When it Comes to Biscuits, Every Baker Has the Secret

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007; Page F01

It's easy to get most Southerners to agree on what a perfect biscuit should be: light, flaky and served piping hot, with a generous pat of butter. But getting even a handful of them to agree on how to produce that biscuit is another thing entirely.

[See Recipes: Callie's Biscuits and Charlotte Jenkins's Biscuits]

Charlotte Jenkins of Gullah Cuisine in Mount Pleasant, S.C., makes rich, rustic biscuits.
Charlotte Jenkins of Gullah Cuisine in Mount Pleasant, S.C., makes rich, rustic biscuits. (By Brett Flashnick For The Washington Post)

That's what I learned on a recent trip to Charleston, where I persuaded two veteran bakers, Charlotte Jenkins, chef at Gullah Cuisine, and Callie White, founder of Callie's Charleston Biscuits, to show me the tricks of their trade. Each of them had hard-and-fast rules, and almost none of them matched up. White would never put sugar in her biscuits; Jenkins always adds just a touch. White insists on a very wet dough -- "sort of like mud pies" -- while Jenkins's was easy to manage with floured hands.

A little research proved that is hardly unusual: Some Southerners, such as the late food writer Bill Neal, insist that a raised biscuit made without lard will never taste truly Southern. Others, including Jenkins, are hooked on butter for flavor, plus a little shortening for structure and flakiness. Some shape biscuits by hand and some use a cutter, while cookbook author Shirley O. Corriher has been known to use a No. 30 disher/scoop to plop out biscuit dough at record speed.

Recipes for biscuits vary so widely that they exasperate many new cooks, Neal reports in his 1990 cookbook, "Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie." One old Kentucky recipe, he notes, called for 3 tablespoons of lard to 2 cups of flour; another specified 8 tablespoons of fat for the same amount of flour. And that was then. A recent Google search for "Southern biscuit recipes" turned up 578 hits. Of the dozens I looked at, no two were exactly the same. Some called for baking soda, some baking powder, some both, some neither.

"There is no one way of making biscuits," confirms John T. Edge, director of the Oxford, Miss.-based Southern Foodways Alliance. "Biscuits are like fried chicken. They're very individualistic."

Along with good fried chicken and a pot of rice, biscuits "are just one of those things you're supposed to know how to make," Jenkins says. Once you know the basics, making them isn't rocket science. The dough is forgiving, and a batch of steamy biscuits -- serving them hot is one of the only things experts agree on -- can be made from start to finish in 20 minutes.

My guides offered vastly different recipes. But, with the help of Corriher, I was able to glean the necessary guidelines for flour, fat, liquid and techniques that guarantee delicious results.

The flour: This part is easy. Use White Lily, a finely ground flour made from soft winter wheat. "There is no substitute," White said as she supervised one of the 50 batches of biscuits she turns out daily from her small production facility. White Lily has a low protein content, which means it absorbs less liquid and helps give biscuits their alluring softness. White Lily also is lightly chlorinated, Corriher says. That helps the fat cling to the flour and become better distributed through the dough. Our experts recommend self-rising flour for biscuits because it avoids the sometimes bitter aluminum taste that can come from too much baking powder.

Sadly, White Lily isn't easy to find in the Washington area (see recipe for Callie's Biscuits, Page F8). If you need a substitute for the self-rising variety, Corriher recommends 1 1/2 cups of self-rising flour and 1/2 cup of cake or pastry flour plus 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder for a two-cup batch. "Life goes on even if you can't get the right ingredient. These will not be as light and moist as the real thing but still light and moist enough," she says.

The fat: Tradition and personal preference usually guide which to choose. Jenkins, who grew up cooking for her eight siblings and five cousins in the small town of Awendaw, S.C., was taught to make biscuits with lard but says she can't go back now that she's used to "butter and all that fancy stuff." Jenkins uses Crisco vegetable shortening, butter and a few tablespoons of sour cream for a little extra zip. White thinks a blend of butter and cream cheese makes her biscuits extra moist and gives them a rich flavor. "When you eat a biscuit, you know it's not a diet food. You just eat it and enjoy it," she says.

Whichever fat is used, the key is not to overwork it into the flour. Pieces of butter, lard or cream cheese should still be visible -- pea-size at least. If you mix the dough too much, the biscuits will be greasy. Some recipes, though not all, of course, recommend chilling the fat before blending to avoid that.

The liquid: "The big secret is to make a very wet dough," Corriher says. Her recipe, which creates something akin to "wet, goopy cottage cheese," calls for twice as much liquid as some other recipes. White agrees: "It should be really sticky, so that it sticks to your fingers and gets everywhere." The reason: The liquid turns to steam in the oven and helps create a sensationally light biscuit, Corriher says.

Any liquid -- buttermilk, milk, even water -- will do. But most cooks prefer buttermilk, which adds a lovely tang. Old-fashioned recipes call for whole buttermilk, something that's almost impossible to find in these days of low-fat, ultra-pasteurized dairy. Low-fat buttermilk will work. For something closer to the real deal, however, Corriher recommends one part heavy cream to two parts low-fat buttermilk.

The technique: With such variety in recipes, it's hard to offer an all-purpose how-to. One thing is clear, though: "Never, ever, ever use a mixer. Overmixing is a sin," warns White. Instead, bring the dough together with a few swift turns of a wooden spoon, or get your hands dirty like White does by quickly "mushing" the dough with your fingers.

Stickier doughs, which White and Corriher prefer, are harder to work with. Too much flour will diminish the amount of steam the biscuits create. White gets around that by lightly dusting the top of her dough in the bowl with all-purpose flour (not self-rising) and turning it out onto a lightly floured surface. She then dusts the new top with flour, leaving the center gooey and mushy. Flouring the cutter each time makes stamping out biscuits quick and easy. Corriher, too, advises a well-floured cutter, though for large batches -- she has made 600 at a time for catered events -- she wields that scoop. (Using a scoop instead of a roller technically makes these "drop" biscuits; see Staff Favorites on Page F8.)

With a less-tacky dough, such as Jenkins's, rolling and cutting biscuits is a cinch. Jenkins turns out her dough onto a floured surface and uses a few gentle pushes with a rolling pin or, if she can't find one, a Coke bottle, which is what she used when she didn't own a rolling pin. The dough should be about an inch thick, Jenkins says. She uses a cutter or the rim of a glass.

To bake, place the biscuits close together in a hot oven. That helps them rise rather than spread apart on the baking sheet.

Beyond that, making the ultimate biscuit comes down to practice. "Veteran biscuit makers will have their own ideas and ignore anything I suggest anyway," Bill Neal writes in his book. "Biscuits, like all baking but more so, are in the hands, not the head."

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