Biscuit Diaries: A Transplanted Southerner’s Quest for Her Ideal Biscuit

June 12, 2019 Updated: June 13, 2019

Ask any homesick Southerner living north of the Mason-Dixon line—like me—what food they miss most, and the answer will probably be “real biscuits.” Biscuits are as closely tied to the Deep South as sweet tea and magnolia blossoms.

Every Southern cook has a special recipe and technique for making biscuits. My ideal biscuit, which I grew up eating in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, starts with the smell: yeasty sweet, but not sugary. The aromatic sensation is akin to nuzzling a small warm puppy.

Height and texture matter next. I like my biscuits to stand up tall, with a soft, golden, buttery exterior that’s not too toasty. When I break open a biscuit, I want it to be flaky enough to peel away in soft pieces; it should not be cake-y like a scone. The taste should be, like the aroma, a tad yeasty and sweet.

Throughout the South, you’ll find adaptations based on shape and size; additional ingredients, such as cheese; and varying family traditions.

For example, the cathead biscuit is a large biscuit about three to four inches in diameter (i.e., the size of a cat’s head), ideal for sandwiches. Scoops of dough are placed on a baking sheet, allowing enough space between each to expand. Angel biscuits are also called “bride’s biscuits” because the recipe is easy enough for first-time cooks, thanks to the help of yeast and self-rising flour. Sweet potato biscuits provided an economical alternative to using historically hard-to-come-by winter wheat flour.

Beaten biscuits, less doughy and crumbly and more like hardtack, are also referred to as “sea biscuits,” since they were a hearty staple for the seamen aboard whaling ships in the 1700 and 1800s. Their sturdiness makes them ideal for sandwiching a sliver of Southern ham—hence their other name, “ham biscuits,” which are served at just about every Southern brunch and cocktail party.

A Brief History of Biscuits

The word “biscuit” originates from the medieval Latin word “biscoctus,” meaning twice-cooked. The crunchy, sweet biscotti you find in Italy and the biscuit-cracker you sip with tea in Great Britain may both have the same etymological roots, but they are nothing like a flaky “Southern biscuit.”

In ancient Europe, the biscuit was considered a nutritious quick bread that was also portable and long-lasting, ideal for packing for seafaring voyages or in a soldier’s meal pack. It was also used as a medicinal digestive: a biscuit a day was thought to be good for health.

In the 1700s, biscuits, then known as hardtack, were also an important part of the British Royal Navy’s sailor’s diets. As the name reflects, these biscuits were hard and leaden.

The evolution of the “Southern biscuit” started with the type of wheat grown in the United States, which was different from what was grown in Britain. This soft winter wheat flour, the main ingredient used to make Southern biscuits, was a prized commodity, hard to come by at first. In pre-Civil War America, biscuits were baked just for Sunday meals and serving to company.

Southerners relied on shipments of this flour to arrive from the midwest from ports like New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. When this flour was not available, they substituted flour made from sweet potatoes, which were plentiful in the South. Over time, this type of wheat was also cultivated east of the Mississippi.

A milestone in Southern biscuit history came in 1883, when White Lily Baking Company in Knoxville, Tennessee, started producing soft winter wheat flour. Cooks throughout the South could now make biscuits every day. Today, there are other brands that make this type of flour, but for me, White Lily is the standard. When I visit my mother in Tennessee, I carry bags of it in my suitcase back home to New York.

Biscuit Basics

The ingredients for making Southern biscuits are simple: Flour, butter or lard, buttermilk or cream, a little baking powder, and salt. But it takes technique and practice to get the right texture.

After several attempts in my upstate New York kitchen left me with leaden biscuits, I sought advice from some Southern cooking experts. 

Flour and Dough

One of the reigning queens of Southern cooking, Natalie Dupree is co-author with Cynthia Graubart of “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” and the appropriately named “Southern Biscuits.” Dupree has been my go-to Southern cooking guru for years.

According to Dupree, the best flour to use is a soft winter wheat flour, “which has less gluten and a finer texture, which makes a lighter biscuit.” For a good substitute, she recommended a mixture of cake flour and all-purpose flour. Start with equal parts and practice to see what works best for you.

Another tip was to not vigorously knead the dough, which can overwork it and overdevelop the gluten in the flour, resulting in a heavier biscuit. For the same reason, Dupree recommended using a shallow, wide bowl versus a deep one.

The wet dough will be tacky and stick to your fingers. Dupree cautioned about adding more flour, a common mistake for first-time biscuit makers. Use a scraper to scoop out the sticky dough onto a lightly floured surface and pat it into a mound with your hands. I found lightly coating my hands with flour helped—but again, not too much flour!

