29 Mar

Finding the Perfect Southern Biscuit: Part 1

Last week, I discussed the chemistry and the roles individual ingredients and steps play in the final biscuity outcome.  This weekend the goal has been to experience the tasty products of this science.  

10155358_10203960086144811_2191562887043568819_nFirst step, Mama Dips.  Overall the biscuits were denser than I was expecting.  I would call these a working man’s biscuit, that would not crumble in a gentle wind.  These little guys are literally the perfect biscuit for packing in a lunch–compact and substantial. Mama Dip’s biscuits were not tall but rather short and squatty with a bread like texture. I suspect the flour used has a high gluten content (See this post for some basics). The choice of lard over butter may have also contributed to this.

Mama Dip's Biscuit Recipe
From the famous restaurant in Downtown Chapel Hill.
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  1. 2 c. self rising flour
  2. 1/4 c. lard or shortening
  3. 1 c. buttermilk
  1. Preheat oven to 400°.
  2. Put the flour in a pile. With your fingertips, work the shortening into the flour until well blended and evenly mixed.
  3. Pour the buttermilk and mix until dough is formed.
  4. Roll out to 1/2 inch thickness on a floured board; cut with a 2 inch biscuit cutter or pluck off balls, roll, and flatten them with your knuckles.
  5. Bake on a greased baking sheet for 10-12 minutes or until brown.
The Science of the South http://www.scienceofthesouth.com/
Next step was the P4 Buttermilk Biscuit. I tried this one simply because the recipe has 5/5 star rating after 540 reviews.  Can any recipe live up to the hype? Absolutely.  Simply put this is the best biscuit I’ve ever had.  The texture was spot on; crumbly but not so much the biscuit falls apart.  If you read again this post for some basics and then look at the recipe you can clearly see all the ingredients and steps are in place for the perfect biscuit.

Southern Buttermilk Biscuits
Best biscuits you will ever make and eat.
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  1. 2 cups unbleached White Lily all purpose flour (good because low gluten content)
  2. 1⁄4 teaspoon baking soda
  3. 1 tablespoon baking powder (use one without aluminum)
  4. 1 teaspoon kosher salt or 1 teaspoon salt
  5. 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, very cold (put it in the freezer a bit to get it really cold)
  6. 1 cup buttermilk (approx, Don't chintz but some good stuff from a local dairy.)
  1. Preheat your oven to 450°F.
  2. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl, or in the bowl of a food processor.
  3. Cut the butter into chunks and cut into the flour until it resembles course meal.
  4. If using a food processor, just pulse a few times until this consistency is achieved.
  5. Add the buttermilk and mix JUST until combined.
  6. If it appears on the dry side, add a bit more buttermilk. It should be very wet.
  7. Turn the dough out onto a floured board.
  8. Gently, gently PAT (do NOT roll with a rolling pin) the dough out until it's about 1/2" thick. Fold the dough about 5 times, gently press the dough down to a 1 inch thick.
  9. Use a round cutter to cut into rounds.
  10. You can gently knead the scraps together and make a few more, but they will not be anywhere near as good as the first ones.
  11. Place the biscuits on a cookie sheet- if you like soft sides, put them touching each other.
  12. If you like"crusty" sides, put them about 1 inch apart- these will not rise as high as the biscuits put close together.
  13. Bake for about 10-12 minutes- the biscuits will be a beautiful light golden brown on top and bottom.
  14. Do not overbake.
  15. Note: The key to real biscuits is not in the ingredients, but in the handling of the dough.
  16. The dough must be handled as little as possible or you will have tough biscuits.
  17. I have found that a food processor produces superior biscuits, because the ingredients stay colder and there's less chance of overmixing.
  18. You also must pat the dough out with your hands, lightly.
  19. Rolling with a rolling pin is a guaranteed way to overstimulate the gluten, resulting in a tougher biscuit.
  20. Note 2: You can make these biscuits, cut them, put them on cookie sheets and freeze them for up to a month.
  21. When you want fresh biscuits, simply place them frozen on the cookie sheet and bake at 450°F for about 20 minutes.
The Science of the South http://www.scienceofthesouth.com/

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22 Mar

There is only one kind of biscuit, the Southern one, and it has special needs

Buttermilk biscuits by jmackinnell on Flickr

I take biscuits pretty seriously, far more seriously that most Southerners. I realize the levity of a statement like this. Years ago before I went to college, I was a professional biscuit maker. I’m not sure exactly if professional applies, but I made a lot of biscuits for money…repetitively. I would start my shift at 3 am at Hardees. By the end of a shift at 11 am, I would have made anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand biscuits. I knew the steps and secrets to get consistently thick, crumbly, and moist biscuits. A biscuit I was proud of. Don’t work the dough too much and keep everything cold. And God forbid use the right flour and do not, under any circumstances, omit buttermilk.

