When Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart started doing research for their new book on Southern cooking, they realized that even accomplished cooks are terrified of two things: pie crusts and biscuits. Despite the fact that biscuits were once the staples of everyday cooking, they're now surrounded by an air of mystery, particularly to a generation whose matriarchs are more likely to head off to work in the morning than slave over a hot stove all day. Without that precedent, modern cooks often opt for Pillsbury rather than go through the trouble of making them from scratch. Which is a shame, if you ask any biscuit purist.
Dupree, a James Beard award-winning chef and author of numerous cookbooks, is one of the South's most outspoken advocates of the humble bread. Her recently released book Southern Biscuits, co-written with Graubart, attempts to make the process accessible to modern cooks.
"There's this myth that we're all, particularly Southerners, supposed to be born carrying a biscuit bowl," Graubart says. "Lo and behold, that is not true, and there are scores of people who need to have it broken down for them, that haven't actually observed their mother or grandmother in the kitchen making biscuits."
The book leaves no questions unanswered, delving into everything from the best kind of flour to use (White Lily self-rising) to the best bowl (wide and wooden) to clean-up tips (use a plastic pastry sheet as your work surface).
"We realized some people didn't know what it meant when you said cut in the flour," Dupree says. "Even if you said take two knives, what do you do, tickle yourself under the chin with them? What do you do with those two knives, and how long is it going to take you?"
The book also includes scores of recipes, including everything from "Dorm Biscuits" to English beaten biscuits to gourmet biscuits laced with goat butter or pimento. The pair spent months baking the biscuits, tasting, tweaking the recipes, and baking them again until they got them right. Yet somehow they never tired of eating biscuits.
"Biscuits are wonderful," Dupree says. "People ate them every day, so it wasn't hard for us to eat them every day, too."
Callie White, co-founder of Callie's Charleston Biscuits, also comes from an age when biscuits were eaten every day — and she was usually the one baking them.
"Mom made biscuits a couple times a day for her family," says White's daughter Carrie Morey, who co-founded the business and now manages the day-to-day operations. "That was her job in the kitchen. Her grandmother gave her the job she didn't want to do. They made biscuits for every meal."
White continued making biscuits when she started her own catering company, and they were so popular that the pair decided to deal exclusively in biscuits six years ago.
"I think that timing had a lot to do with it," Morey says of the company's success. "Charleston was really on the cusp five years ago of being in the food scene, and now we know it is the place to be for food. The South and Southern food is hot, and it has continued to be on everyone's radar. I also think our biscuits taste good, and they usually transport people back to a memory of sorts, and if they don't and you haven't had them, then you most likely fall in love with them because they're such a delicacy and they taste so yummy. There was not another biscuit company around, and I think the timing of it and our story ... it just all kind of came together."
Callie's Biscuits, with flavors like country ham, cinnamon, cheese and chive, and black pepper and bacon, have been touted by Food + Wine, Saveur, The New York Times, and Oprah. The biscuits are sold fully cooked and frozen, making it easy to pop them in the oven for instant homemade taste. But that convenience comes at a premium — the biscuits are priced from $33.90 to $57.90 for two dozen. It's certainly a far cry from the biscuit's humble beginnings, but Morey explains that they're intended for special occasions.
"They're handmade. The ingredients are great," Morey explains. "I only use White Lily flour ... We use butter, we don't use anything unnatural, only the best ingredients. But most importantly, because of the employees and the time it takes to make these biscuits, we have a very high labor cost."
Morey says that most people simply don't care enough to make the effort anymore.
"It's not a difficult task, but you have to be passionate about making biscuits, and most people don't have the time for it anymore and don't have the passion to do it," she says. "Biscuits now — other than ours — are typically made in huge mixers in vats on conveyor belts in huge plants."
Alas, you don't have to get your hands gooey or blow your grocery budget on biscuits if you don't want to. Many Charleston chefs specialize in the biscuit. On the simpler side of the spectrum, Jack's Cafe (41 George St. Downtown. 843-723-5237) has offered a small selection of biscuits for decades. Owner Jack Sewell bakes them fresh every morning and tops them with warm sausage gravy, crispy ham, or fried eggs for less than $3. He's a hard man to pin down, rushing to fill orders behind the counter, but he confirmed that he uses an old family recipe for his biscuits.
One of the most famous biscuits in town is Robert Stehling's Big Nasty at Hominy Grill (207 Rutledge Ave. Downtown. 843-937-0930). Brunch at the award-winning restaurant is a Charleston tradition, and the fluffy biscuit is topped with a fried chicken breast, cheddar cheese, and sausage gravy.
"The Hominy biscuit is pretty straightforward," he says. "The only 'trick' we do is to use all three fats: butter, lard, and shortening. I have never been able to decide which is best."
But Stehling wasn't always a biscuit master — he had to get schooled by his father. He was satisfied with his biscuits up until Chef Louis Osteen visited Stehling's brother's restaurant, Early Girl Eatery in Asheville, and suggested that he could teach Stehling a thing or two. Stehling did some sniffing around and realized that his own father was responsible for Early Girl's good biscuits, and he insisted on getting a few lessons, thus changing his entire biscuit-making philosophy.
"Biscuits are the kind of thing you do by feel," Stehling says. "Knowing a recipe is one thing, but you need to practice every day. The South's great biscuit makers get up every morning and make a batch. They don't need a recipe, measurements, etc. They know because they practice daily."