Biscuits, made with soft southern milled flour- hot from the oven, buttered or smothered with preserves or silken gravy, are iconic in the South. Ironically, real homemade biscuits are quickly becoming a lost art. Oh sure, there are attempts to recreate them, but today’s biscuits are more like their distant cousin, the Scone, than authentic homemade Southern Biscuits of our memories. I recently completed Camellia’s Cottage Biscuit Research. It was exhausting– that’s right! I completely exhausted over two dozen folks with questions regarding their memories of Homemade Biscuits! And such good memories they shared! One of my favorites:
‘My grandmother made wonderful biscuits, in a huge dough bowl on legs that she pulled in and out of a small closet, needless to say with 13 children and field hands, she made huge pans of them and cooked them in a wood burning stove. They were breakfast size, about 3 inches across. One of our favorite things used to be trying to figure out how many biscuits Grandmother made in her lifetime since she made them everyday, usually 2-3 times a day.’
Can you imagine? Well, several of my respondents came from very large farm families and indeed the pans of biscuits were almost never ending! When Self Rising Flour began to appear on shelves, it was referred to as Biscuit Flour and bought in five pound bags or even larger! That alone should tell you just how many biscuits were flying out of wood burning stoves! I personally prefer Self Rising Flour, and usually add even more baking powder. I do not make biscuits everyday so I keep self rising flour in the freezer so the leavening powers remain fresh. The very best biscuit makers I know will tell you that the oven must be screaming hot and the biscuit ingredients work better when chilled. So, why are biscuits iconic in the South? A bit of research revealed that Southern Milled Flour is indeed very soft- not braggin’ now, but it’s true. As wonderful as soft flour is for biscuits, shortbread, piecrusts and cakes- soft flour does not bond well with Yeast, therefore southern cooks used leavening agents like baking powder and baking soda for quick breads like Biscuits and Cornbread. Some swore homemade baking powder was best- No darlin’ I’m not telling you how to make it, just sayin’…
You will find more Yeast breads and rolls the farther North you go…perhaps it is the heat and humidity in the Gulf States? But still those Yankees sure can make some wonderful bread! In the South, there are those who swear by using Buttermilk, which produces a fluffy biscuit with a distinct tang. Buttermilk biscuits need baking powder and baking soda to rise. Others swear by sweet milk which is milder in flavor and relies only on baking powder as the leavening agent.
- A sweet milk biscuit is what is referred to as a ‘powder milk’ biscuit.
- Some biscuits were made so large they were called Cat Head Biscuits- which refers to size. My grandmother held Cat Head Biscuits in disdain as coarse and common…
- Hers were quite often very small Tea Biscuits or Breakfast biscuits which are 2 inches, no more than 3 inches across.
It must be said, when making biscuits, please don’t think you can mix up the dough put it in the refrigerator and bake them off later- no! the dough becomes gummy and tough! There is nothing worse than a tough biscuit- so from the best biscuit makers, remember Soft Southern Flour resists being kneaded to death– let those Yankees knead their hearts out, down here we make pillowy soft biscuits by gently kneading the dough just until it comes together, either rolling gently or patting, even lightly pulling or pinching the dough. Seasoned Biscuit makers insist on making one swift cut with the biscuit cutter and warn us not to twist the biscuit cutter which will hinder the biscuit as it tries to rise. They also insist that re-rolling the dough scraps will result in the dreaded tough biscuit but I have to admit it is a fun treat to eat the rustic scraps which are baked in a separate pan! Biscuits placed together in the pans will result in a higher softer biscuit. Biscuits which are gently rolled very thin, then folded over as many as four careful times result in those layered delicacies many dream of. Pulled or pinched biscuits aren’t even rolled at all, a sticky dough is made- then with a gentle pulling motion, a mound of sticky dough is plopped in soft flour and gently shaped. Usually pulled biscuits were placed close together but many who liked their biscuits with a crisper outside placed the dough slightly apart. Because we were ‘soft white flour’ proud… biscuits were not browned heavily, but left very light in color on the top and browned lightly on the bottom. Now that I’ve gotten all Historic on you- let me share the results of Camellia’s Cottage Biscuit Research…
- The majority of the Southern Biscuit Makers used buttermilk
- Most made breakfast size biscuits
- Most recalled very hot ovens- up to 450º, best cooked in a Cast Iron Skillet or heavy Cast Iron tray.
- The preferred fat was overwhelmingly Lard, which current culinary experts suggest more often because of the flaky texture- however, vegetable shortening came in second, preferred over butter in the mixture- Butter is a must for topping a biscuit. One suggested that the biscuits weren’t hot enough if the butter didn’t melt in 30 seconds!
- It was almost a tie between rolled or pulled- however pulled or pinched biscuits won out by a small margin over rolled biscuit dough. The biscuits of our youth were thinner and lighter in color than the type now found in fast food restaurants.
- *Note- Farming and large families were more likely to consume biscuits everyday.
- In the minority, biscuits were made only with a Sunday meal or at special occasions-
- Drop Biscuits were made for the evening meal, this is neither a rolled, pinched or pulled biscuit, it is made from a sticky dough, usually with other things like cheese added.
- Even fewer recall anything but a canned biscuit made in their homes and of special note they still love them best- go figure.
- One respondent noted that a ‘homemade biscuit was never thrown away’. Consumed every day or on special occasions, the subject of Biscuits always brought forth sweet memories.
Now, why did I launch out on this research project? It was a comment read in a 30 year old History of Southern cooking and recipe book-
‘Biscuit for breakfast is a social and economic self measurement among croppers and hands. Those who always have biscuit for breakfast regard themselves as successful persons of dignity. They pity and look down on the unfortunate who have to go back to corn pone during hard times. The first breakfast at which corn pone is eaten is a sad ceremonial …by partaking they admit they have been deserted by their Cap’n and have sunk to the lowest level of human subsistence. A Garth Negro or white cropper would relish corn pone for dinner or supper, but to have had to eat it for breakfast would have broken his spirit…’ William Bradford Huie, Mud on the Stars 1942 quoted in Southern Food– by John Egerton.
Our Southern roots might have sprung up in red clay soil of poverty, but almost everyone admits that the most delightful food anywhere, comes from the South. Now, don’t fret…I know these biscuits have you starving to death! I’ll be showing you how to make some homemade biscuits very soon!
Love y’all, Camellia
* it is of special note that depending on region some say biscuits and others refer to them in the singular form of ‘biscuit’ for a whole batch!