat flour, can do the trick too.
Good biscuits are light and tender. With such a simple recipe this means two basic rules must be followed: 1. Keep everything cold, especially the fat. A nice touch is to chill your mixing bowl for 15min or so in the fridge before starting the recipe. 2. Work the dough as little as possible. Over-mixing the dough will develop unwanted gluten and warm up your fat.
I’ve thrown in some optional ingredients you can add to your biscuits, though what I’ve suggested is obviously the tip of the iceberg. Old Bay seasoning is something I grew up with and put on just about everything, just as they suggest. If you aren’t familiar with it, change that immediately.
Also optional is brushing your biscuits with butter or compound butter after they come out of the oven (at no point has anyone ever said that biscuits are good for you). I’m including a method for that, but no recipe, because it’s literally just butter and whatever you want for flavor thrown together.
862g cake flour
38g baking powder
4g baking soda
650g buttermilk for quick biscuits
400g buttermilk for laminated biscuits
8g old bay seasoning optional
30g chives optional
quick biscuit method
Start by cutting your butter into ½” slices and keep it in the freezer until needed.
Combine the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar in a stand mixing bowl with a paddle attachment – no need to sift – and add your cold butter. Begin mixing!
Continue to mix the butter into the dry ingredients until no chunks remain.
Add the cold buttermilk and mix just until the dough comes together. Usually I finish the dough by hand, gently working in whatever dry ingredients may still be at the bottom of the mixing bowl.
Add the dough to a standard half sheet pan (no grease, flour or spray needed on the pan). However, sprinkle some extra flour over the dough to keep it from sticking to your hands as you work it into the pan. Using your hands (don’t let the dough heat up) or a rolling pin, spread the dough into an even layer all the way to the edges of the sheet pan.
Cut the biscuits into squares: I divide the width of the pan in half and then divide each half into thirds. A little flour on the blade of the knife will keep it from sticking to the dough. Also, cut with a downward chopping motion instead of trying to draw the blade through the dough with a slice. Again, less sticking.
Divide the length of the pan in half and then each half in half again. With a half sheet pan this will give you about 24, 3″ square biscuits.
Wrap the biscuits up and rest them for 20min up to overnight in the fridge before baking. This is just like any other dough with baking powder. Giving the baking powder time to act and react and time for the flour to hydrate will only make a better biscuit in the end.
While the biscuits are resting, it’s a good time to make your compound butter. I simply add as much butter as I think I might need to a sauce pot (for this half sheet pan of biscuits I used about 150g of butter) and melt it down. Once the butter has melted, add any spices or ingredients you may want for flavor. For my recipe I added a few cloves of garlic and some more Old Bay seasoning. Done and done. You can keep the butter warm if you plan to use it right away or pour it into a container and let it solidify until you’re ready to use it. The longer the butter sits, the stronger the flavors will become as the infuse with the fat.
Bake the biscuits at 390F/198C for 15 to 20min.
laminated biscuit method
Laminated biscuits will start just like the quick biscuits. Cut your butter into 1/2″ dice and keep it cold in the freezer until you need it. This time we’re cutting a dice and not larger slices because we want the butter to break down into fairly even, small but intact pieces. The dice will do this faster and more uniformly than slices.
Combine the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar into a stand mixing bowl with a paddle attachment. No sifting necessary!
Add the cold butter to the dry ingredients and begin to mix until the butter breaks down into small, flat pieces no smaller than a pea and no larger than a pecan half.
Add the cold buttermilk and mix until the dough just comes together. This dough is drier than quick biscuits so that it is easier to work with on a table top. Wrap the dough up in plastic wrap and place it in the freezer for 30min. and then the cooler for 30min. to fully chill the dough.
Give the dough two lamination turns. With each turn, roll the dough to three times its width and fold it over itself in thirds. Between turns, rotate the dough 90 degrees to roll again. This process needs to be quick to avoid overworking the dough or warming it up. After the two turns, rest the dough for another 30min in the fridge.
Roll the dough out to 1/2” and yup, rest again for 1hr. All of the resting will keep the dough cold and also keep it from shrinking up when you cut and bake them.
Cut the dough with a ring cutter or biscuit cutter, punching straight up and down and avoiding any twisting motion.
Bake the biscuits at 390F/198C for 10 to 15min.