Butter My Biscuit
I was pretty young when I moved to the South, 9 to be exact, so I don’t recall really if biscuits were a big deal up in Colorado. But essentially, after I moved down here, I realized just how important biscuits are and immediately took a liking to them. Especially when they are smothered in butter and/or gravy, but we’ll discuss that more later on. Now, if you are a frequent listener, you know that the UK and Australia refer to cookies as biscuits. This is not the UK and it certainly isn’t Australia, this is America; more specifically, this is Texas.
Biscuits. The food of the gods. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but they are really good. They are fluffy, golden, buttery circles of heaven just sitting on a plate waiting to make you happy. It’s true, that is their sole purpose in life, to please YOU! Now, as I talk about biscuits, I hope you are not thinking of the Pillsbury cans that you pop open and place onto a pan and call it a day. Sure, those are biscuits, but they aren’t made with the soul and love that Southern biscuits contain. There is a difference. For real. There is a reason there is a saying about things being like “Mama used to make,” and biscuits are one of those things.
Kasey Musgraves, who was just in town singing at the Rodeo even has a song about them, it’s called Biscuits. LOL It’s the cutest song though seriously. There is a line in it that says, “Mind your own business and life will be gravy.” True words as well as delicious food.
As we kind of covered when discussing cookies and biscuits a few episodes back, the term “biscuit” come from the Latin word, “bis coctus” LOL cock… anyway, it means twice baked. Because back in the day, when biscuits were becoming a thing, they would bake bread and then dry it out in the over so that it got hard and sturdy J and could survive for weeks and provide people in the armies (specifically) with bread for longer periods of time. It’s crazy how many things have been brought about by war. I mean food guys, I know lots of stuff comes up due to war, but I am talking about foods that were created during and for war and the soldiers.
That hard ass biscuit is clearly not that same biscuits I smother gravy on, so how did it get there? For one, we have more yeast, baking soda and general leavening ingredients like that available to us now that they did not have access to really back then. Those ingredients are what make bread rise and less dense.
In some places, like Florida for instance, they didn’t really have a lot of flour available before the Industrial Revolution (because their climate doesn’t really grow wheat well) and it was considered a luxury to have. Their biscuits were even less biscuity than the hard ones for the soldiers. They used a “flour,” if you can even call it that, that they called “coontie.” It was made up of animal fat, salt, water, and milk and then beaten to add air into it to make it a tad fluffier instead of using yeast. This type of biscuit is known more commonly as a “beaten biscuit” and then are flat, round disc looking things. The sailors on the east coast would refer to them as “sea biscuits” in case you ever wondered how that horse got its name. I can’t back that up as true, but it sounds good so I’m going with it.
Then the flour mill became a thing and changed the game guys! This is what developed baking soda, baking powder and all-purpose flour! All of those things help make give fluffier, lighter biscuits amongst other things. The biggest factor here though, was the creation of the flour and the creation of varied types. In my pantry I have four types of flour right now. When I was a kid, I just thought there was flour and that was all. For biscuits in particular, the low-protein soft wheat flour is the best because the low protein is what helps it rise more and get super fluffy. Protein in the bread is what leads to the development of gluten bt dubs, and that gives doughs their elasticity. Gluten gives dough structure, but it also keeps the fibers trapped, preventing it from rising as much as you’d want for something like a biscuit. On average, All-Purpose flour has about 12% protein, pastry flours have around 6% and the White Lily Soft Wheat Flour (which is the southern go-to for biscuits, FYI) is about 9%. Basically, search your area for a winter wheat flour and you will have the best biscuits in town.
Random information for you. In 1875, Alexander P. Ashbourne patented the first ever biscuit cutter. It had a board that you could roll the dough out on and a metal plate with various shapes to cut the dough hinged on it. That’s interesting to me, personally because it’s cool to find out where things came from. Chelsea, describe what this cutter looks like to people; I printed it out.
Biscuits are great because they can be eaten all day. Well, if we’re being perfectly honest, anything can be eaten at any time of the day because it’s your life and you can do what you want. If pizza can be breakfast, pancakes can be dinner. Live your best life.
So why are biscuits a bigger deal in the South and bagels a bigger deal in the North? It could be because the flour made here is softer and grown in warmer climates with less proteins. The Northern flours are grown from hard spring water in cold climates with more proteins. This all means that the flours more readily available to the Northerns are better suited for making bagels as they are not soft, light and fluffy.
So, the less protein rich flours are more suitable for making this like biscuits, cookies, cakes, muffins, etc. The quick breads, if you will. The higher rich protein flours are better for dense breads like, well, bread, and bagels, etc.
But really, the North was introduced to bagels by Jewish immigrants that were settling in on the northeast. Being the ever-clever money makers that they are (is that considered racist if it’s true?), they noticed the lack of the breads they grew up with in Poland (not sure if that is right either. It says Polish Jews, so I am going with it), so capitalized on this opportunity. And still today, biscuits and bagels are the most common breakfast breads eaten in America!
