Whether mass produced for chain restaurants or lovingly made by hand at a diner or bakery-café, biscuits are a perennial favorite at breakfast, lunch or dinner. And while they feature ingredients from just five categories — salt, flour, leavening, fat and dairy — variations in those ingredient categories vary widely from region to region.
Consider, for example, cathead biscuits, which are growing in popularity, according to a recent report from market research firm Datassential. Named because of their large size (“as big as a cat’s head”) and common in many parts of the South — particularly in Louisiana and Arkansas — die-hard fans of these biscuits swear by White Lily-brand flour (a low-protein flour). And instead of being rolled and cut, handfuls of the dough are simply dropped into a cast iron skillet and then popped into the oven.
In other parts of the country — where specific strains of wheat and other grains are locally available and milled nearby — bakers are going hyperlocal by using those flours, leading to heartier and healthier results. Devoted to using heritage grains where possible, baker Roxana Jullapat, author of “Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution,” and owner of Friends and Family, a bakery café in Los Angeles, says, “I am not a traditionalist when it comes to biscuit making.” She’s a whole-grain enthusiast, so using self-rising flour is anathema to her. “As a refined and manufactured product, self-rising flour has been stripped of all fiber and nutritional value,” she says. “It has been rendered flavor neutral — [it’s] a perfect canvas for butter, lard, or buttermilk, [but it] contributes no flavor itself.”
Diverging from the traditional American style of biscuits, which calls for soft flours, Jullapat sneaks about 10% fine white cornmeal into the mix. “To me, using a bit of fine corn flour adds character and texture to the biscuit, making them wholesome without compromising their quintessential lightness,” she says. “Also, I’m committed to using butter as my fat of choice, but the buttermilk is also key. Our biscuits are topped with shredded white cheddar and fresh thyme and served on their own, and are almost a meal themselves, without a need to turn them into sandwiches. Whole-grain biscuits may feel a degree denser than white-flour counterparts, but they’re packed with flavor, texture and nutrition.”
Beyond such savory applications, the simple addition of sugar transforms biscuits into a vehicle for a host of desserts featuring seasonal fruit. Year round, biscuits can be a homespun and relatively easy-to-execute entry on dessert menus everywhere; think berry shortcake enhanced with sweetened crème fraîche whipped cream in spring, or topped with stone fruit in the summer.
Fat and Dairy
Fat, the all-important component of the recipe, can be anything from lard to shortening or butter, or even a combination. The dairy used in biscuit making varies widely, too; bakers can choose from milk, buttermilk or heavy cream, as well as sour cream, yogurt, crème fraîche, or a combination of any of these to achieve richness, a pleasingly tart edge or a tenderness of crumb.
When ACF member and pastry Chef Stephanie Charns (now R&D Chef for Bimbo Bakers USA, a multinational baking and snacks company) was executive pastry chef at the Virginia Governor’s Mansion, she chose a blend of lard and butter for her biscuits. ”I liked to draw on local products, including Virginia ham, butter and honey, to serve with cheddar biscuits,” she says. “Biscuits are versatile vessels that can feature many amazing flavors, whether in the biscuit itself or as its accompaniments. At the Mansion, we made a sundried tomato biscuit, which straddled breakfast and lunch.”
She also likes to play with different types of dairy in her biscuit recipes, including “goat cheese, which lends a tang to the final product.” Savory add-ins like these abound when it comes to biscuits. “Biscuits don’t have to be sweet; they can incorporate sweet, sour and salty in one delicious morsel,” says Chef Charns, who notes one of the most popular versions on her former restaurant’s menu paired the flavor profile of a cinnamon roll (cinnamon and sugar) with sundried tomato spread for a sweet and salty accompaniment to poached eggs and ham.
The right way to make a biscuit is also a matter of opinion. Some swear by chilling the fat and cutting it into the dry ingredients. Others grate the butter and then freeze it, lightly mixing it into the dry ingredients to ensure a flaky product. And then there’s the question of whether the butter should be reduced to pea-sized bits or left as larger flakes.
Once the dough is gently put together, some wonder: Should it be folded upon itself at least three times to build layers and strengthen the gluten, so the biscuit holds its shape? Some bakers go a different route altogether and flatten the dough into a rectangle, then roll it up, jelly roll-style, to create a spiral layering that offers enhanced texture and Instagram-worthy visual aesthetics in the finished product. Biscuit dough can also be shaped into dumplings and plopped into chicken broth as just one of many non-baked, savory applications.
Emily Elyse Miller, author of “Breakfast: The Cookbook,” includes in her book two basic but iconic biscuit-preparation methods. One uses buttermilk, and is mixed like a pie dough and cut using a round cookie cutter. The other relies on full-fat milk and is soft enough to drop onto a sheet pan, leading to a craggy exterior — perfect for cradling lots of butter and honey.
Between the Biscuit
Biscuits symbolize comfort and tradition and appear in some form at breakfast tables in many parts of the U.S. and around the world. Oftentimes, they are served as a simple accompaniment to bacon and eggs, with just a pat of butter and a touch of honey. In other cases, they are smothered in a gravy made from bacon drippings, flour and milk.
And then there are the endless applications of the biscuit as a sandwich base. From egg-and-meat (sausage, bacon or ham) breakfast sandwiches, to pulled pork and fried chicken sandwiches, these portable meals have been a popular menu item nationally in the fast-food business for years. Now, independent restaurants are jumping on the bandwagon. While the popularity of biscuit sandwiches peaked in 2016 and waned slightly after that, Datassential research shows they have maintained steady growth in menu proliferation: about 1% each year, for a total of just under a 6% increase over the last four years. In foodservice operations where staff is limited and baking prowess might be in short supply, offering a personalized, homemade biscuit item on the menu can become a draw for an operation that prides itself on homestyle foods.
Whether you’re serving them to-go or for dine-in at your place of operation, biscuits offer not just a comforting option for diners, thanks to their flaky, buttery, melt-in-your mouth appeal; as a timeless staple ripe for reinvention, they also offer a blank canvas for creativity, no matter the time of day.