No bread is more misunderstood than the lowly southern biscuit. Fast-food restaurants across America have made biscuits an everyday word throughout the country, but they have been taken so far out of context that even respectable southern restaurants are now serving biscuits at dinner, with steaks or fried fish, when yeast rolls and corn bread would be appropriate.

The text and recipes in Bill Neal’s books are excellent, and both Elizabeth David and Karen Hess have tackled the history of chemical leavenings and quick breads. But the perfect biscuit? It’s largely in the choice of flour. If you don’t live in the South, try to find a soft southern flour to make biscuits. Several companies such as White Lily distribute their flours nationally. And handle the dough as little as possible.

Biscuits are the classic quick breakfast bread throughout the South, chemically leavened with baking powder, which is a mixture of an acid and a base. Make your own with a little cream of tartar and baking soda to avoid the metallic taste of aluminum sulfate in the commercial brands. These are my favorite biscuits, perfect for topping with sour cream and fig preserves or served alongside fried quail and gravy. The humidity of the day always affects baked goods, so be sure to weigh the flour (which can absorb moisture and make biscuits tough).

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Ingredients

  • ¾ pound (about 3 cups) soft southern flour, plus a little extra for dusting
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 ounces (½ cup) chilled lard
  • ¾ cup buttermilk

Method

Preheat the oven to 425°. Sift the flour, soda, cream of tartar, and salt together into a large mixing bowl. Cut in the lard with a pastry blender or 2 knives until it is uniformly incorporated into the flour and there are no large clumps. Working swiftly, fold in the buttermilk a little at a time with a rubber spatula until it is just blended in smoothly.

Dust a countertop lightly with some flour and scoop up the dough onto the countertop with the spatula. Lightly work the dough, working only with the fingertips, until it is evenly blended. Roll it out about ½-inch thick and cut into ten 2-inch biscuits, using a clean metal biscuit cutter dipped in flour and a quick, clean motion. Do not twist the biscuit cutter; you should be punching the biscuits out of the dough. Place the biscuits close to each other on a baking sheet and bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until the tops are lightly golden brown. Serve immediately with butter or sour cream, sorghum, or homemade preserves.

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