Crusty Buttermilk Biscuits by thebittenword.com on Flickr

Crusty Buttermilk Biscuits by thebittenword.com on Flickr

There is only one kind of biscuit, the Southern one, and it has special needs. The first is the proper flower, low in protein and gluten. Wheat flour contains two kinds of proteins, glutenin and gliadin, found readily inside the wheat kernel. These stored proteins within the seed help nourish young plants during germination. Interestingly both of these proteins are water insoluble. Through the process of hydrolysis these proteins get hydrated allowing linkages to form between them. These chemical bonds between the glutenin and gliadin form gluten.

Soft red winter wheat(Triticum aestivum) grown in Kentucky  http://www.uky.edu/Ag/GrainCrops/ID125Wheat_Management_Kentucky.html

Soft red winter wheat(Triticum aestivum) grown in Kentucky

But in a good Southern biscuit we do not want the chewiness that gluten provides. It’s a biscuit not a bagel. We want crumbly. This really can only be delivered by a soft red winter wheat flour. Wheat is classified into six categories: hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, hard durum, hard white, and soft white wheat. Hard wheat has bucket loads of gluten and great for breads. Soft wheats…will that’s the ticket for the biscuits. White Lily All Purpose Flower is the one you want partly because of the gluten and part because it’s a Southern custom.

18flour.1-190Gluten formation is also the very important reason why we do not work the dough too much. Kneading the wet dough ensures that the glutenin and gliadin come into constant contact to form gluten strands. The more kneading and water, the more gluten formation and that can quickly turn a biscuit into cookie.

The next major ingredient is fat in the form of butter. Fat’s responsibility other than tasting fantastic is many. First, butter needs to melt and leave behind air pockets. These pockets are used by chemical leaveners to release gases and create lift in the biscuit. One needs to distribute butter chunks throughout the crust to form these pockets. Large butter clumps equal a few larger pockets. Even more disastrously, completely mix the butter into dough and you will lose all the pockets. Our need of these air pockets is also of course why keep the butter and dough cool. The melting of the butter should not happen until the biscuit hits the oven otherwise no pockets. Second, butter coats the gluten and starches in the flower and prevent them from becoming tough. Similar to how butter coats your stomach and softens you up a bit first thing in the morning.   Third, the moisture in butter also creates steam and helps the biscuit to rise.

The chemical leavener of choice is baking soda, or sodium hydrogen carbonate. When we heat baking soda it begins a chemical reaction.

2NaHCO3 –> CO2 + H2O + Na2CO3

That forms carbon dioxide (CO2), water (H2O), and sodium carbonate (Na2CO3). The last of these is a strong base and we often need an acid to neutralize it. Baking powder is simply a baking soda with acid added that neutralizes this base. 

NaHCO3 + H+ –> Na+ + H2O + CO2

Let’s not forget that all this chemistry here is producing CO2 gas that gives our biscuit rise and water that is keeping our biscuits moist.

Foodie-Friday-_-bottle-buttermilkLast and importantly, a good Southern biscuit demands buttermilk. Buttermilk is acidic (a pH of 4.4 – 4.8). For comparison, acid rain has a pH of approximately 4. The acidity helps to neutralize the baking soda. As well, that acidity from buttermilk also helps tenderize the formed gluten strands.

All along the particulars of the Southern Buttermilk Biscuit were based in just good science.






16 Oct

I don’t care if its bee vomit, I still want it on my biscuit.


The greatest joy of the South is undoubtedly a fresh biscuit with Tupelo honey. That is until you realize that the honey is a product of multiple regurgitations.

picture-61-1We tend to focus on the beautiful part of the process where a honey bee visits a flower for the nectar. It seems we bee-leave (ha) that they carry little bee-sized buckets for nectar transport. I guess in a sense they do in that the bee-sized buckets are their bee-sized organs. Actually it is a honey stomach, a bulbous area, technically a crop, right before the stomach that stores liquids for later regurgitations. At the hive, the worker bee will regurgitate and ingest the nectar multiple times. The worker bees will do this a group until the vomit mixture is just the right mix.

During this time an enzyme, invertase, and digestive acids turn the surcrose, by hydrolyzation, into the simple sugars of glucose and fructose. Another enzyme, glucose oxidase which as the name suggests oxidizes glucose produces hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid. The acid considerably lowers the pH (~3-4) of the honey. After the cycle of puking and eating, evaporation takes over in the unsealed honey comb to achieve the final viscosity of honey. Bees inside the hive will actually fan their wings to create a draft to aid in the evaporation. Because of this lack of water, acidity, and presence of hydrogen peroxide, few bacteria or microbes can actually live in honey. In fact honey is so dehydrated it is hygroscopic, i.e. attracts water, and thus any living thing will have the water pulled from by the honey.

But as I sit here and consume my honey-filled biscuit, I don’t care about any of this nectar vomiting business.

Feature photo by Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel on Flickr via CC

This woman gets it.  Photo by Mary Helen Leonard on Flickr CC

This woman gets it. Photo by Mary Helen Leonard via Flickr CC