Okay, so I’ll start with a tiny confession: this Maryland girl has always dreamed of becoming….a Southerner.
Well, maybe not always. I think it started in sixth grade when my Girl Scout troop went to Savannah, Georgia to see where the founder of the scouts had lived (her name is Juliette Gordon Lowe—and she was seriously awesome, but that’s another story). We walked broad, steamy streets draped with Spanish moss. Friendly people waved and smiled at us as we went by. We ate the most incredible food; a warm, fluffy biscuits always seemed within arm’s reach.
I thought this was as close as I would get to living out my Southern Dreams, until my partner was offered a spot in a graduate program in Greensboro, North Carolina. We decided to leave the DC suburb where we’d lived for three years and head down south, y’all.
The lovely people of North Cackalaky welcomed me with open arms, but I found some of their ways confusing. Why was everyone so nice? Did my husband know the woman at the check-out counter that we’d been talking to for ten minutes? (The answer was always no.) What is pimento cheese and what is it even made of?
To my Northern (well, Mid-Atlantic) sensibilities, all this warmth and friendliness and cheese was befuddling. But I longed to fit into that world. However, things didn’t immediately fall into place.
My driving style was wrong (“aggressive” my husband would say; “defensive” I would say). I was still a little too shy to make small talk with everyone I met. And, I had yet to make even a passable biscuit.
I could pick a crab with the best of them, but when it came to producing fluffy, buttery, craveable biscuits, my attempts were falling flat. Literally. It didn’t seem to matter which recipe I used, my biscuits ended up looking like something that sailors would unhappily choke down while on a months-long sea voyage. Not appetizing.
I tried recipe after recipe. I used bacon fat instead of butter. I went back to butter. I tried a lighter flour, adding more baking powder. I used a cast iron skillet. I used a baking pan. I started sifting the flour. I would show up to gatherings with my flat, sad biscuits in tow and sheepishly add them to the bountiful spread, hoping people wouldn’t see that I had brought them in.
Eventually, after baking a lot of so-so biscuits, I started baking some good biscuits. And then, some really good biscuits. All of the sifting, butter-wrangling, and biscuit research had paid off. Soon enough, people started looking forward to my biscuits when they showed up at potlucks and I felt more than a small twinge of pride when setting them down at the table.
In those moments, I thought I could feel my “Southernness” starting to take root, but that wasn’t really what it was. It was simply me growing into the kind of woman I wanted to be. Not “Southern,” per se, but graceful, friendly, warm, and capable of baking an utterly delicious biscuit.
Trying and failing and persevering in the making of these biscuits (now my signature recipe) helped me learn to turn some of that Southern grace toward myself–just what this uprooted Northerner needed.
I’ll include my complete recipe below, but here are some of the most useful things I learned on my biscuit journey:
- Put your butter into the freezer about 10-15 minutes before you plan to use it. Some recipes call for freezing the butter completely, but I’ve found that this doesn’t actually pay off and it adds a lot of extra stress to the process (for me, at least!).
- Sift your dry ingredients together. It’s tempting to skip this step, but trust me when I say that biting into a pocket of baking powder in the middle of a flat biscuit is not pleasant.
- Grate the butter into the flour mixture. This was a handy tip that I picked up from Damn Delicious. Rather than cutting it in using a pastry cutter or your hands, grating the super-cold butter into the dry ingredients helps evenly distribute it throughout the dough, leaving you with flaky pockets of deliciousness.
- Use the letter-fold method to instantly add some layers to your biscuits. This is a laminating technique used by many pastry chefs, but doing one letter fold to your biscuit dough before rolling it out to cut into rounds ensures fluffy layers. To do so, simply shape your dough into a rectangle and then fold it like a pamphlet, folding each side into the middle before flattening the dough again with your hands.
Forgive yourself if the biscuits come out flat or lumpy or misshapen. They will likely still taste amazing slathered in butter and jam. And, you will have learned something. 🙂
I originally planned to title this recipe “Fluffy Southern Biscuits,” but, really, these are biscuits for anywhere and anyone. Having a cast iron skillet does make for the best results, though.
Fluffy Anywhere Biscuits
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 4 tsp. baking powder
- 1 ¼ tsp salt
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- ¾ cup cold butter
- 1 ¾ cup cold buttermilk
- Preheat your oven to 450°F. Use your fingers to rub butter around the inside of a 12-inch cast iron skillet.
- Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda.
- Grab your butter from the freezer and grate it into your dry ingredients using a cheese grater. Use a wooden spoon or rubber scraper to stir the grated butter into the flour mixture.
- Make a well in the center of the flour and butter mixture and pour in the buttermilk. Slowly stir in the buttermilk, working around the edges and then adding more flour mixture as the ingredients combine. The dough will be floury.
- Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead it 3-4 times until it just comes together.
- Use your hands to press the dough into a rectangle, then use the letter fold technique to fold it into a pamphlet shape.
- Re-flatten the dough to a rectangle about an inch thick. Use a floured biscuit cutter, or an upside-down glass, to cut out your biscuits. (I sometimes use a shot glass when I want to make extra-cute mini biscuits.)
- Place the cut-out biscuits in the buttered cast iron skillet, with their edges touching each other and the edge of the skillet.
- Bake 17-19 minutes, until the insides are no longer doughy and the tops are golden brown.
- Let the biscuits cool for a couple minutes in the skillet and then use a butter knife to lift each one out and cool on a cooling rack (or spread with melted butter and enjoy).
Perfect when served with sausage gravy, pimento cheese, fried chicken, bacon tomato jam, or on their own.