When my wife and I got married 11 years ago, we honeymooned in Charleston, South Carolina. We fell in love with the city, people and, most importantly, the food.
Having spent my entire life up to that point in the southern Maine-New Hampshire seacoast area, my new experience with southern food came through my Savannah, Georgia-raised mother-in-law. She made southern comfort foods like cornbread (real cornbread, not a boxed mix), and Thanksgiving was a whole new world of dressings and desserts. Though everything she made was delicious, nothing could have prepared me for the near-religious experience of the real Southern biscuit. It was sturdy enough to use as a breakfast sandwich but light enough that you wondered how it wouldn’t fall apart under a tablespoon of homemade jam. It was perfect.
After our honeymoon we returned home and said if we ever got the chance to live in Charleston we would take it. Three years ago that chance came and we jumped. In the meantime I had attended culinary school and worked in various northern restaurants, but the type of food I was cooking and the time constraints of working in the food industry–while also raising three young children–left little time to solve the mystery of the biscuit. When we made the decision to move south we also decided that I would be a stay-at-home dad for a little while. I made it my mission to learn to bake biscuits and get it right.
I started reading recipes and testing them and nothing was right. It seemed that every cookbook or website was leaving something out of their recipe to protect their secret. So I did what any good cook does. I made batch after batch of biscuits. I combined recipes, I mixed different fats and flours and tried various baking temperatures. When I put on ten pounds, my wife ordered me to give the biscuits away (and the best way to make new friends is to give away food) because she was tired of having the biscuit temptation always within reach.
Finally I found the recipe I loved that produced biscuits that were light and fluffy, tall and sturdy. They taste good right out of the oven or the next morning with a cup of tea. The secret is the mixture of cold butter and cold shortening cut into a blend of self-rising flour and all-purpose flour, then handling the dough like it’s a priceless piece of glass, touching just enough to form it but not so much as to make it tough.
The test, of course, was when our new Southern friends were invited over for breakfast or tea. They would tell me how much they loved the biscuits I had made. People have asked why I would bother working so hard to bake my own when I can buy biscuits anywhere down here. I think the answer is simple: When in Rome…
Makes 8 to 10 Biscuits
- 556 grams (2 cups) self-rising flour
- 556 grams (2 cups) all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 57 grams (2 ounces) very cold unsalted butter
- 85 grams (3 ounces) very cold vegetable shortening
- 480 ml (2 cups) cold buttermilk
- Melted butter, for brushing baked biscuits
Quickly mix or pulse dry ingredients in large mixing bowl or in food processor until just combined. Add butter and shortening and cut with a pastry cutter or pulse until the mixture is in pea-sized crumbles.
Dump into large mixing bowl and, using a fork, slowly start to mix in buttermilk until just combined; be careful not to over-mix. Once combined, pour onto a lightly floured surface and gently pat into a square about a half-inch thick. Cut biscuits by going straight down quickly.
Flip the biscuits as you place them on baking sheet so that the tops are all even. Place in a freezer for 10 to 12 minutes to make sure dough is nice and cold. Bake at 218 degrees C (425 degrees F) for 12 to14 minutes. Brush tops with melted butter when done.