Dupree recommended folding the dough several times, something I had never done before, which helps create lightness and layers. To fold, turn the dough out on a floured surface and roll it out to one-half to one inch thick. Then, fold the dough over onto itself, like wrapping a gift or neatly folding a small towel. Dupree suggested three folds, but some cooks fold several times to attain the desired flakiness. This technique takes practice; on my fourth and best attempt, I folded my dough four times.

Go Full Fat

Fat tenderizes the dough and adds moisture and flavor. Traditional Southern cooks use good lard or Crisco shortening to achieve the desired lightness and flakiness. When I posted photos of my biscuit batches on social media, my Southern friends reminded me to use Crisco instead of butter; I used the latter as a personal preference.

“Butter tastes best, but lard and shortening make a lighter, flakier, more layered biscuit,” Dupree explained in “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.” “The lightest fats are leaf lard, shortening, and goat’s milk butter. Butter produces heavier biscuits, but gives the most flavor, color, and layering.”

The other key fat used is heavy cream or full-fat buttermilk. If neither are available, try using full-fat Greek yogurt.

Chadwick Boyd, host of the popular “Reel Food” short movie series and an organizer for the International Biscuit Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, added that using very cold butter is “essential to a successful biscuit. Drop the cold or frozen stick of butter in the dry mix and roll it to fully coat the stick. Then grate. That keeps the heat from your fingers from melting the butter.”

“Use your fingers like a whisk and shake the grated butter pieces into the dry ingredients and evenly disperse them. Once the dough comes together, I put the whole bowl back in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes to an hour. Cold dough causes the biscuits to pop up fast as soon as they get in the hot oven.”

Making the Cut

The size of the biscuit is a matter of preference; however, larger biscuits take longer to cook. What I did learn from both my experts is that how you cut the dough and position the disks on the pan can impact the rise of the biscuit.

One tip is to not twist while cutting the dough, which will create a seal at the bottom of the biscuit that restricts the rise and results in a flatter biscuit. Another is to place the disks of dough close together, almost touching, on the baking pan. Both techniques worked to make the biscuits rise nicely with softer sides, not too crispy. If you prefer toastier biscuits, place the dough further apart, but you will lose the height.

Heat Matters

Boyd underscored using a very hot oven to achieve a golden top and crusty bottom. Avoid opening and closing the oven door to check the progress; this can affect the temperature, which can cause the biscuits not to rise as high.

There is one exception to the rule: Both Boyd and Dupree suggested rotating the baking pan halfway through baking, to cook the biscuits evenly. Dupree also recommended first taking a “toast test” in your oven to help you determine how evenly items cook: “Spread pieces of bread on a baking sheet in a 350- or 400-degree oven. Remove, note the pattern, and place pans accordingly.”

Sweet, Flaky Success

A few email exchanges with Dupree provided emotional support as I baked my batches.

“I think when first making biscuits, you should make several sizes and see what you like,” she wrote. “I tell people to spend $10 on milk, buttermilk, flour, butter, etc., and vary the [size], too. Write down what you did, and bake and taste them all.”

“I think you should lock yourself in the kitchen when you make them,” she added. “With no other art do you call people in to judge what you have done after ten minutes of work … Biscuits need practice, and the cook has to decide what they like before they can share them with anyone else. “

After trying four recipes, each with a hotter oven, I finally found my biscuit-baking sweet spot: 12 minutes in a 475-degree oven, for light golden tops, softer sides, and a height that made me stand taller with pride.

I held that perfect biscuit in my hand like a warm puppy and inhaled the yeasty aroma. I snapped photos and posted them like it was a new puppy! My husband and fellow biscuit tester was satisfied. Neighbors stopped by to taste the results. All this batch needed was a little butter and honey.

I brushed the flour off my face and basked in biscuit bliss.

Southern Biscuits

This recipe is my adaptation as a home cook from the different biscuit recipes I tried, and the one that achieved my best results.

Makes 12–14 biscuits

  • 2 cups White Lily all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling out dough (see Note)
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 cup) very cold butter, sliced into small pieces (or grated)
  • 1 cup cold, full-fat buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup melted butter (optional)

Preheat oven to 475 degrees F.

Combine 2 cups flour, salt, and baking powder and mix in a large mixing bowl.

Add butter to mixture. With your hands, work butter into dough until mixture is coarse, not lumpy. (Have ice nearby to keep your hands chilled, so butter does not become warm.)

