By complete accident — something that Mama would never have predicted — I became a good biscuit maker.
My buttermilk biscuits are so beloved that Tink made a video of me demonstrating how to make these Southern treasures. You can find it somewhere on YouTube.
“Oh, boy!” Tink exclaims if he comes in the kitchen to see my hands covered in dough. “Cathead biscuits. My favorite.”
Until Tink moved to the Deep South several years ago, he had never, in his well-educated life that has produced an astounding vocabulary, heard the term, “cathead biscuits.” Now, he’s an expert on them.
Mama was a good biscuit maker and, importantly, her biscuits weren’t saved for special occasions. She made a batch every breakfast and sometimes for supper.
I don’t make biscuits like Mama.
For years, I watched and admired her skillful ease but I could never duplicate it so I just made up my own way of doing. Unexpectedly, this has built a small legend for me. My friend, Erin’s boys, fight over who will get the entire batch that I send. Aunt Kathleen, one of the South’s extraordinary cooks, declares they are the best she’s ever tasted. Even Mama proclaimed them to be her favorites.
“I’m feelin’ under the weather,” she’d say. “Would you fix me a batch of your biscuits? I’ve got a craving for them.”
One day, I’d taken her a batch, hot from the oven. She slowly savored the first bite. “Ronda, these are the best biscuits I’ve ever tasted. I don’t know how you do it.” Pause. “It must be your oven.”
Honestly, they’re easy. They have three ingredients: flour, Crisco shortening, and buttermilk. Here’re two important things to know about my biscuits:
1. Nothing but my hands ever touches the dough. No forks, no spoons, no rolling pins. I mix them up and make them out with my hands.
2. Mama used to cut her buttermilk with water when making biscuits and cornbread. This was likely a holdover from her Appalachian upraising, trying to stretch the buttermilk further by using free spring water. I don’t do this.
3. I only use White Lily Flour. Period. End of story. I started out using Martha White because they sponsored the Grand Ole Opry, but Mama said, “White Lily is the best. It just is.”
Recently, a friend sent a link to a story in The Atlantic Magazine by a Southerner-turned-New Yorker writer named Amanda Mull who was lamenting the impossibility of finding a good biscuit in the Northeast.
“What flour do you use?” my friend wrote.
“White Lily,” I responded. Then I read the article, which hinged on Ms. Mull’s discovery that the secret to a delicious Southern biscuit lies in the flour.
Let me borrow from the article to quote Robert Dixon Phillips, a retired food scientist at the University of Georgia: “You want a flour made from a soft wheat. It has less gluten protein and the gluten is weaker, which allows the chemical leavening — the baking powder — to generate carbon dioxide and make it rise in the oven.”
The article points out that the gold standard of soft wheat flour is White Lily, originally developed and manufactured in Knoxville, Tennessee.
My mama, the scientist. She didn’t know why, but she knew that White Lily was the best. Following her advice many years ago, I switched to White Lily and that’s when I hit on the secret to biscuits that double or even triple in size while baking.
Tink and I went to the annual Biscuit Festival in Knoxville a few years ago. There were rows of booths that featured biscuits and one flour company was giving out five-pound bags of flour. I took one because I can’t turn down free. For two years, it has set on a shelf, unopened.
Meanwhile, I’ve gone through several bags of White Lily.
Again, Mama was right.