I was blindsided by a biscuit in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. During a morning scroll through Instagram, I discovered a picture of a beautiful biscuit sandwich, taken at a place just a stone’s throw from where I was staying. It was called the Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen and the next day I headed straight there for breakfast. I don’t think I’m being unkind to call the Sunrise little more than a very well-maintained shack, but when I pulled up and studied the menu, I saw that their house-made biscuits could be filled with country ham, sausage, gravy, a fried egg, or just plain buttered. Then there were the add-ins: Tomato, cheddar, and randomly, kale (which must have mistakenly wandered over from the menu of a juice bar). I went for country ham with egg and cheese.
From the first bite, it was an epiphany (I may have moaned a little). If I couldn’t relocate to North Carolina immediately and take up my calling as a daily consumer of biscuits, I would learn, by hell and high water, to make them myself.
This is where the bumpy, not always flaky, but ultimately happy road to homemade biscuit-making began. As a rookie biscuit maker who didn't have the good fortune to be born tied to the apron strings of a Southern mother or grandmother, I realized that I needed to find myself a teacher. Beyond the algorithm of time, technique, ingredients, and skill, there’s the touch, which can best be taught my close observation over a flour dusted counter-top—or in my case, picking their brains over the phone and reading their books.
My gurus came in the form of three Southerners who also happen to be legendary Southern cooks and food writers: Charleston’s Nathalie Dupree (author of the book Southern Biscuits), Delta-born Martha Foose (author of the book Screen Doors and Sweet Tea), and Piedmont evangelist Belinda Ellis (author of the aptly named Biscuits, from the Savor the South cookbook series). Here’s what they taught me.
Flour is everything
If you want to make excellent Southern biscuits, you cannot use regular all-purpose flour. You just can’t. You must use flour made from Southern wheat, which creates a flour that’s softer (for softer, lighter biscuits) and has less gluten and less protein (which according to Ellis is, “a biscuit maker’s worst enemy”). There are several brands of Southern wheat flour, but the one that was recommended to me time and again was White Lily, which if you can’t find on your grocery shelf, can be purchased online. (Ellis spent 15 years traveling the country on behalf of the brand.)
I ordered my five-pound bag (thank you Amazon Prime) and got to work as soon as it arrived. You can order two varieties of White Lily—an all-purpose, which means you need to add your own baking soda and salt for leavening, or a self-rising flour with the leavening already added.
Tip: Both Dupree and Ellis taught me that you should never just plunge your measuring cup into the flour, but rather spoon the flour into the measuring cup and then level it off, which makes for a more accurate measurement. Also, if you’re using self-rising flour, make sure to whisk it before using it because the leavening agents have a tendency to sink to the bottom.
Tip: If you use self-rising flour to make your biscuits, make sure you use all-purpose for everything else (dusting your work surface, the rolling pin if you use one, and the cutters) because the additional leavening getting into your batter can lead to a tougher biscuit.
Choose your biscuit
Once you set out to make biscuits you have to decide what kind of biscuits you want to make (because there are as many varieties of biscuits as there are Law & Order spin-offs). The simplest version which requires only self-rising flour and cream, while a more involved angel biscuit requires yeast, butter, shortening, and an overnight rise in the fridge. Then there is the choice of fat: butter, lard, shortening, a combination? The forming: beaten, dropped, rolled, pressed? Shape: square or round? Size—fantastically named cat heads (which can be everywhere from the Mississippi State Fair to Biscuit Love in Nashville) or daintier tea-sized biscuits that Foose calls “bridesmaid biscuits.”
When I asked Dupree the appropriate size for a breakfast biscuit, she said that biscuits made in the morning at home were traditionally smaller. “If you had a family of ten, you were not going to make huge biscuits. You wanted everyone to have one when they came down for breakfast, the boys would've had two. Then if you needed to make a second batch you would. It was only when you had fast food that they got big.”
If you’re a beginner, start with a drop biscuit, so you don’t have to handle the dough too much, or Ellis’s I-Can’t-Believe-Biscuits-Can-Be-This-Easy Cream Biscuits for working on your technique. It’s the first recipe that I had success with, or wasn’t completely embarrassed by the result. Simple, tasty, forgiving, and you can easily memorize it so you can make them wherever you are.
The “Snap, Cuddle, and Cut”
Touch is important. You’ll hear the admonishment not to “overwork” your dough constantly. But there are other nuances that will make a huge difference in your biscuit. A common mistake is that people make their dough too dry, says Dupree, because beginner bakers “are so afraid of getting over handy that they make it too dry to begin with and you have to have a dough that sticks to your fingers.” Moisture in the dough creates steam while it bakes, which makes for a lighter, fluffier biscuit; so add a bit more buttermilk or cream or milk if the dough feels dry.
