Sea Salt and Black Pepper Buttermilk Biscuits are easier to make from scratch than you think, and a fabulous addition to your brunch or dinner party. They also make an excellent hors d’ouevres!
Hand Squashed Biscuits
I was maybe 14 years old when my Uncle told me I would never get a man if I didn’t learn how to make hand squashed biscuits. He told me this as he was making tomato gravy. Not the red tomato sauce cooked down til thick and flavorful and spread over everything from spaghetti to poboys, but a milk gravy and tomato concoction that’s made like southern sausage gravy.
Despite growing up in my super southern family (those roots are gonna show in this post!) I had never had tomato gravy, and I watched with interest as he created a shockingly pink (yet surprisingly delicious) milk gravy using just what we had on hand. I think that’s where a lot of good cooking comes from – making the most of what you have on hand.
I made an offhand comment about how he could really cook quite well. So it was a bit ironic that he was telling me I couldn’t get a man unless I was a good cook, when he, as a man, was cooking for me and doing it quite well.
That did not go over well.
But I’ve always enjoyed being in the kitchen, and I decided that sexist or not, I would learn how to make hand squashed biscuits.
Except, there’s about 8 million different biscuits.
Well, that isn’t true exactly, but what kind of biscuit do you like?
My grandmother was partial to cat head biscuits, or smaller, crispier, thinner biscuits. My mother would basically like her biscuit to be as close to cake as possible please, and slathered with butter and honey to boot.
Me, personally, I like all biscuits now, and ten to choose the style and height of my biscuit based on what I intend to make to go WITH the biscuit.
But we’ll get into that more later.
A Little Biscuit History
One of my favorite things about food (besides eating it) is how quickly it can slice to the heart of a culture. I took a little google trip into the history of the biscuit so I could share some fun facts with you about it, and kind of got lost down that rabbit trail. It took me all the way back to Civil War history, in fact, and I was fascinated by the, ahem, rise of the biscuit in southern culture.
As with many things, the biscuits origin story comes from necessity and invention. The term, biscuit, comes from the French and means “twice baked,” even though modern biscuits are not twice baked.
Prior to and through the Civil War, making biscuits was a laborious process and assigned, primarily, to slaves. At the time, beaten biscuits were the thing, and made by basically hand beating the lard into the flour. Beaten biscuits are harder, tougher biscuits, and after the Civil War, and the end of slavery, beaten biscuits fell by the way side until 1883.
Wow, that’s a really specific time you say.
And you’re right.
But 1883 was when the White Lily factory in Knoxville, Tennessee began milling all purpose flour from a locally grown red winter wheat. Why does the kind of wheat matter?
Well, without getting too scientific, there different kinds of wheat produce very different kinds of flour. Some wheat versions (and milling processes) produce hearty, thick, glutenous flour better for baking bread.
What the White Lily flour did, though, was a game changer, because it was a super fine, low protein, low gluten flour that was perfect for getting a “rise.”
The Red Wheat and the Rise
The rise, of course, has to do with the height and consistency of your baked good. Indeed, Erica Yoon in a New York Times article about the 2008 closing of the White Lily factory in Knoxville said,
Soft wheat is, in fact, the key to understanding why the South is better known for cakes, biscuits and pie crusts than for yeast breads, which require the strength of high-protein flour. Soft red winter wheat was once grown primarily in the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee and, in the days before national food distribution networks, it was the only wheat widely available in the South. Nowadays, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois are among the largest producers.
The article goes on to add that “The Knoxville plant has long claimed that White Lily is ground finer and sifted more times than any other flour on the market.” Which all adds up to better baking, at least if your going for biscuits or cakes.
Are Biscuits By-Gone?
And it’s interesting to me that the wheat isn’t really grown here in the South anymore, but in the Midwest, which is a very different climate. Some argue, even, that the climate produces a different kind of wheat than the red wheat grown in the south.
Which rather makes me sad. A 100 year old tradition ended, then, with the closing of the Knoxville plant in 2008.
