I tried everything when it came to this classic Southern buttermilk biscuit recipe. I used lard, butter, vegetable shortening, and combinations of them all. I also tried baking soda, baking powder, sugar and salt, self-rising flour, and all-purpose flour.
I’m a Yankee, after all, and taking on the venerated Southern buttermilk biscuit felt a little risky.
THE BEST BISCUITS? ASK A SOUTHERN CHEF
That’s why I enlisted my friend Kurt, who’s from Georgia, to help. I thought maybe his mom would know a trick or two, but it turns out his Southern mom makes biscuits from a can. She, like many moms, resorted to the occasional shortcut to feed a family of big, hungry men! I don’t blame her one bit!
All was not lost, however—he presented my biscuit queries to his Southern brethren on Facebook and told me to “buckle up” because we were about to get a windstorm of responses. Truer words had never been spoken.
All the lovely Facebook responses connected me to Kurt’s friend, Kevin Clark, owner of the celebrated diner, Home Grown, located in Atlanta. One glance at his breakfast menu, which boasts 15 biscuit dishes, and it was clear the man knew a thing or two about what it takes to make a proper Southern biscuit.
BISCUITS MADE WITH WHITE LILY FLOUR
In the end, the simple recipe made with flour, buttermilk, and vegetable shortening from the back of a bag of White Lily flour won me over and that’s the recipe you see here.
The fact is some things just don’t need to be improved upon. If a recipe already exists in the world that’s as easy as blinking and tastes delicious, then who am I to change it? I’d rather celebrate it.
My goal with this post is to explain how to handle the dough so you get perfect, or near perfect biscuits, every time, and why it might be worth the extra effort to hunt down a bag of White Lily Self-Rising Flour.
WHAT TOOLS DO YOU NEED TO MAKE BISCUITS?
A bowl, pastry cutter, fork, and biscuit cutter will do the job. But if your kitchen lacks an arsenal of tools, just press the dough into a 7-inch round that is one inch thick using your hands, then find a glass in your cupboard that’s about three inches in diameter or larger.
What’s easier still is to form a rectangle out of the dough and cut it into squares with a knife. Biscuits are humble food. There is no need to overthink them.
While researching biscuits and assaulting my new Southern friends with questions, I stumbled upon a phrase previously unknown to my north-dwelling ears—cathead-sized-biscuits. Apparently, it’s not a proper biscuit if it’s not the size of a cat’s head once it’s baked. Who knew?!
Never fear, these biscuits meet the requirement, but if you’d like to make them larger feel free to use a 4-inch biscuit cutter.
WHAT IS THE BEST FLOUR FOR BISCUITS?
Self-rising flour, which has salt and baking powder already added, is the best choice for making tender, country gravy-worthy biscuits.
Southern cooks swear by White Lily, a brand of self-rising flour that was originally based in the South and milled from soft red winter wheat, which is commonly grown in the South. This flour has a fine texture and low protein content, which gives baked goods a fluffy, light texture.
I can’t find White Lily at my local grocery, so I order it online.
If you can’t find White Lily flour, don’t worry—any kind of self-rising flour will still make a good biscuit; it just won’t be quite as tender as a biscuit made with White Lily. If you are a biscuit perfectionist or you want to give your new Southern neighbor a proper welcome basket, it’s worth sourcing flour from White Lily.
Other brands of self-rising flour aren’t quite as fine as White Lily. I found during my tests dough made with White Lily was wetter, slightly sticky and needed less time to bake.
If using a brand of flour other than White Lily:
- Add an additional tablespoon of buttermilk to accurately hydrate the dough. It will be sticky.
- Bake for 15 minutes rather than the 12 minutes called for in this recipe.
CAN YOU SUBSTITUTE ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR?
If you don’t have self-rising flour on hand and the idea of running to the store makes you feel like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, you can substitute all-purpose flour. All-purpose flour is usually a blend of hard and soft wheat flours. It will still yield a decent biscuit, but it will be denser than biscuits made with self-rising flour.
You will also need to add your own salt and leavening: For this recipe, you will need 2 tablespoons baking powder and 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt. I know it sounds like a lot. It’s not. Trust me.
WHAT FAT MAKES THE BEST BISCUITS?
My two top fats for biscuits are cold butter or room temperature organic vegetable shortening. Butter created a delicious, fluffy biscuit, but it didn’t rise quite as high or create as many flaky layers as vegetable shortening. (I also tried lard and had high hopes, but the biscuits made with lard were bland and pale.)
I know biscuits aren’t health food (and neither is the gravy I bury them in), but I prefer not to use hydrogenated fats in my cooking (here’s why). All vegetable shortening from Spectrum Organic gave me the tallest, flakiest, and fluffiest biscuits, cold unsalted sweet cream butter was a close second.
Just know you will make a pretty solid biscuit with either fat option. If you like to throw caution to the wind, and your philosophy is YOLO, then, by all means, use Crisco. It works great too.
