biscuits fresh from the oven

Biscuits & Gravy – Their origin & science

If you are wondering how on earth a biscuit tastes good with gravy, I’m suspecting you’re British and definitely not from the south of the US. The Brits refers to the American cookies as biscuits, and indeed, those biscuits don’t go well with gravy… But, (southern) American biscuits certainly do!

American biscuits actually look more like the British scone (more on that later). They are fluffy and light and typically eaten for breakfast or as a side with dinner. They work great with that aforementioned gravy! We’ll be diving into the science and a bit of history, of these great sides.

Where American biscuits come from

When and where they originated exactly is not know, but biscuits seem to have been an important part of the Southern diet well back into the 18th century. Some say they originate from that British biscuit, although whether that’s true is hard to prove.

Even within the South, the appearance and tastes of biscuits used to vary by region. Those from Florida were definitely different than those from Kentucky for instance. At the time Florida didn’t have good access to flour, as a result their biscuits were a lot drier. Nowadays though, biscuits seem to have merged into that one savoury fluffy bread.

That said, our modern day biscuits can’t be much older than a little over 100 years. Biscuits nowadays use baking soda & powder to leaven them and make them fluffy. Both are a pretty recent invention dating back less than 200 years ago!

How to make biscuits

Biscuits are very flaky, fluffy and tender. You achieve this result by creating a lot of fat (butter) pockets within the dough. That way the fat is well distributed and once it melts in the oven it leaves the biscuit crumbly and easy to pull apart. As opposed to bread, you don’t want to develop gluten, this would ruin that flaky texture, so you wouldn’t knead biscuit dough extensively.

So, when you start making biscuits, you start by mixing the butter with the flour, salt, sugar and baking powder (see for a full recipe the end of this post). Once that is mixed in well, you add the milk (or buttermilk, depending on the recipe) and mix it very shortly, until you have one piece of dough.

biscuit dough ready to be baked
Biscuit dough, ready to go into the oven.

You then cut out your biscuits and bake them in the oven. By kneading it as short as possible and because of the baking powder and butter in the dough, the biscuits will expand well in the oven.

Easiest: use a food processor

Since these doughs need only very little kneading and treatment they tend to be a little cumbersome. Until now. I finally listened to one of the recipes out there and decided to use my food processor for making this biscuit dough. In one way: perfect! It goes super fast, you don’t have any sticky fingers full of butter and dough and creates a very fluffy dough.

biscuit and gravy

Biscuits are very much like scones

As we mentioned earlier, The American biscuit and British scone are surprisingly similar. Both are much in pretty much the same way. A difference seems to be the amount of salt (biscuits contain more) and sugar (scones contain a little more). In some cases biscuits contain more butter and are more tender, however, that isn’t necessarily the case.

We evaluate scones in far greater detail in a separate post dedicated to the flaky famous British high tea snack.

What to eat with a biscuit? Bacon gravy?

When I think of gravy, I see a brown sauce, often made from stock and some sort of meat. However, biscuits are often eaten with a white gravy. Thiswhite gravy is pretty similar to a bechamel sauce (as used in lasagna for instance). This type of sauce uses flour to thicken the sauce.

Yield: 3

Biscuits & (Bacon) Gravy

Biscuits & (Bacon) Gravy

A light and fluffy biscuit. Your food processor is your friend here, but using your fingers or a dough knife will work as well. Just make sure you incorporate the butter well before you add the rest of the liquid.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

Biscuits

  • 195g flour
  • 1 tbsp sugar (add 2 tbsp for a slightly sweet biscuit)
  • 2 tsp baking power
  • 1/8 tsp salt, if you are used to salty foods, add some more
  • 65g butter
  • 130g milk

Gravy

  • 20g bacon
  • 10g butter
  • 10g flour
  • 150 ml milk
  • ground nutmeg
  • ground cloves

Instructions

Biscuits

  1. Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt and add it to the bowl of your food processor.
  2. Add the butter (best if it is cold and comes straight out of the fridge). Quickly blitz the butter and flour together. This should only take a 10-20s. Once it has become a fine consistent texture, you're good, it should almost look like (slightly clumpy) flour.
  3. Add the milk and mix in the process until it becomes crumbly. This should go fast, only a few seconds. Stop mixing as soon as it has come together into a ball of dough.
  4. Take the dough and shape into a rectangle of about 2 cm thick. It shouldn't be too sticky at this point. If it is hard to handle, dust with a little extra flour. Cut the dough into circles (you can use a glass or cookie cutter), triangles or whichever shape you prefer.
  5. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C (350F) for 15 minutes, until they are a nice golden brown.

Gravy

  1. Cut the bacon in small pieces and fry in a small pan.
  2. Add the butter and leave to fry for a little longer.
  3. Add the flour, stir through and keep heating until it has absorbed almost all the fat.
  4. Add the milk, stir well and heat up while stirring regularly. The mixture will thicken over time. If it becomes too thick, add some more milk. If it does not become thick mix some flour with a little bit of water in a bowl and add to the mixture.
  5. Add the nutmeg and cloves and if necessary salt and pepper to taste.

Sources

Chamberlain, C., The history of southern biscuits (plus a no-fail recipe), StyleBlueprint, link

Edge, J.T., But Surely They’re Homemade?, New York Times, 2009, link

Hill, Nelda, The rising popularity of biscuits, in Southern Reader, link

Southern Living, The Southern history of biscuits, link

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