Create a hollow in the flour mixture and pour in chilled buttermilk.

Very lightly stir until dough is moist and tacky. Do not overwork the dough.

Using a scraper, gently scoop wet dough onto a flat, floured surface. Roll out gently with a rolling pin, or pat with your hands to form a mound about 1/2-inch thick.

With lightly floured hands, fold the dough over like an envelope and gently roll out to 1/2-inch thick.

Gently fold over again and roll out to 1/2-inch thick, or a little thicker if you want taller biscuits. Repeat as desired. (I folded four times total.)

Dip a 2-inch biscuit cutter (or a juice glass) in flour and cut out biscuits from the dough by pressing straight down. Important: Do not twist as you cut!

Place the discs of dough on an ungreased baking sheet or baking pan. For taller biscuits and tender sides, place very close together, almost touching.

Place baking sheet on top rack of oven and bake for 12 minutes, or when biscuits are lightly toasted on top.

Remove from oven and brush tops with melted butter, if you choose.

Let rest on a cooling rack. Serve warm or hot with butter, honey, jam, or pimiento cheese spread (if not available, grated cheddar works!).

Note: My experts also recommended cake flour as an option, but I always use White Lily. It’s sold in most Southern supermarkets; check the company’s website for other store locations.

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Sonia’s Angel Biscuits

This recipe is from my mother, Sonia Young, who gave me a keepsake binder of family recipes. In “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” Dupree and Graubart write, angel biscuits “were often called bride’s biscuits, as even the most inept bride could make them. The secret to this recipe is the combination of yeast and self-rising flour, ensuring the biscuits will be soft and tender.”

Makes 12–14 biscuits

  • 2 1/2 cups White Lily self-rising flour (have additional on hand)
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup cold butter
  • 1/2 package dry yeast
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons warm water
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Cut butter into small slices and mix in.

Dissolve yeast in warm water and add with buttermilk to sifted ingredients. Mix well.

Turn out dough on lightly floured board and roll to 1/4-inch thickness.

Cut biscuits with 1-inch round cutter, or top of a juice glass, and place on a baking sheet.

Brush with melted butter and fold to make pocketbook rolls, or leave as is.

Brush outsides of biscuits with beaten egg yolk (optional).

Bake until golden brown, for 14 minutes (I suggest checking at 12 minutes).

Remove from oven and serve warm.

Simple Two-Ingredient Cream Biscuits

Makes 12–16 biscuits

  • 2 1/4 cups commercial or homemade self-rising flour (see Note)
  • 1 1/4 cups heavy cream
  • Butter, softened or melted, for finishing

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Fork-sift or whisk 2 cups of flour in a large bowl that is wider than deeper. Reserve 1/4 cup flour.

Make a deep hollow in the center of the flour with the back of your hand.

Slowly but steadily stir in 1 cup of cream, reserving 1/4 cup cream, into the hollow with a rubber spatula or large metal spoon, using broad, circular strokes to quickly pull the flour into the cream.

Mix just until the dry ingredients are moistened, and the sticky dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl (the dough will be shaggy and wettish). Stir in the reserved cream to incorporate the remaining bits of flour.

Lightly sprinkle a plastic sheet or board with some of the reserved flour.

Turn out the dough on floured surface. With floured hands, fold the dough in half and pat it into a 1/3- to 1/2-inch-thick round.

Fold again (flour lightly if too sticky). If the dough is still clumpy, fold again for a third time.

Pat dough into a 1/2-inch-thick round for normal biscuits, or 3/4-inch-thick for taller ones. Brush off any visible flour from top.

Dip a 2-inch biscuit cutter into reserved flour and cut out biscuits, being careful not to twist the cutter.

Using a metal spatula, place biscuits on baking sheet. Bake on top rack for 10–14 minutes. After 6 minutes, rotate the pan in the oven so the front of the pan faces the back and check to see if the bottoms are browning too quickly. Continue baking for another 4–8 minutes.

When done, remove from oven and lightly brush with melted butter.

Turn biscuits upside down on a plate to cool slightly. Serve hot, right side up.

Note: To make homemade self-rising flour: Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder to 1 cup all-purpose flour.

Recipe reprinted with permission from “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Stevens Graubart. Published by Gibbs Smith.

Melanie Young writes about food, wine, travel, and health. She co-hosts with husband David Ransom the national radio show, The Connected Table LIVE, featuring engaging conversations with thought leaders in food, wine, and hospitality around the world. Follow on Twitter @connectedtable

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