Interview: Belinda Ellis on Biscuits

 Biscuits: a SAVOR THE SOUTH (r) cookbook by Belinda EllisDid you know there is such a thing as National Biscuit Month? And that it is happening right now?! Don’t panic. We’ve got the perfect cookbook for you to celebrate all month long with a new biscuit every day.

For fifteen years, food writer Belinda Ellis traveled around the country for the White Lily® flour company, teaching people to make biscuits and listening to their stories. “I learned that deep in the soul of a biscuit, there’s more than the flour, fat, and milk. A hot biscuit embodies a memory of place and family,” she writes. Ellis’s Biscuits: a SAVOR THE SOUTH cookbook celebrates the many possible flavors and uses for this classic southern bread. The first recipe in the book is a master recipe with step-by-step photographs showing how to make the perfect biscuit.

In the following interview, Ellis talks about her lifelong relationship with the tasty southern tradition and offers some essential tips for making blissful biscuits.


Q:  In your introduction, you talk about traveling around the country for 15 years for the White Lily® flour company teaching people how to make biscuits. What did you learn about this iconic food and the various ways to make it?

A:  Beginning with my first baking class, I learned I was not making my biscuits right. I was told that by both bakers and biscuit eaters, most of them raised in the South, who would explain how biscuits are “supposed” to be made. I soon learned that a perfect biscuit is the one you grew up eating.

People I met along the way shared stories about folks (usually grandmothers) who never measure their flour, who shape dough by hand, bake up huge biscuits, tiny biscuits, biscuits rolled and folded into flaky layers, biscuits so crisp on the outside some people would call them burnt yet bake up amazingly tender and moist on the inside. I heard about biscuits made with buttermilk, milk, cream, and 7UP, and stories of freshly rendered leaf lard. Some people like a good biscuit, but the eating of it is really about the embellishments: sausage, bacon, fried chicken, sorghum or preserves oozing out the sides, or sopping up some sausage gravy.

There are many who say they can only make “hockey pucks,” “door stops,” or bread the dog wouldn’t eat. I learned that a whole lot of bakers give up on biscuits after a couple of attempts, when all they needed was a few simple tips and some practice. When I taught hands-on classes, I noticed almost all novice bakers like to play with the dough like it is Play-Doh, when a light touch is all that is needed.

Most of all, I learned that no one on earth will ever make a biscuit as good as your grandmother, grandfather, mother, or someone who loves you. Southerners love their biscuits, and having a biscuit baked for you is akin to a hug.

Belinda Ellis, author of Biscuits: a SAVOR THE SOUTH (r) cookbook, photo by Fred Thompson
Belinda Ellis, author of Biscuits: a SAVOR THE SOUTH ® cookbook (photo by Fred Thompson)

Q:  Do you remember your first attempt at making biscuits?

A:  When I was about 9 years old, our Girl Scout troop went to a baking class where they taught us baking basics, including biscuits. I went home and baked biscuits for the first time by myself. I had watched my grandmother and mother bake biscuits my entire life but never previously attempted them on my own.

I don’t really recall how they looked or tasted, nor do I remember how much of a mess I made in the kitchen, but I do know this, I loved baking and those biscuits got lots of praise from my parents regardless of how they really tasted.

Years later as a young adult, I thought I knew how to make biscuits, so confident that I baked a batch for company. They were terrible! Ugly, dry, hard! My call to Mom went something like, “What happened?” She talked me through the steps, and I did exactly what I tell people to do—I practiced. Little did I know how much “practice” I would get in the years to come.

Q:  You wrote that a biscuit “embodies a memory of place and family.” Why do you think people connect biscuits with feelings of love and joy?

A:  It’s hard not to feel loved when you eat a biscuit. A lot of Southerners have cherished memories of someone making biscuits for them. They talk about their bowl, their hands, and the way they shape the dough. When we eat a biscuit, we are enjoying handcrafted food, an heirloom you eat.

