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The Science of Biscuits and Gravy (+ Recipe)
If you read this title and are wondering why on earth people would eat a biscuit with gravy, you’re probably not from the South of the USA. You probably prefer eating your biscuit with a cup of tea. Even though at some point in time these American and British biscuits (which Americans would call cookies) might have developed from the same food, nowadays they are very different.
The American biscuits are light and fluffy and work well as a side dish with any meal or just eaten as such by themselves. Smothered in gravy is a favorite for some. And you’re probably blissfully unaware that there’s some interesting flour science going on when making these two products. No, biscuits and gravy aren’t rocket science, but there are some interesting phenomena going on that will make you a better chef if you understand them.
Where American biscuits come from
As is usual for most foods and recipes, the exact origin of the American biscuit isn’t exactly known. Likely, it wasn’t a sudden invention, instead, it probably was a gradual development over time. Biscuits do seem to have been an important part of the Southern (of the USA) diet well back into the 18th century. Some say they originate from that British biscuit, although whether that’s true, is hard to prove.
That doesn’t mean though that biscuits at the time looked (and tasted) as they do now. As was the case for pancakes in the Netherlands, your quality of biscuit depended on where you lived and what type of resources you had available to you. Biscuits in Florida were definitely different than those from Kentucky for instance. At the time Florida didn’t have good access to flour due to their swampy humid climate. As a result their biscuits were a lot drier. We’d almost forget those variations with biscuits being so much more homogeneous (but not identical) nowadays.
The modern-day biscuit, made with baking powder or baking soda, can’t be from before the mid-19th century though. Only then were baking soda and baking powder invented, patented, and widely distributed. Of course, other ways to make these small-sized quick breads could have well been around.
Biscuits are very much like scones
Even though British biscuits (= American cookies) and American biscuits have their name in common, they actually have less in common than a (British) scone and (American) biscuit. Both are quite fluffy and light. They’re both made with as base of wheat flour and butter and are pretty similar in size.
Scones tend to be slightly sweet though, whereas biscuits definitely lean more to the savoury side of the spectrum. The main difference though seems to be how and when you eat them. You eat scones for a sweet breakfast or with tea (they’re a classic part of a British afternoon tea), whereas you can eat biscuits as a side to almost any savory meal.
How to make biscuits
Biscuits are very flaky, fluffy and tender. The secret to the flakiness? The fat (butter) in your biscuit dough. The fat prevents the flour molecules from interacting with another. It prevents continuous hydration and the formation of a gluten network. It is very similar to what you do when making a scone dough or even a short crust pastry pie dough. As a result, you can pull apart a biscuit very easily (whereas that’s tough to do for a regular wholewheat bread).
Since the role of a fat is so important, you start making biscuits by mixing in the fat with all the dry ingredients. Only at the end will you add you moisture to help bring the whole dough together.
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.
The dough consistency and its stickiness is also a bit of a science by itself. If you don’t add enough moisture the dough will be quite stiff. As a result, it won’t be able to increase in size in the oven, despite the presence of baking powder or soda. However, if you add too much the dough will be sticky and hard to handle. Also, it might not form that characteristic biscuit shape. Instead, it may spread out a little more, or expand in unexpected ways.
Even if you get the moisture content right, your biscuit might still behave unexpectedly. It might for instance topple over. This has to do with how well you knead the dough. Biscuit dough should only be kneaded very little. As soon as it comes together you should stop. However, you can also knead too little. This is what happened for these toppled over biscuits.
After cutting the first few biscuits from the dough, we had to gather the scraps and reform the dough to start cutting again. If you don’t knead this together well and only slightly fold it together the dough won’t really stick to itself. As a result, when one of those folds sit in the middle of a biscuit, that will be a weak spot. When the biscuit increases in size in the oven, the top might not be exactly in the center but slightly off. That weak spot won’t be able to hold it up and it can topple over.
Toppled over biscuits taste just as good by the way, they just look a little different!
Yes, you can! However, you have to be very selective of the wholewheat flour you choose.
A biscuit is only really a biscuit when it has that crumbly, flaky texture. Wholewheat flours will a lot of larger particles interfer with this texture. They make the biscuit drier and harder to handle.
Since you don’t want to form any of those gluten networks either, you don’t want to use a flour with a high protein content. A lot of wholewheat flours on the market are geared towards bread making. There have rougher particles and more protein.
If you want to make a wholewheat biscuit you should try to find a wholewheat pastry flour. This flour type contains less protein. Also, chances are the millers refine this flour into a finer particle size, giving you a good shot to make a fluffy texture!