TIPS FOR MAKING THE BEST BISCUITS
When a recipe has so few ingredients, its success is based on the quality of the ingredients and the technique used in bringing them together. For fluffy biscuits, use low protein, self-rising flour, vegetable shortening or butter, and don’t overwork the dough.
- Slowly pour the buttermilk into the flour while tossing it together with a fork. The dough will look shaggy before you knead it.
- Gently knead the dough five or six times, just to bring it together. That’s all.
- Roll it out gently with a rolling pin or use your fingers to pat it into a circle about an inch thick.
- After cutting the biscuits, don’t knead the scraps again or the biscuits will be tough. Just bring the scraps together, form them into a biscuit shape, and go with a rustic look.
- The biscuits should be touching when you put them on the baking sheet. This helps them rise.
- The biscuits will be light-colored. The bottom will be darker, but it shouldn’t be crisp or hard. The biscuit should be a slight, just barely golden color on the top and easy to tear in half.
- Brush the biscuits with butter while they are still hot.
HOW TO EAT A BUTTERMILK BISCUIT
After making 40 batches of biscuits, I can tell you with absolute certainty I love them piping hot straight from the oven, dripping with butter and honey. But I also love them smeared with strawberry jam or covered in country gravy loaded with spicy pork sausage. Or cut in half, spread with butter, toasted, and topped with an egg and cheese. Basically, I just love them.
HOW TO STORE AND FREEZE BISCUITS
Biscuits are best eaten the day you make them. They only take minutes to pull together so just plan on making them along with your country gravy in the morning.
That being said, you may have a biscuit or two left over. Store them in an airtight container on your countertop for up to five days. Don’t store them in the fridge, or they will dry out.
You can also freeze them:
- To freeze unbaked biscuits: Place them in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet and freeze. When the biscuits are frozen solid, place them in a zip-top bag labeled with cooking instructions, and remove as much air as possible before sealing it. They will keep for up to three months. Bake them for 15 minutes instead of 12.
- To freeze baked biscuits: Place the fully cooled biscuits in a single layer in the zip-top bag. Remove as much air as possible from the bag and freeze them for up to three months.
- To reheat baked biscuits from the freezer: Place them on a baking sheet. Put the biscuits in a 250°F oven for 10 minutes if they were at room temperature, and for 25 minutes if warming them from frozen.
The Wisdom of the Biscuit
People were so excited to tell me what they loved about their own version of Southern biscuits and how they loved to eat them. I thought one person who commented on the Facebook post seeking biscuit guidance summed it up perfectly: “[A biscuit] should be strong enough to be dipped in honey or white gravy, and if times are good, a piece of country ham stuck in the middle.”
Here’s hoping times are good.
CAN’T GET ENOUGH BISCUITS? TRY THESE!
Classic Southern Buttermilk Biscuits
The key to a tender flaky biscuit is White Lily Self-Rising Flour and a gentle hand. The ingredient list is pretty basic and can be found on the back of flour bags everywhere, but this one is adapted from White Lily.
If using a brand of flour other than White Lily: Add an additional tablespoon of buttermilk to accurately hydrate the dough, and bake for a total of 15 minutes.
- 2 cups (280 g) White Lily self-rising flour (see Recipe Note for substitutes)
- 1/4 cup vegetable shortening, packed
- 3/4 cup + 1 tablespoon buttermilk
- 3 tablespoons melted butter to brush on the biscuits
1 Preheat and set up: Preheat the oven to 475°F. Place a little flour in a shallow dish and keep it next to your dough.
2 Cut in the shortening: Put the flour in a large bowl. Add the shortening and cut it into the flour with a pastry cutter or two forks until the shortening is covered in flour and the size of small peas.
3 Make the dough: Slowly pour the buttermilk around the bowl in circles, fluffing the flour with a fork as you go. Continue to stir with a fork until the flour is moistened and the dough looks shaggy. You will have some loose flour. That’s ok. Overworking the dough leads to dense biscuits.
4 Knead the dough: Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it gently about 5 or 6 times. It will just come together. Use your hands to shape it into a 7-inch round that is an inch thick.
5 Cut the biscuits: Dip a 3-inch biscuit cutter in the shallow dish with flour, then cut out the biscuits. Push straight down and lift up. Don’t twist. It can pinch the sides together and inhibit the rise.
Gather the remaining dough pieces to form the last biscuit or two by hand; don’t knead, and roll out the dough again.
6 Bake the biscuits: Place the biscuits on a baking sheet so they are touching each other. Bake for 12 minutes until the biscuits have risen, spread a little, look bumpy on the surface, and are slightly golden and toasted.
7 Butter the biscuits: Remove from oven. Brush with melted butter. Remove the biscuits from the pan and place on a baking rack to cool. Or eat them immediately because hot biscuits are tasty and delicious.
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