Ode to a Southern Biscuit
Let's talk about biscuits for a minute. And to be clear I am not talking about a cracker or a cookie. This is about the truly unique biscuit made best in and originating from the southeastern part of the United States.
There are a lot of bad biscuits in this world and even more mediocre one. Like barbecue, the subject of biscuits is one that Southerners can, and will, argue over for hours. We all have our preferences. That said, let me tell you the way it should be.
A good biscuit is unlike any other baked good. It is a perfect marriage between dinner roll and pie crust. It is a simple combination of three basic ingredients: flour, milk and fat. But the types and the amount of each are crucial.
First, the flour. It pays to be particular. White Lily or any other flour labeled "southern biscuit flour" will work. This is important because of the baking soda and salt content of these particular self-rising flours. One of the problems with many biscuits is seasoning. They don’t have enough salt or the right amount of rise. Too much leavening agent and the biscuits rise too much. Too little and they can turn out like hockey pucks, something that has no business on a southern dinner table.
Next, the milk. It has to be buttermilk. Thankfully many grocery stores now carry buttermilk in quart or half-gallon sizes. A better quality buttermilk will yield better quality biscuits. If you are feeling adventurous and want to make your own butter and buttermilk, go for it. However, the store brands work just fine. Buttermilk freezes well so if you end up with too much sitting in your fridge for a week, divide it into one cup portions, carefully seal in plastic baggies and put them in your freezer. I have bought the powdered buttermilk product before and it does make a good substitute. The problem is that it does not survive a humid southern summer on the shelves of your pantry very well. One or two July weeks turns the whole canister into a solid brick.
Finally, the fat. For a truly good biscuit Crisco need not apply. For a decent biscuit it will do, but for a truly great biscuit it's got to be either lard or butter. You’ve committed to making biscuits so you might as well go all-in. I prefer butter when I make them but lard also works great.
Now that we've clarified the types of ingredients, let's do the same for technique. Too many biscuits are overworked. Biscuits should neither be doughy nor chewy. You want to activate the gluten as little as possible. A few turns of the spoon is plenty to incorporate the buttermilk into the flour and fat. Any more than that and you're inviting a chewy biscuit. A good biscuit melts in your mouth. The flour and fat and buttermilk will continue to combine as you fold the dough in the next step.
French croissants are buttery and flaky because of the way the dough is turned over on itself again and again and again to incorporate more and more butter. The same is true for a good biscuit only to a lesser degree. Folding the dough four times is enough to make your final biscuit flaky without risking overworking the dough.
Something else that need not apply: a rolling pin. You have two good hands, use them. You will rob yourself of the pleasure of handling the sticky yet silky dough if you attack it with a roller. I think hands are gentler on the dough than the rolling pin and make for a better biscuit. You know how thick you like your biscuit so press your dough out accordingly.
Next, do not separate your biscuits on your baking pan. Biscuits are a social food and just as we gather to eat them, so do they prefer to be side by side to rise. We are stronger when we pull each other up and biscuits do better when they have one another to cling onto. Choose a pan with sides good for a climbing biscuit and small enough that your biscuits will fill it. I like to use my large cast-iron skillet. I cut a round of parchment paper to fit in the bottom to prevent any possible sticking.
“What do you put on your biscuit?” you might ask. That depends on the time of day and what kind of biscuit you end up with. As a dinner bread you don't need anything. Set your cast-iron skillet on the table with the rest of the food and let people pull a biscuit out of the pan and eat it, sopping up any juices on their plate. A tender flakey biscuit is hard to beat. If you used butter and a proper biscuit flour, there is plenty of salt and fat to make the biscuit perfectly delectable.
If your biscuit turned out chewy, don't worry. God gave us a wonderful thing called gravy. In fact, a chewy or bigger and taller biscuit is actually better for biscuits and gravy. In this case, a little chewiness goes a long way to holding up against the fatty, thick goodness of white gravy.
If it's morning time you have two choices. The first is to take last night's leftover biscuits, slice them in half and toast them. Then sit down at your table with a tall glass of milk, sweet* or buttermilk, and have honey or sorghum at the ready. A day-old biscuit toasted and slathered with butter and sorghum syrup is truly a taste of the south. (* “sweet” milk is 2% or whole milk as opposed to buttermilk).
But now we get to what I think is the quintessential morning breakfast of the South: A tenderloin biscuit and a sweet tea. There's a thing called a “cathead” biscuit and it something you should know about. No cats were harmed in the making of this biscuit, it's just a beautiful buttery biscuit the size of a cat’s head. Leave this one to the professionals. They rise early in the morning to Pat out these biscuits and to get the tenderloin ready. This is pork tenderloin with a perfect ring of fat around it that has been dusted with flour and seasonings, dredged in buttermilk, and covered with more flour and seasonings then deep-fried to perfection. There's nothing else like it.
The crispy, fatty, porky goodness of the tenderloin is put inside that buttery flaky biscuit for a perfect breakfast. The only proper thing to have with this much fat and sodium is freshly brewed sweet tea. The caffeine in the black tea help to wake you up a little while the sugar cuts through the fat and salt of the biscuit. It's just about as perfect of a marriage as you can get first thing in the morning.
A word of caution: whatever you, do not call this a “biscuit sandwich”. You will just look the fool and everyone will know you're not local.
I have been to very fine restaurants that serve excellent southern fair but who's biscuits were not up to the task. Too often people try to get fancy with biscuits and turn them into glorified dinner rolls. Your best bet for finding the perfect biscuit is found either in a seemingly rundown gas station, classic meat and veg place, or a biscuit kitchen. All over the south you'll find small shops that only serve breakfast biscuits. These specialized counters are the best places to buy a true southern biscuit.
This is my go-to biscuit recipe. Be warned: Southern Living has 2+ buttermilk biscuits online. This is the better one. Look for the instructions to include grating the frozen butter.
A sure sign I've visited my favorite place for a tenderloin biscuit and a sweet tea: the Longstreet Cafe styrofoam cup. You can order a small or a large and you'll get the same size. If you happen to be in Gainesville, GA, make it a point to visit Longstreet for your perfect southern breakfast!