Making Southern Biscuits

It takes some moxie to move to the South and then a couple of years later start telling people how to make southern biscuits. But then who’s going to come over and blog this for me, Paula Deen? I’m going for it.

Recipes for buttermilk biscuits, the archetypal chemically-leavened foodstuff, can be found everywhere. There are a million of ’em. I have my own personal favorites for various purposes (for dinner, for breakfast, in strawberry shortcake, you get me), but below is a very solid, standard recipe. This post, however, is more about technique, since it’s my opinion that technique (more than any combination of ingredients) is what is responsible for producing the lightest, best-textured biscuit. What follows can be applied to just about any buttermilk or cream biscuit recipe.

Fundamentally, the process is about preventing the formation of gluten. Thus you want to handle the dough as little as humanly possible, and come hell or high water, avoid anything that resembles kneading. “Patting” is the order of the day where biscuits are concerned. Personally I find that a 50-50 mix of all-purpose flour and cake flour (essentially pastry flour) produces the best combination of light texture and crispy exterior, but that may just be me.

Here’s my go-to recipe, more or less swiped off the White Lily bag.

Leaving all your dairy ingredients in the fridge (biscuits are one of the few baking preparations where that’s preferable), start by sifting all your dry ingredients (flours, salt, baking powder, and sugar if you’re a northern nancy like me) into a bowl:

Dump in your chilled butter and/or lard pieces, already cut into small bits…

…and using only the tips of your fingers, “pinch” the butter into the flour until it’s mostly even with a few lumps.

Now the delicate part. Pour in your buttermilk (which should be cold so as to prevent the butter from softening or melting), and with a spatula start incorporating it.

After about 30 seconds of turning the bowl while you flip (this is essentially folding), the flour should be completely moistened, about like so.

Now, using your hand — but without kneading — collect the dough together in a rough ball.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and pat it down into a layer about half an inch thick.

Next: cut. Here you want to be careful to push straight down and through the dough without twisting. Biscuits, though they are chemically leavened, nevertheless rely on butter layers for a good deal of their lift. You don’t want to mess those up. If the dough is a little crumbly that’s no big deal.

Lay them out on a sheet pan and bake on a high shelf in the oven at 500. The whole process including baking should take you about twenty minutes. Budda-bing, budda-bang, budda-boom, that’s biscuits the way God intended them (if by God you mean a little old southern lady named Minnie). Serve hot with red pepper jelly.

UPDATE: A terrific tip from Sue in Texas

I am enjoying your blog immensely! I am from Texas and was curious about your method for biscuits…you have it down perfectly. The last thing I do before they go into the oven (and no self-respecting true southern biscuit baker would leave this out…) melt 1-2 tablespoons of (salted) butter (fresher, the better) in your pan (in the oven, of course) while you finish cutting out your biscuits. As soon as the butter has melted and warmed–not hot–take your pan out of the oven, set each biscuit in the melted butter, then turn over and put it in its appointed place. The butter creates a nice, golden and crispy crust on both sides….YUMMMM! uumm…I have to go make biscuits now…

16 thoughts on “Making Southern Biscuits”

  1. Hi Joe, i tried these biscuits. I wanted to learn it and master it, but it did not come out well. I have certain questions on it. Will you answer me? How much is one tblspn of baking powder in grms? Also does US baking powder and Indian baking powder differ. They came out well, but it has a bitter taste at the end. so i think, the baking powder is more. and how much is one cup of flour in grams. In India I dont get proper measuring cups or teaspoons. Please reply me soon.

    1. I’m sorry for the delay, Bams! To your questions, a tablespoon of baking powder is 15 grams. One cup of flour is 148 grams. But I’m honestly not sure there is a difference between American and indian baking powder. I would think there would only be a bitter taste if there was extra baking soda in the mixture. Baking powder should not leave much of a flavor. Hmm…

      1. Hi Joe,

        Thanks for the update. I will measure and adjust the baking powder next time. I will try it out again and keep you posted. Let me know if i want this to be sweet how much of powdered sugar can i use in grams?


