Southern Origins: Biscuits

Southern Origins: Biscuits
Illustrations by Jing Li
 Biscuits are a staple of Southern comfort cuisine, and I grew up on my grandmother’s, their brown-speckled tops crowning cushy, delicate insides begging for a fat pat of butter.

That biscuits are tasty is a given—they wouldn’t be so widely beloved if they weren’t. But they’re functional too—useful for sopping up grits and gravies, or for pushing that unruly little pile of purple hull peas up on your fork. They come in various sizes, ranging from big “catheads” to diminutive half-dollars you can eat in one bite. They even come in shapes other than round. True biscuit lovers (of which I am one) usually aren’t picky on these points; I’ll happily take a warm biscuit of any size or format any day.

And yet, despite my fondness for eating biscuits (and for cooking in general), I don’t like baking biscuits. For starters, I resent flour’s propensity to take to the air and fly everywhere, dusting whatever it touches and generally making a mess.

Also, perfection in biscuit form can be elusive (and I’m a bit of a control freak; see above). The little rounds of bread are seemingly simple, yet complex and fickle enough to ensure getting them consistently “just right” can be as tough as the texture of a biscuit made badly.

But Chef Scott Peacock loves making biscuits; he recently estimated that he’s made “thousands upon thousands” of biscuits in his lifetime. He’s currently in pursuit of the “perfect biscuit” and is taking others along for the ride, offering biscuit-making classes that he’s dubbed “biscuit experiences” at a historic mansion in Marion, Alabama. (He’s even growing his own heirloom wheat to grind his own biscuit flour.) Scott is also a Southern food preservationist, delving into the region’s culinary heritage and protecting it by promoting it. He happily sifted through some of the biscuit background knowledge he’s gathered.

What got you so interested in biscuits?

I grew up eating biscuits. I had really good ones from my dad’s mom, but mostly, I grew up eating Pillsbury “out-of-the-can” versions. My mom wasn’t a good biscuit maker. But as an adult and as a chef, I became as fascinated by what biscuits say about us—and equally fascinated by the alchemy of the process. They are the humblest things in the world, but at the same time, they’re not. Watch someone make biscuits, or talk to them about their ingredients or technique, and you’ll learn something about them. Biscuits embody so much about the maker, more so than other dishes and foods.

Did biscuits originate in the South?

I think it is fairly commonly agreed that the basic biscuit’s origins are England and that they came to America with colonization. They made their way to our region, and with advancements such as more mass production of flour and the development of baking soda, evolved from the hard, thin things they once were into the “Southern” biscuit we know. I think they are still in a process of evolution.

How did they become such an iconic Southern food?

They rose to prominence here, and because of that, we’ve excelled at making them here, and that has baked them into our culture. When I first started interviewing older folks in Alabama—Scott has collected multiple oral histories to preserve yesterday’s foodways—it became clear that, while everyone knew how to make biscuits, not everyone made them all the time because they may not have had the money to buy flour (commercial flour was once a luxury). So, they were common but special too, and never taken for granted. That’s made them an almost mythical food here. And when you make them now, you’re connecting to the thousands and thousands of biscuits made before you and to their makers. I think it all ties back to how personal biscuits can be and how they relate to each of our stories. In the South, stories are essential.

What makes a “Southern” biscuit “Southern”?

Some non-Southerners think anything down here that’s round and baked is a biscuit. For me, a classic Southern biscuit needs to be made with buttermilk or soured milk. Its bottom and top should be browned golden with a bit of crustiness, and I want a balance between a crusty exterior and a tender interior. The texture should absorb butter and hold jam without getting gummy. But there are so many different recipes and ways, even down here. I like a good lard biscuit, but I’ve been using unsalted butter a lot recently. I think it lets the flavor of the wheat rise to the foreground. And there are different thoughts on the flour. I used to use White Lily, but I’ve shifted from that to organic, unbleached, all-purpose flour—when he’s not using a flour blend he creates himself, that is. I think that gets me closer to the taste of biscuits from years and years ago.

Munnie’s Biscuits

  • 4 cups White Lily all purpose flour

  • 2/3 cup, plus 1 tablespoon vegetable shortening

  • 6 teaspoons baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

  • 2 teaspoons salt

  • 2 cups full-fat buttermilk

Combine the dry ingredients and then cut in the shortening with a pastry cutter, forks, or your hands until it looks like coarse crumbs. Mix in the buttermilk slowly. Roll out the dough on a floured board and dip your biscuit cutter in additional flour. Cut out your biscuits and place on a sheet pan with their sides touching. Bake at 450 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes or until the tops begin to show some golden brown.