When incorporating your butter, lard, or shortening, you don’t have to worry about it being chilled like you would making a pie crust, but Dupree recommends incorporating it into the flour with a “snapping” motion of your fingers, rather than “cutting” it in with knives or a pastry cutter, to make for nicer layers in the finished biscuit.
As for which fat you use, that’s a matter of preference, but feel free to try them in any combination. I’ve tried all of them, but found I preferred butter. (The lard I was able to source didn’t thrill me, and shortening didn’t seem to add much flavor.)
Once the dough is ready, get it ready to cut. Your work surface should be lightly coated with flour so there’s no sticking. (I was told you should always have a small pile of all-purpose “bench flour” within reach) When you first roll or press out your dough, fold it back in on itself to create the flaky layers and a higher biscuit—a process Ellis calls “cuddling”, because it’s less kneading, and more gently folding together the edges like you’re handling a newborn dough baby. Once you’ve cuddled your dough a couple of times, determine how thick you want to roll or press it out. The thicker the roll out, the higher the biscuit.
If they’re too squat, take Dupree’s clever advice: Take a stick of butter from the fridge and look at the tablespoon marker on it, each one of those is a half an inch. When you roll out your first batch use your stick of butter as a marker, make your first roll-out half and inch high and go up to an inch if you want them to tower. Then you can experiment, using a wider cutter or rolling them out thinner or higher. What you’re looking for overall is lightness, which is achieved through gentle handling and folding for those layers. If you prefer biscuits with softer sides, Ellis recommends placing them in the baking pan so that they’re touching, and for crisper sides place them about half an inch apart.
Practice will (eventually) make perfect
“It’s not like you have to dance under the moon with a virgin” to create a decent biscuit says Foose. Just start with a simple cream biscuit recipe. “Southern women are not born coming out of the womb with a biscuit bowl in their arms,” says Dupree. She and other experts learned by watching and doing it over and over and over—like I have.
But when all else fails…
Mail-order! It’s a pretty open secret that even expert Southern cooks may keep a stash of frozen biscuits in their freezer just in case. Foose prefers a brand called Marshall’s from Sister Schubert’s, which are silver-dollar sized and come in a tin that can go right into the oven. Personally, I’m partial to Callie’s out of Charleston, which bake up light and tender and come in flavors like buttermilk, cheese and chive, and cinnamon. Knowing they’re in my freezer just makes me happy.
Get the gear
Biscuit cutters: I was hesitant to add another gadget to my drawer, but found that if you don’t cut your biscuits with a cutter that is sharp, the edges become compressed and you don’t get a nice tall biscuit. In a pinch, Dupree says you can also use a tomato paste jar, which will give you a clean edge and the right size for a tea-biscuit (about two inches). Also, it’s best to cut them out as close to one another as possible. You can re-roll out any scraps and unused parts, then re-cut, but you only really want to do this a couple of times or else you will have a tough biscuit from all the handling. And never twist your biscuit cutter, always cut straight down.
Small, round, nonstick cake pan: Biscuit making is not the occasion for using your sheet pans. You need a cake pan, or perhaps a pizza pan that has edges. The darker the pan the darker the biscuit, keeping in mind that everyone’s ovens have hot spots, so you may have darker or lighter biscuits depending on where you place the pan.
Pastry scraper: Plastic pastry scrapers are just an all-around good thing to have in the kitchen for scraping up a mess on a cutting board, but they’re also great for getting dough out of a bowl and picking up any scraps left on the counter after cutting them out.
Shallow bowl: Dupree strongly recommends using one that is low and wide, “You don’t want a real deep one if you can avoid it.” A bowl that a homemaker of another generation would have used would have been shallow, so when you work the dough and snap in the fat, you won’t overwork it. Also, she says that when instructions tell you to make a well in the middle of the flour for pouring in your buttermilk or cream, don’t. You should be making more of a hollow. “We want a place for the liquid to rest.”
A few biscuit recipes to get you started
Caroline Campion is the co-author of the IACP award winning cookbook Keepers: Two Home Cooks Share Their Tried-and-True Weeknight Recipes and the Secrets to Happiness in the Kitchen and creator of the food blog devilandegg.com. When she’s not working on her second cookbook (due out fall 2017!) she can be found on Instagram @devilandegg.