Because so much of our lives have become fast, slow food is all the more precious. And the hands that make the biscuits are the same hands that touch our lives. I enjoy seeing the trend toward handcrafted foods, from beer to pickles to homemade breads. Making your own food is economical, rewarding work, and it will become the future generation’s cherished memories too.

Q:  Where did the biscuit originate and how did it become an American staple?

A:  The name “biscuit” comes from the Creole mix of Middle English and Early French, and it means twice-baked bread. Also known as hardtack, it was a dry, crisp mixture that used flour to sustain ship travelers and warriors for centuries.

The hard biscuits of Europe were translated to a more cracker-like American version, ¼- to ½-inch thick, usually round and pricked with a fork, softly crisp textured bread called beaten biscuits. Dining on beaten biscuits was a sign of wealth in the antebellum South for two reasons: flour was expensive to grow and transport, and beaten biscuits required the laborious task of bludgeoning dough with an ax, rolling pin, or other tools for 30 minutes or longer until the dough was smooth and slick, a task performed by enslaved laborers and in later years, servants.

Biscuits as we now think of them—high rising, light, soft and tender—came about when baking powder was invented in the mid-1800s and was made available everywhere.

The South adopted biscuits for several reasons. The ingredients were readily available because the flour that grows in more southern climates is better for biscuits, along with lard from easy-to-raise hogs and buttermilk leftover from farm-churned butter. Also, biscuits bake much faster than yeast breads, so the oven or fire did not have to be hot for as long—easing the misery of the hot days in the South.

Q:  Why do you think the biscuit holds such a special place in southern culture?

A:  I believe breads hold a special place in every culture. For southerners it happens to be biscuits because that is what we grew up eating. Other cultures have their own breads that hold a special place—French and Italian crusty breads, the dense dark breads of Eastern Europe filled with rye and pumpernickel. However, these breads are often purchased from a bakery, which goes back to the importance of homemade food.

The other reason is just that southern food tastes so good. We love our food in southern culture no matter if it is biscuits, barbecue, or bourbon. The list can go on and on.

Q:  Chefs can use certain types of flours to make many different kinds of biscuits. What kind of flour do you recommend?

A:  Unbleached soft red winter wheat is the flour of choice for most biscuits. All flour isn’t biscuit flour. It all may look about the same to you, but chemically it is not the same, and the type of flour that you select for biscuits makes a difference—a huge difference—in the resulting texture. This is the first and most important choice to make. Many people just find a brand they like and stick with it. To understand what type of flour is best requires just a bit of flour knowledge.

Soft winter wheat is a wheat variety that is milled into naturally low protein flour. It traditionally grows in southern wheat-growing regions such as Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, and Missouri, among others. Soft wheat has less protein, which makes less gluten. Gluten is not a good thing for biscuits. Gluten acts like bubble gum—it pulls and stretches. It’s this bubble-gum quality that allows yeast to create air bubbles that are vital for yeast breads. However gluten is your worst enemy in biscuit making. Soft biscuits come from soft flour. To find 100 percent soft wheat flour, read the label and look for soft wheat flour in the ingredients. That is the best flour for biscuits. Bleached flour versus unbleached flour does not seem to make much of a difference for biscuits. I have achieved excellent results with both.

Q:  Are there any specific tools a cook should use when making biscuits?

A:  Biscuits are made of simple ingredients and simple tools. Your fingertips, a bowl, a baking pan of any sort, and a hot oven will do just fine for many experienced bakers. However, there are a couple of tools I do recommend: a sturdy pastry cutter, a tool used to cut fat into flour, keeps the fat in lumps rather than having it melt, an important step for flaky biscuits; and a sharp biscuit cutter, because it keeps the sides of biscuits from being pinched so the biscuits can rise up taller. If you have trouble with biscuits sticking after you have rolled the dough, try a pastry cloth or silicone mat for rolling dough. The silicone mat also makes clean-up easy. A rolling pin makes the top of the biscuits smoother than if you pat the dough.