Also, I wasn’t sure where this came from, but in one of the articles I was reading they referred to biscuits as “cat heads” so clearly, I had to figure out why. Apparently, they are referred to as Cat Heads because they are as big as a cat’s head. They are also slightly different. Instead of kneading or folding the dough, rolling it out and cutting it, they are scooped from the mixing bowl directly and dropped onto pans or directly into a skillet. They are crunchier on the outside, while still being soft and yummy on the inside. They kind of look closer to scones in that sense, than in the visual way biscuits are seen in my brain at least.
I also saw that Cathead Biscuit was on Urban Dictionary, so I had to check that out also. The main definition was the correct description of a cathead biscuit. Then I read the one where it is defined as burying your cat up to their head and then running over it with a lawnmower. What the crap? Why is this something people do at all and why is it common enough to have a name for it? Humans are messed up.
But omg, look at this biscuit. These are like the biscuits Popeyes used to have. When I was a kid, I would ride my bike down to the Popeyes Chicken close to my neighborhood just for these biscuits. Then one day they gave my weird regular biscuits and ruined everything. I miss them so much. They were amazing. I also used to ride my bike to Little Caesar’s to get Crazy Bread. Basically, I would ride my bike anywhere for good bread.
So, what makes a good biscuit? From all the recipes I’ve scoured and shows that I have watched in my lifetime, there are two main secrets to make these magical fluffy pillows the best you can produce, which I will discuss in a moment. Biscuits are a simple recipe that happen to be easy to mess up. Flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, butter and milk. That’s all guys. One, make sure your milk is super cold and that the butter is grated into the ingredients frozen. You heard that right, freeze the butter and use a grater to add it to the dry ingredients. The colder you get these the better. Don’t freeze the milk guys, that won’t work out quite the same LOL.
Some other solid tips for you when you are making homemade biscuits are to not overwork the dough. This is not bread, don’t knead it or use a mixer. DO NOT USE A MIXER. Use your hands and mix it all together that way. So, like wash your hands before you do that part. Just saying. Don’t go crazy with your hands while you are mixing it because it will heat the butter up that you want to stay as cold as possible. The dough won’t be fully mixed like a bread dough or cookie batter so you can chill out and allow it to be chunky and not smooth. Now I am thinking about peanut butter.
Moving on… fold the dough over itself multiple times. This technique is actually called laminating, which I don’t understand why, but oh well. I like to think back to the cartoon Sleeping Beauty and imagine Aurora’s witch ladies trying to bake her a cake without using magic and she fold in the eggs with their shells still on them. So funny. Love that movie. Anywho… fold the dough over itself like 5-6 times but no more or you will overwork the dough. The reason you want to do this is that it will help make your biscuits flaky. I don’t like many flaky things (people, scalps, etc.) but it is what you want in your biscuits.
Lastly, do not use a rolling pin. Use your hands to work the dough into the rectangle shape and then use a cutter to make the shape. Or pull off pieces and make them without a cutter, whatever you want. Just don’t use a rolling pin. Biscuits are a very hands-on ordeal, maybe that’s why we sexualize them and use them in sexual ways. Hmm, that makes me wonder actually.
Oh, side note, make sure you roll your dough out (by hand) on a floured surface to avoid it sticking to the surface. You can also add more flour to your dough if you feel it is too sticky while you have your hands all up in it. Don’t go crazy with the flour, just add small amounts until it is where you want it.
Another big factor to make your biscuits stand out is to swap milk out for buttermilk. Yum. Pro tip when using a cutter on your dough, don’t turn the cutter to make the dough release from the cutter. This actually locks up the gluten and will prevent the biscuits from rising as high as they could otherwise. For real, see for yourself.
You can also cook them in a cast iron skillet instead of the over for true authentic southern charm. If you do this, make sure that you squash them all into the pan, make the outer ones touch the pan and them all touch each other inside. This will properly distribute the heat making them cook evenly.
That’s it, it really takes only like 15 minutes to prep, and less than 15 to cook them and you will be on your way to yummy homemade biscuits that will make people think you are the best cook in the world, even if you don’t think you are.
Seriously, learn a few recipes and perfect them. That is how you get good friends. I didn’t get good by trying a ton of things. I got good by doing a few things and doing them right, then I moved on to experimenting. You know, this is kind of like sex too. Learn some basics, then start mixing in new things and seeing what works and what does not.
Here are the articles I read to gather this information: Style Blueprint, The History of Southern Biscuits, by Chris Chamberlain
Sugar Spun Run, Easy Homemade Biscuits, by Samantha Merritt (@SugarSpunRun on FB & @Sugarspun_sam on IG)
Appalachian Magazine, The Historic Reason Why the South has Biscuits & the North has Bagels
The Southern Table, Cathead Biscuits: A Dying Breed, by Daniel