The science of a gravy
Now that we’ve got our biscuit figured out, it’s time to look at what to eat with it. Eating it with a gravy is a popular option for breakfast and brunches in the south of the US. The gravy that you eat with a biscuit is a white gravy. It is actually pretty similar to a bechamel sauce.
This is not what I typically think of when hearing gravy. To me, gravy, is a brown, slightly translucent thinnish sauce made from the leftover brownings in a pan. However, when you look at this gravy, you will quickly realize this gravy is actually not that different.
It starts with meat & lots of flavor
To start making a white gravy most start by grilling some sausage meat, bacon, or other type of fatty meat. When baking this a lot of fat is rendered into the pan. This is then used as a starting point for the gravy and adds a lot of flavor to the gravy as a whole. Slightly burned and browned pieces of meat naturally are full of flavor.
Meat contains a lot of protein and these all react in complicated chemical reactions during baking that result in the formation of a lot of flavor molecules. Some of these evaporate and end up in your nose, but a lot of them stay in the fat. These fat-soluble molecules are full of flavor and it is why it is such a waste to not use leftover fat and brown pieces in the pan. It’s a real flavor bomb.
Capturing the flavor
Making the gravy then revolves around capturing this flavor and where possible adding even more. A good gravy is quite concentrated in flavor, but thick enough to be scooped up (instead of having to drink it).
To get that consistency is why you add flour. Flour mixes with the fat and becomes fully coated. In a way, in a similar way to what happens in the biscuit dough making process! However, here we’re also heating that flour and fat, allowing some more flavor to be formed through chemical reactions.
Last, you add your liquid (milk, but this could also be gravy) into this fat and flour mix. Whereas flour normally clumps easily when you add liquid, this doesn’t happen. Thanks to the fat that coats the flour particles and prevents them from clumping together.
By continuing to heat this mix you will see a transformation of the sauce. It will slowly thicken. This is due to the gelatinization of starch in the flour. The starch absorbs water, swells up and ultimately breaks, releasing a lot of individual starch molecules. These can then bind even more water, thickening the whole mix into a creamy luscious sauce.
A disadvantage of using flour to thicken the sauce is that it has a tendency to hide the flavor. The flavor molecules get ‘captured’ and can’t be tasted anymore. It is why you should always be careful about adding your liquids. You don’t want to overshoot since that will result in adding more flour to thicken (it is very hard to boil off a lot of moisture of these sauces without them burning at the bottom, although it isn’t impossible). Remember that most of the flavor sits in that fat from the start and you probably don’t have any extra of that!
A gravy only stays white if you don’t add any other colors. Even a small amount of other ingredients impact the color. Baked meat pieces tend to work well since they hold on to their color. However, if you start getting creative with your gravy, such as adding mushrooms or nicely browned onions, it is almost impossible to keep your gravy white. But adding those extra ingredients does add a great extra layer of flavor!
Some biscuit blasphemy
There’s a reason we’re putting this all the way at the end, because some might consider is biscuit blasphemy. But, not everyone likes biscuits and gravy. It’s too heavy if you’re not going to be very physically active and quite heavy on the stomach.
Making a wholewheat biscuit (as described in the recipe) helps to some extent (it also adds some flavour!). The good thing about that still delicious and crumbly wholewheat biscuit though is that it fits really well with a simple salad. Mix up some green leaves, cucumber, avocado, or any other salad ingredient you enjoy. Sprinkle over some lime juice, salt, pepper, and olive oil and eat with your biscuit. Tastes great!
Wondering about that funky dome shape on top? It’s what happen when you don’t use a cutter but a glass to push through dough. The dough slightly sticks to the glass so moves along a little and expanding again at the end. Looks don’t change the taste though!
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
A person can tell y’all ain’t from the South!!! Nutmeg and cloves? Y’all baking a ham or what…
Haha Bobby, we sure aren’t from the South so you’re absolutely right there :-)! isn’t it great to see how recipes change every time they pass through someone else’s hands?!
I’m not from the south either. But I make really good gravy. Sawmill style. Just 5 ingredients. Nutmeg and cloves in gravy, no way.
I modified some bits in the recipe to reflect some of the more common choices for gravy! I’d be curious to learn what makes a gravy, a sawmill style one. I’ve read several explanations online (some state the use of cornmeal), but I’m not yet convinced by the answers. What would you regard as a sawmill style gravy?