Over the past several weeks, we've been exploring the finer points (and, dare we say it, layered complexity) of a variety of classic biscuit recipes, from flaky buttermilk biscuits to moist and tender sweet-potato biscuits. Although practically synonymous with the South, the biscuit permeates American culture and can be found from the north to the south, east to west, and in Pillsbury cans just about everywhere.
Nowadays, biscuits are made in a variety of shapes, sizes, and styles. Colonel Sanders serves 800 million biscuits every year, Red Lobster dishes out 1.1 million biscuits every day, and National Biscuit Day is celebrated on May 29th (not to be confused with National Buttermilk Biscuit Day on May 14th). Fast food, box mixes, and phony holidays aside, biscuits are steeped in tradition and history with nearly endless variations from one family recipe to the next.
The fluffy biscuit we recognize today is the great grandchild of hardtack, the longtime nourishment of sailors, traveling soldiers, and Civil War reenactors. To increase shelf life, hardtack was baked multiple times, ultimately becoming so dry that that it was sometimes referred to as a "molar breaker" or "tooth duller." It's difficult to believe that the beautiful, golden biscuit of today shares a lineage with MREs, but some surviving biscuit varieties, like firm "beaten biscuits," point to the biscuit's evolution from hardtack to heavenly.
Despite some differences, all biscuits have a few basic characteristics in common. Fats, flours, liquids, and leavening play key roles in the tenderness, flakiness, and fluffiness of the final product. Fat, whether it's lard, butter, or cream, gives all biscuits their tenderness; minimal mixing avoids gluten formation and a tough texture; and all of them taste best when eaten warm and fresh from the oven. Today, we'll take a closer look at the biscuit's many varieties.
The Biscuit Index
Dating back to the 19th century, beaten biscuits resemble hardtack and are exactly what they sound like: To achieve the classic texture, which is chewy and crisp, the dough is beaten for 30 to 45 minutes (about 500 whacks) until it becomes elastic, smooth, and begins to "blister," or "snap." According to The Food Lover's Companion, the beating can be administered with a mallet, rolling bin, flat side of a cleaver, Granny's musket, or "any heavy object that will pound the dough into submission." Alternatively, the dough can be beaten against a hard object. The process is half the fun, but most modern recipes suggest a food processor in place of a rolling pin. Traditional recipes don't include any baking powder or other leavening, so the idea was that all the beating would incorporate air and develop gluten structure. They are traditionally served with country ham and mustard and are still very popular at Derby parties. The biscuit originated in the Virginia area and made its way up north through Kentucky and Maryland. In New England, they are called "sea biscuits" because they were consumed on whaling ships.
Sweet Potato Biscuits
Back when refining wheat into pure white flour was new, it was also expensive. Pure white, fluffy biscuits were therefore a food for the well-to-do. To extend the flour, less affluent cooks often combined it with starchy sweet potatoes to make sweet potato biscuits, a practice that was popularized during southern flour shortages during the Civil War. Today, we don't add mashed sweet potatoes to biscuits for necessity, we do it because they're delicious. Sweet potatoes add natural sugar to the biscuit dough, as well as maintain the biscuit's fluffy characteristics. Attractively golden orange, these biscuits would be great stuffed with savory, sweet barbecue, smeared with jalapeño jelly, or eaten warm with a dab of butter.
Benne Seed Biscuits
"Benne" is derived from the African word for sesame seeds, which were brought to America with the African slave trade. Slaves often planted benne-seed plants at the ends of crop rows and around their cabins, and the seeds find their way into Southern breads, cookies, and biscuits to this day. Some benne seed biscuit recipes call for toasting the seeds and incorporating them whole into the dough, while others pound the seeds into a powder, which is then added to the flour. Benne seed biscuits contain baking powder, like a classic biscuit, but are baked crisp and cracker-like. They're best served with soups, pâtés, and cocktails.
Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits
Halfway between pie crust and puff pastry, flaky buttermilk biscuits are rolled out and then folded and laminated just enough to form a structure of alternating layers of dough and fat. It's these folds that create the biscuit's flaky, peel-able layers. Typically, they have a flat top and are cut out using a round cookie cutter (although, if it suites your fancy, you can also cut them into squares, which eliminates scraps and the need for re-rolling the dough). The arduous process of rolling, laminating, and cutting make these biscuits more slightly more challenging than some of the others. It may be for this reason that flaky biscuits have become so closely associated with this little guy. Try flaky biscuits as a decadent topping on a casserole or pot pie,
Fannie Farmer, of the famed Boston School of Cooking, called drop biscuits "Emergency Biscuits," which is appropriate considering that all you need to make them is about 25 minutes and a minimally stocked pantry. Cold butter is cut into dry ingredients (flour, salt, and baking powder), and then the milk (or buttermilk) is added. Similar to a scone (a scone is essentially a biscuit with more sugar and an egg added), you want to keep the pieces of butter solid and visible in the dough, resulting in a tender, rather than dry or chewy, final texture. Forming the biscuits is easy too: simply scoop it with a teaspoon and drop it onto a baking sheet—hence the name. The final result is a crusty, irregular top and tender interior. The soft texture of drop biscuits makes them a perfect sponge for sausage gravy, or a vehicle for juicy strawberry shortcake.
Short of a box mix, the cream biscuit is the simplest biscuit formula out there: flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar are whisked together and then heavy cream is gently stirred in. That's it. The biscuit dough will probably be done before your oven has fully preheated. How could something so basic and easy be so tasty? It comes down to beautiful, full-fat heavy cream. There may not be butter in cream biscuits, but there's still a lot of butterfat, thanks to the heavy cream, which is essentially an emulsion of butterfat globules suspended in milk. It's all that's needed to provide a tender crumb. Meanwhile, minimal stirring is the key to avoiding the a light and tender biscuit's archenemy: gluten formation.
I like to call these biscuits angels' buns. Part biscuit, part roll, angel biscuits (also known as "combination biscuits") use both baking powder and yeast to create fluffy, buttery buns. The texture is tender like a biscuit, but also has a springy, bread-like bite. For bread-making novices, combination biscuits are a perfect place to begin because the use of two types of leavening makes the recipe almost foolproof. Because these biscuits have a more developed structure than a classic biscuit, they can support lots of heft yet still feel delicate, which makes them a great choice for a hearty breakfast sandwich.
Skillet biscuits are more about a cooking technique than a particular recipe. To make them, biscuits are cooked close together in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop. Cooking biscuits with the sides touching is also called "kissing," which helps the biscuits rise higher as their lateral expansion is blocked by their neighbors. The skillet, meanwhile, gives them a crispy, buttery edges, while keeping the interior fresh and soft. These are great on hot days when you don't want to turn on the oven.