Some things I like to use include: a bowl that is flatter than it is tall because it takes less stirring, a biscuit scraper (an inexpensive plastic tool) helps you handle the dough more gently, a light-colored cake pan to bake the biscuits, and an oven thermometer, because oven temperatures are often not what they say they are on the dial.

Q:  You note that many people think they cannot make a good biscuit. Do you have a recipe that a beginning chef could easily follow?

A:  The first recipe in the book is about three pages long. That is not to scare you! The recipe goes into every detail you need to know about how to make a biscuit, including tips and details that inform the rest of the book. When you understand all the steps to making biscuits, then biscuits are simple.

It will take longer to read the recipe than to make the recipe, but knowing each step to a good biscuit is worth the read. If you have a problem making a recipe, I suggest reading over that recipe again to find the solution.

Q:  Tell me about some of your classic dishes.

A:  I am a simple southern cook who cares deeply about healthy eating. What I choose to cook is based on the seasons and what I find in the market locally.

In the fall, there is nothing better than a mix of root vegetables, sweet potatoes, turnips, and beets baked with olive oil and rosemary. I love leafy greens of all sorts and, yes, I do sometimes season them with bacon, but just as often I do not. Some of my favorite dishes are from my mountain heritage such as pinto beans served with onions, alongside a cast-iron skillet full of cornbread.

As soon as it gets cold outside, I like to bake a chicken potpie with a stew of vegetables bubbling underneath a cheddar cheese biscuit crust. Since I am an avid baker, guests never come to my house without being offered a homemade apple pie or something of the sort.

Lastly, I love to make breakfast. My favorite meal is fresh eggs from the market, bacon smoked by the now famed Allan Benton, who works in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, grits milled so coarse that they take an hour to simmer to creamy perfection, and of course hot biscuits with offerings of sausage gravy and sorghum butter.

Q:  Sometimes people only view biscuits as a breakfast food. What inspired you to write recipes that reinvent the biscuit as a dinner and dessert dish?

A:  I have never stopped thinking that biscuits are served all day. In the South, that is just how many of us grew up—biscuits are even called bread by some families. For me biscuits go with many kinds of meals, especially soup, salad, and even Thanksgiving dinner. I have always served tea biscuits to go with entertaining, and every year, when the strawberries are ripe, I bake Biscuit Shortcakes. These are classics that I wanted to update to fit any meal.

Q:  Your cookbook uses biscuits to make cheese straws and shortcakes. What is your favorite unconventional biscuit dish?

A:  Some of my favorites are an appetizer with Gorgonzola, Walnut, and Cranberries with the buttery, salty bite of the cheese tempered with dried cranberries. For a meal, it is hard to beat the Southern Beef Wellington, rather than the traditional pastry; it is served over a super-flaky biscuit. My new comfort food, a Reuben Sandwich Biscuit, substitutes a caraway biscuit for the rye bread. The Chocolate Walnut Biscuit Bread Pudding is like eating a semi-molten cake. One of my favorites is the Everything Biscuit. I tossed an entire breakfast into the dough that I can freeze and reheat for quick breakfasts. I am proud of the Whole Wheat Biscuit. Served warm, it offers a healthy choice perfect to go alongside any meal.

Q:  In the Southern Biscuits Step-by-Step recipe, you include photographs to illustrate how to make a biscuit. Why is this photo series so important?

A:  The ideal way to learn to make a biscuit is at someone’s side. If you are not fortunate enough to have a teacher or family member help you, a picture is the next best thing.

The photos illustrate the steps in a way that is difficult to explain any other way. I try to say the dough needs to be sticky, wet, but your interpretation of how wet it should be will be different from mine. A picture of that wet dough eliminates misinterpretation. It is as close as I could get to baking biscuits with you side-by-side.

Belinda Ellis is editor of Edible Piedmont, a North Carolina food magazine, and a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Biscuits: a SAVOR THE SOUTH cookbook is now available.