        1. If you want to sweeten these some, I’d say add just a small amount of sugar, granulated or powdered. Maybe 30-40 grams.

  2. Hey Joe,

    When I was making these, they looked great until I took them out of the oven. They were so flat! I used substitute buttermilk (milk and lemon juice) but surely that alone wouldn’t make them lose their height? Please tell me how to make them as fluffy as yours. Is it the baking powder? Not enough acid? Too warm in my house? Not hot enough in the oven? I use Celsius. Thank you, Joe!

    1. Hey! Thanks for the email. So tell me so I’m sure I understand. The biscuits rose but then collapsed? Or they never rose in the first place?

      Don’t worry, we’ll get this figured out. 😉

      – Joe

      1. Sorry to get back so late, Joe. Let’s see. The first batch didn’t rise at all. The second batch I made sure to keep cooler, I rolled them thicker, and added a bit more powder but they were still pretty flat. My third batch I made with brand new powder, half lard, and quite thickly rolled and they turned out the best but still no where near your lovely fluffy ones. My friends all said it was because of the humidity here but if that was the case then no one could bake biscuits in summer. Thanks again, Joe!

        1. If the baking powder was fresh, the next place I’d look is the oven. Is it running cool by any chance? If you’re not doing it already, I suggest putting a rack on the very top, turning the oven up to 500 or even 550 and baking the biscuits up there. Big heat should give you a strong rise. Just keep an eye on’em so they don’t burn! 😉

          – Joe

  3. Joe,

    I stumbled on your wonderful site after a search for cake batter donuts. I usually use a brioche dough but was in the mood for something quick this pass weekend. I explored your site and saw this biscuit recipe. I have been using my grams recipe which when she use to make them would be delicious and light, but she used lard. I do not eat lard so I have tried and failed to get the same result using butter and veggie shortening. I tried your technique and OMG I was reminded of my grams. So light delicious . I have to admit I ate 4 in one sitting, lol with some eggs and turkey bacon it was a great way to start my Sunday morning. THANKS!!!!!!

    1. Tameika, you made my day! Thanks so much for writing in!

      Your friend,

      – Joe

      1. Joe,

        I know this is late but I am glad I made your day. I am about to make it again because I just made these for family and doubled the recipe and before I even got to the table they were GONE!!!! these things are delicious I cannot stand it!!!!!

  4. JP, I’d like to take these biscuits to work, but don’t want to get up at the crack o’ freakin’ dawn to do them.

    Have you ever tried making the dough the night before and cutting them, then wrapping & fridging, and baking in the a.m.?

    1. I have not but there’s no reason that wouldn’t work!

      If they don’t rise as high as you want try adding a little more baking powder the next time since you’ll lose a little pop overnight in the fridge. Shouldn’t be too much though. Let me know how it goes!

      – Joe

  5. Hey Joe I’ve always done my biscuits similar to your recipe, but at 375 for about 14 min middle rack. I’ve been pretty happy with them, but sometimes i get a funky rise out of them, I have been adding 1/2 teaspoon baking soda lately to make sure they come up, so breakfast isn’t ruined by flat biscuits, not sure if I’m sacrificing any taste with that. I wanted to give yours a try at your recommended 500 degrees, my heating element is on the top of the oven, i know some folks have theirs at the bottom, so would you still recommend top rack? And how long? Also I just use the cheese grater for the super cold butter instead of cubes, not sure if that changes the game at all…

    1. Hey Jake!

      If the heating element is above then maybe just try the middle rack with the higher heat. The extra heat creates a faster rise and a taller biscuit. That alone may solve the problem. But I wouldn’t add extra soda. If you’re going to add anything make it baking powder so you don’t get that harsh, soapy aftertaste. Let me know how they work for you!

      – Joe

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