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Photo by Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Torie Cox
There's a kind of irony to an Australian writing about biscuits.
We don't even have them in my country. Where I come from, "biscuits" are what we call cookies. We eat round, fluffy things that look like biscuits, but we call them "scones" (like the Queen). And no, we don't have scones shaped like triangles. Confused yet? I sure was. As a transplant perplexed but fascinated by these differences, I decided to get to the bottom of the U.S. biscuit-making tradition. What I found was even more nuanced than I could have imagined.
There are as many opinions about biscuits as there are ways to bake them. Do you use butter, lard, or shortening? Buttermilk, cream, or sour cream? White Lily or King Arthur? (Or, as acclaimed chef Kelly Fields does in The Good Book of Southern Baking, 00 pasta flour?) Do you cut them square or round? I came to learn that there is no one correct way; the many variables in biscuit making are the beauty of the genre.
"You have to ask yourself, what do you want from a biscuit?" says chef, author, and TV star Carla Hall. "Do you want to enjoy it as it is? As a carrier? As a sandwich? The answer will determine the method and ingredients you use." What Hall wants from her biscuit is the lightest, fluffiest interior, with a crunchy base and a golden top, which she serves with no adornment at all. Her biscuits are so tender and pillowy, they're soft enough to eat the next day. "No hard biscuits on my watch!" she jokes. Humblebrag aside, Hall turns biscuits that have seen better days into Crispy Biscuit Crackers, perfect for dipping into her favored accompaniment, pimiento cheese.
Hall has been baking biscuits for decades and is a keen teacher, even taking her wisdom on the road for a "Biscuit Time" tour. Launched in 2018 by Hall and her friend and fellow biscuit pro Chadwick Boyd, the tour's purpose is "to build community through biscuits" in cities like Chicago, Charleston, New York, and Atlanta. In February 2020, they even took it to Germany to bake with members of the U.S. military and their families.
It is Boyd, an entrepreneur, food writer, and TV host, who is responsible for my ongoing biscuit education. He's made tens of thousands ("if not hundreds of thousands") of biscuits in kitchens all around the world, and for a time, he helped organize the International Biscuit Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he once invited me along as a guest judge. There, I was exposed to many incarnations of biscuits, each unique, each delicious in its own way. Boyd agrees that there is no one way to make a biscuit successfully. "Biscuits are like piecrust—they take practice and trial and error. You don't need to live in the South to be great at making them. And you don't need to have grown up with a granny who taught you," he says. His specialty is flavored biscuits; he has mastered the art of adding fruits or cooked vegetables to bake creative renditions of a classic.
Another biscuit boss with flair is 2021 Food & Wine Best New Chef Thessa Diadem, who oversees the pastry program at All Day Baby in L.A. She and her team bake close to 1,000 biscuits a week for the restaurant's biscuit sandwiches, the accidental star of the menu. "The biscuits are an item we didn't think would work; I thought I'd be making a tray a day!" she exclaims. Diadem went through months of research to perfect the biscuit before finally nailing a version she was happy with a week before opening. And though she's not from the South, Diadem does insist on one constant in her Corn Biscuits with Savory Herb Streusel: White Lily Flour. "There's a reason White Lily is such a staple of biscuit baking in the South—it's forgiving, and it works. Why fix what ain't broke?"
This Aussie—who is from as far south as it gets—says amen to that.
Biscuit Wisdom from Carla Hall
Flour is Flavor
"I call for King Arthur flour specifically; I like that it is part malted barley flour and part winter wheat and has some nuttiness to it. It gives me the crunch I want on the bottom and the color I want on top."
"I use baking powder and soda: The powder gives it the rise; the baking soda is activated by the buttermilk and gives it a tang. I use sugar to balance out the acidity a bit."
"There's vegetable shortening in my biscuits; this makes them soft and forgiving. Work it into the flour till you have a coarse cornmeal texture. I pick it up and rub it between my thumb and forefinger, drop it, and repeat."
Raise Them Up
"Flip the dough at the end before cutting so the smooth side of the dough is up; this gives the biscuits more height."
Biscuit Wisdom from Chadwick Boyd
"I combine cream of tartar with baking soda to make my own baking powder; it's a pure baking powder."
Snap to It
"This is the granny method; it's the tactile way of merging the butter and flour—with your hands. You literally snap it between your fingers and thumb. Run your hands under cold water first!"
The Fridge is Your Friend
"When in doubt, chill it out! If butter feels like it's melting fast, stick the mixture in the fridge for 10 to 15 minutes. People set themselves up for flat biscuits if the butter gets too warm."
"Rather than folding the dough like a letter to laminate it and create layers, I press it out and stack the layers. It's an easier way to get the same effect."
Biscuit Wisdom from Thessa Diadem
"White Lily All-Purpose is anexcellent low-protein flour,and protein is what deve-lops gluten; [the flour] is very forgiving. If you can't find it, sub with cake flour."
"The labneh kind of mimics full-fat buttermilk, and the acid helps it rise. Given it's a thick yogurt cheese and doesn't hold as much moisture as regular yogurt, it works really well."
Frozen vs. Fresh
"Freeze-dried corn works better than fresh corn, which has too much moisture. Besides, freeze-dried is more intense and concentrated in flavor."
"I highly recommend seeking out a European butter, which is higher in fat. Butter that isn't high in fat can overdevelop the dough, resulting in a tough biscuit."