Biscuits – from the Latin biscoctus, meaning “twice-cooked” – go back at least as far as the 1500s. The first biscuits were made from three basic ingredients – flour, water and salt – and cooked until they were hard, dry and tasteless. These compact bricks of bread – which the British called hardtack – were given as rations to soldiers and sailors because they could travel the world without spoiling.
Biscuits have come a long way from hardtack. As sugar and butter became more common in Europe, biscuits evolved into sweet pastries like biscotti, lady fingers and Koekjes. In Great Britain, biscuit still refers to any flat, sweet, flour-based pastry. Dutch settlers introduced Koekjes to America, where they became so popular that we adopted the word “cookie” instead.
In the antebellum south, hardtack transformed into the more palatable “beaten biscuit.” This involved beating the dough with a rolling pin, ax handle, or other blunt instrument for at least forty-five minutes, until it achieved the desired layered texture. The process was so laborious that it usually fell to enslaved cooks.
It wasn’t until the 1840s, when baking soda became readily available to home cooks, that we saw the rise of the biscuit as we know it. With help from the advertising department at Arm & Hammer, leavened biscuits rose in popularity – drop biscuits, angel biscuits and buttermilk biscuits, featured here. Baking soda requires acid to instigate the leavening. Cultured butter is naturally acidic, and cooks often had it on hand, as a byproduct of butter making.
Crispy on the outside, soft and buttery on the inside, buttermilk biscuits are in many ways similar to croissants, only much quicker and more practical to make at home! The layered texture is the result of repeated stacking and rolling (steps 8 and 9 in the following recipe).
With the perfect biscuit as a base, the possibilities are endless; smother them with butter, honey, sausage gravy; turn them into a breakfast sandwich or even a Southern-style Eggs Benedict.
Makes about 6 biscuits
1 stick (½ cup) butter
2 cups all purpose Redeemer Bread Flour
½ cup whole wheat Redeemer or other heirloom wheat flour
1 cup buttermilk, ½ cup yogurt and ½ cup milk. (Most of
½ teaspoon of baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg for egg wash on top (optional)
Leaveners only keep well for 3-6 months. Baking soda should be transferred to an airtight container for storage.
- Preheat oven to 425
- Mix all dry ingredients.
- Grate a stick of butter into the bowl.
- Stir the butter into flour until evenly distributed.
- Pour in half the milk and stir, then add the other half. Stir vigorously, incorporating all of the flour, so that none of it sticks to the bottom. Keep stirring until it forms a shaggy, slightly crumbly dough ball.
- Generously powder your work surface with flour.
- Shape into a 1-inch thick rectangle that’s twice as long as it is wide.
- Cut the dough in half and stack one half on top of the other; turn the stack 90 degrees so that the short side is facing you.
- Use a rolling pin to roll it back into a 1-inch thick rectangle that’s twice as long as it is wide. Turn 90 degrees and repeat the process one more time (three turns in total). Make sure to keep the top of your stack and the work surface well dusted so that it doesn’t stick. You want there to still be some flecks of butter in the dough.
- Cut the stack into circles or squares using a biscuit cutter or chef knife. To use up the extra dough scraps, you can squish them together without. Beat egg thoroughly and brush on top of the biscuits to give them an extra sheen.
- Bake for 20 minutes (it’s okay if a little bit of butter leaks from biscuits).
Sausage Gravy (serves 2)
We can’t talk about biscuits without talking about gravy. Gravy was first documented in medieval France, but likely dates back much further as a way to make use of juices and fat drippings from roasting meat. Adding gravy to hardtack made both foods more palatable. In 1800s America, biscuits and gravy became the staple meal of millworkers and other laborers. Milk or cream was added to make a white Béchamel sauce, which became known as Sawmill Gravy. Sausage gravy incorporates the actual sausage, not just the drippings. And today’s fluffy, leavened biscuits are perfect for mopping up all that savory goodness.
3 tablespoons of Redeemer bread flour
2 tablespoons of bacon drippings (or other fat)
Milk (enough to achieve desired consistency)
4 ounces ground pork
- Mix Flour and fat together in a pan over medium-high heat until flour is fully incorporated.
- Crumble in ground pork
- Add milk two tablespoons at a time. Allow the mixture to come to a simmer before adding more milk.
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Stir until gravy reaches desired consistency, thick but pourable.