It begs the question, will southern buttermilk biscuits ever be the same?
Growing up, biscuits were a part of most home cooked meals. If we sat down to dinner or breakfast, biscuits (or perhaps yeast rolls, but we’ll get to those in a later post!) were sure to be a part. Biscuits and sausage or bacon gravy were a staple for breakfast, and biscuits were always there for dinner too, waiting to soak up even more melting butter into their puffy little layers.
I could never eat fried chicken without finishing with a honey biscuit.
And there’s always been something about those biscuits that you get at fried chicken places that makes them seem saltier than any other kind. Which I loved paired with a pat of melting butter and a drizzle of honey.
The salty, the sweet.
The memories of those biscuits, packed away in a napkin, smelling of grease, the good kind of grease, the kind that promises crispy chicken skin and indulgence.
Memories of pulling those biscuits out with my grandmother later, spreading butter on those cold day-olds, toasting them up in the oven. Opening plastic packets of spirited away golden honey and drizzling the thick syrupy honey on them the next morning.
Maybe pairing them with a cold leftover chicken wing to nibble, maybe not.
There’s just something about biscuits that will always mean this. There’s something sort of every day and after-thoughtish about them. Something back of the mind. Something out of time.
Playing with my Food
I suppose it was the idea of this, then, those salty fried chicken biscuits that we never even made that inspired this recipe for Sea Salt and Black Pepper Buttermilk Biscuits.
I wanted to evoke the salty and sweet pairing potential for my present day vegetarian self.
And these Sea Salt and Black Pepper Buttermilk Biscuits, I must say, really do capture something of that vibe. They’re tasty paired with a tangy jam, like my Strawberry Lime Jam, or something savory, like my upcoming fried green tomato with whipped goat cheese spread.
They are actually incredibly easy to make too.
And there’s something so satisfying about one’s hands being covered in flour, working them into a dough isn’t there?
I have several more buttermilk biscuit recipe variations coming. But in the meantime, tell me, what kind of biscuit do you like? Thin and crispy? Thick and pillowy? Savory or sweet?
Sea Salt and Black Pepper Buttermilk Biscuits
- 2 Cups All Purpose Flour White Lily or Martha White would be the most typically used in the South, in the absence of those, I would opt for a finer pastry flour.
- 1 Teaspoon Sea Salt
- 1 Teaspoon Fresh Ground Black Pepper
- 1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
- 2 Teaspoons Baking Soda
- 1/2 Cup Butter
- 1 Cup Buttermilk
- 1 Teaspoon Lareg Flaky Finishing Salt (Himalayan, Cypriot, etc)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Combine flour, sea salt, black pepper, baking powder, and baking soda in a large bowl, and whisk to combine.
- Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut your butter into the flour. Essentially, this just means work it into the flour until your butter is the size of small peas scattered throughout, and the mixture is very crumbly. Despite the fact that my Uncle wanted me to make "hand squashed biscuits" I actually try to keep my hands out of these at this stage, as I don't want my body heat to warm the butter. The colder the butter, the flakier (and puffier) the biscuits will be.
- When your butter is worked in, make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the buttermilk, folding in the flour on the sides as you go. Don't overwork the flour, but fold it together until all of the buttermilk is incorporated.
- Take the dough and lay it on a piece of floured parchment paper. Roll or pat the dough out til it's about 1/2 inch thick, and then fold each side in. Repeat this process twice. This process gives a kind of lamination to the dough, or in laymen's terms, it helps it rise.
- Spread the dough out to about half inch thick again, and using a biscuit cutter or a mason jar, cut out biscuits without twisting the biscuit cutter or mason jar. You don't want to finish the edges by twisting the cutter, as that will impede the biscuit's rise.
- Place biscuits on a cookie sheet so that all the biscuits are touching, and brush the tops with a little leftover buttermilk or even melted butter, for a more golden appearance.
- Using your finishing salt, place a few flakes on top of each biscuit.
- Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the tops are browned and the biscuits are cooked through.