Letters: ‘Biscuits in the American South Are Serious Business Y’all’

Readers consider the American biscuit—and other staples of regional cooking.

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Why Most of America Is Terrible at Making Biscuits

There’s a scientific reason no one outside of the South can make light and fluffy biscuits, Amanda Mull wrote in November. The secret to success, she showed, is White Lily flour—which is difficult to find north of Richmond, Virginia.

I’m not buying hard-to-get White Lily flour as the magic bullet for good biscuits. My mother in Kentucky made biscuits from scratch almost every morning for my father and she used plain old Gold Medal self-rising flour, shortening (usually Crisco), and milk, not buttermilk. The secret is in knowing the feel of the dough. Work the biscuit dough too long and you get hockey pucks. The only skills in making biscuits are the patience to keep trying and the practice of learning to work the dough quickly and know when it’s time. Come to California and I’ll make some southern-style biscuits for you out of organic butter and whatever flour is in my pantry, usually bread flour.

Pamela Herron
Vallejo, Calif.

When my sister moved from Toronto to Winnipeg (10 years before I did), my mother would ship her care packages monthly. It started out as just a few packages of St-Hubert gravy envelopes, then she added a few more items my sister couldn’t find in Winnipeg. Before you knew it, my sister was getting boxes full of gravy mixes, special honey, and several loaves of malt bread. I used to laugh until I moved here and couldn’t find a few things I used all the time, like premade pizza dough that the stores with bakeries in them always had fresh. I used to buy several and toss a few in the freezer. None to be found in Winnipeg.

Karen Baker
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Regionality in cooking is a good thing, providing diversity for the palate and a home identity for a mobile society. Ask any diasporic St. Louisan who longs for Provel cheese, toasted ravioli, a decent donut, or a real stollen. Not to be found in the South, West, North, or East.

Peter Casey
The Villages, Fla.

I felt the author’s pain in her multiyear quest for a good biscuit in NYC, but she could have found a happy ending years ago if she just went into a Popeyes. Its biscuits rock.

Irene Baldwin
Bronx, N.Y.

Readers responded on Facebook and Twitter:

Louis Dohme wrote: This is a lesson in regional cooking. It’s not that we in the South make better biscuits because of the wheat grown here, it’s that biscuits are the kind of bread we bake here because of the wheat we have.

Robert C. Harding wrote: Maybe because not everyone cares for biscuits? When I first moved to the South and encountered biscuits and gravy, I thought I had mistakenly been served pig slop. No thank you.

Amanda Mull replies:

When I wrote about finally figuring out that regional flour variation causes the persistent gap in quality between biscuits in the South and those outside of it, responses came in a few varieties. Among them was a small group of people insisting that their (or their mother’s, or grandmother’s) biscuits were absolutely wonderful, despite the fact that they use bread flour, cornmeal, sand, or quick-dry cement instead of the flour traditionally used in the region where biscuits are a centuries-old staple.

As an obstinate person myself, I respect the obstinance of people who refuse to let food science or the hands-on experience of professional bakers offend the memory of grandma’s biscuits. That doesn’t change the fact that flour choice is elemental to absolutely all baking, and the varying gluten content of wheat flours plays an essential role in creating the wildly varying textures of things such as chewy pizza crusts and light, fluffy cakes. Anyone who’s eaten both wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they contain different ingredients. When you’re creating something that’s mostly flour, the flour matters a lot.

Using the correct flour is the easiest way to maximize the quality of your results when making biscuits, but as many people mentioned, there are also some small tips and tricks that can really help. Keeping all your ingredients cold helps ensure that your fat source doesn’t melt during preparation. Using a sharp cutter and resisting the temptation to twist it helps avoid crimped-shut layers that won’t puff during baking. Biscuit dough should be kneaded only as much as is necessary to incorporate the ingredients, and over-kneading will result in a tough, dense final product. The dough of properly made biscuits will feel light and airy.

All of those things can make big differences in how your biscuits turn out, but none of them will reverse the error of choosing high-gluten flour. In fact, the reason over-kneading is bad for biscuits is because it develops the gluten too much, so starting with lots of gluten is a setback you can’t overcome with technique alone.

That being said, good biscuits, as a genre, do have some variation. Those intended to be used for sandwiches should be flatter and broader, and some people prefer the difference in taste and texture that butter or lard provide over shortening. And if you prefer denser, bread-flour biscuits because that’s how you’ve always had them, then that’s how you should go on having them. Food is chemistry, but it’s also family and culture and nostalgia, and the pursuit of an objective “best” isn’t particularly more important than anything else about the experience of baking. That doesn’t mean bread-flour biscuits are just as light and fluffy, though. They’re not.