James Beard award-winning cookbook author (and Martha alum!) Virginia Willis has been making biscuits since she was three years old, at her grandmother’s elbow. She’s made them with all kinds of flours, liquids, and fats (butter, lard, shortening, cream cheese, and even mayonnaise!). As she puts it, “there are as many different kinds of biscuits as there are Southern grandmothers, but I’ve hardly met a biscuit I didn’t like.”
Suffice to say, Willis is just the person for pointers on the Southern classic. “People are so scared of making biscuits,” says Willis. “They have this vision of grandmothers in aprons and chickens crowing, but it’s just like anything else—it takes practice.” She recently stopped by the test kitchen to bake a batch of the biscuits she grew up with: cathead biscuits, which are featured in her new book “Secrets of the Southern Table.”
Willis says, “They’re big biscuits, literally as big as a cat’s head. This isn’t some funny made-up thing from the Internet. My grandaddy actually used to call them cathead biscuits.” While she was taking the food editors through the recipe step by step, she also shared a wealth of tips that would be helpful in any biscuit-baking scenario.
- Biscuits typically only call for a few ingredients, so the better quality they are, the better your results will be.
- Reach for a low-protein, low-gluten flour, such as White Lily or another southern all-purpose flour, for light-as-air biscuits. Flours vary in their protein and gluten levels: pastry flour is at the low end of the spectrum, bread flour is high, and all-purpose flour is in the middle. White Lily is between pastry and all-purpose. For biscuits with a nutty flavor, try swapping in a cup of whole-wheat pastry flour (Willis is partial to the colonial-style fine cloth-bolted pastry flour from Anson Mills in South Carolina).
- Make sure you use ice-cold butter. When the cold butter is transferred to the hot oven, it melts and produces steam, which helps produce flaky biscuits with all those nooks and crannies. It also sets the starch on the outside.
- Don’t forget the salt! You need it to bring out the flavor of the biscuits.
- If you want to bake biscuits in advance for a party or event, add a tablespoon or so of sugar. It won’t be enough to make the biscuits taste sweet, but it will give them a longer shelf life.
MAKING THE DOUGH
- Avoid overworking the dough, which activates the gluten and will produce a tough, heavy biscuit. Willis doesn’t finish her dough in the bowl; she turns the shaggy mass out onto a floured work surface and brings it together there with a bench scraper. Try not to touch the dough with warm hands so the butter stays cold.
- Flour is your friend. It’s a must for your work surface, rolling pin, and biscuit cutter.
- When rolling, start at the middle of the dough and roll backward without coming off the edge. Then go back to the middle of the dough and roll forward without coming off the edge. The dough should turn out nice and even, with visible flecks of butter throughout.
SHAPING THE DOUGH
- When punching out the biscuits, don’t twist; punch straight down so you get a sharp cut and clean edge. If you twist, it can pinch the edges of the biscuits and inhibit their rise.
- A Silpat-lined baking sheet is Willis’ go-to, but biscuits can also be baked in a cake pan or cast-iron skillet.
- If your biscuits touch on the baking sheet, they will lean on each other and rise a little higher in the oven, yielding soft, tender sides. If your biscuits don’t touch, the edges will be crispy.
- Do not gather your scraps into a ball—this will create a big knot of gluten. Instead, layer the scraps together and pat, then roll out the dough and punch out more biscuits. This set will be a bit firmer and higher than the first round because the gluten is more activated.
- For extra golden biscuits, brush melted butter on the tops before baking. Willis loves the rustic dusty flour look and puts the biscuits in the oven as is.
The final pro tip is from Willis' childhood: Once the biscuits are out of the oven, try eating them like a “sweet hot pocket”: poke a hole with the stem of a wooden spoon (or your finger!) in the warm biscuit and fill it with butter and honey or jam.