I grew up in the South, where biscuits were a mainstay at most meals. They were brought from oven to table with no delay, swaddled in tea towel-lined baskets so they stayed warm, and it was always a race to see who could unwrap the fabric first to reveal the steaming mounds nestled inside. We’d pluck them from the basket, slather them with butter, and take a bite.
So ubiquitous were freshly baked biscuits — at our table and the dinner tables of most other Southerners I knew, as well as at gas stations, restaurants, and drive-thrus — that I never really thought about why biscuits were synonymous with the South, much less considered that they are one of the most foundational baked goods in America, as old as the country itself.
A journey from Europe to Southern kitchens
The humble yet delicious biscuit has a complicated and storied journey in America, one intertwined with enslavement, war, gender stereotypes, and economics.
The history of one of America’s earliest and most iconic baked goods actually begins in Europe. The word biscuit comes from the Latin “biscotus,” which means twice-baked, and in medieval times probably resembled what we now know as biscotti. As part of their rations, soldiers in ancient Rome received biscuits, and, in 1588, biscuits were introduced to Great Britain and included as part of rations for sailors in the Royal Navy. Called hardtack, the hard, flavorless biscuits kept well aboard their ships, though were purportedly so durable that they were also used as postcards. For longer trips, the biscuits — made only of flour, water, and salt — were baked four times and prepared six months in advance so they’d be sufficiently dry for the journey and wouldn’t spoil.
By the time European settlers arrived in the New World, these dense, flavorless biscuits were an established part of their diet. But they became a mainstay in colonial times because they could be baked quickly and required few ingredients. In Southern colonies, successful wheat harvests gave the colonists access to fresh flour, cows and pigs supplied buttermilk and lard, and biscuits gradually began to transform into something more palatable. Although yeast was available to the colonists, it was expensive, could be hard to source, and was difficult to store. Baking soda and baking powder wouldn’t be invented for more than 100 years (in 1846 and 1856, respectively), and so the biscuits were unleavened. In order to improve their texture, cooks developed a technique of beating the dough to introduce some air, which gave the biscuits a modest rise.
Using a rolling pin or mallet, the dough was beaten by hand for over an hour, a laborious task. Such labor was not practical for a housewife with other chores to complete, but in the Southern colonies, where slave labor was embraced, it was a duty that typically fell to enslaved women. The recipe for beaten biscuits, flatter and more cracker-like than the biscuits we now know, must have been considered an essential food of the time, as it can be found in Abby Fisher’s 1881 cookbook, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, one of the first cookbooks written by a Black woman. After slavery ended, biscuits fell out of favor in the South for a time; without the free labor (and with the high cost of flour and yeast) the process was thought to be too labor-intensive.
Though biscuits had an early foothold in Southern kitchens, it was the creativity and resourcefulness of Black bakers that led to the popularization of biscuits throughout the country.
But biscuits regained favor with the advent of commercial leaveners. Without a robust distribution system, cooks still used flour made from wheat that was grown and milled locally. In the North, the flour was milled from hard winter wheat, which has a higher protein level — great for bread and other baked goods, but not ideal for biscuits, as it can make them tough. So, while biscuits were certainly baked in Northern kitchens, they didn’t replace bread as the carbohydrate of choice. In the South, by contrast, the available flour was milled from low-protein soft wheat, which lacks the protein content necessary to make great bread but is the ideal flour for biscuits. Using Southern flour in combination with commercial leaveners resulted in biscuits that were feather-light and tender, quickly becoming the dominant bread of the region to rival cornbread in popularity and ubiquity.
But there was another reason why Northerners eschewed biscuits in favor of bread, and it had nothing to do with the available flour. Regional bias also existed, and some Northerners believed that eating cooled bread was better for digestion. Rebecca Sharpless, author of Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South, notes, “Southerners learned to prefer individual portions of breads served hot, while in the North, the food reformers were horrified and thought it should be served cold. Cold sliced bread was what good people ate, and Southerners were barbarians.”
Want higher-rising biscuits?
It depends on how you cut the dough. Biscuit cutters slice through easily for a cleaner cut. Because the edges aren’t compressed, biscuits are able to spring up fully while baking — duller drinking glasses create rougher edges, and thus less rise.
Biscuits’ road to the spotlight
Though biscuits had an early foothold in Southern kitchens, it was the creativity and resourcefulness of Black bakers that led to the popularization of biscuits throughout the country. Alexander Ashbourne, a well-respected caterer, was born enslaved in Philadelphia. At the city’s Emancipation Celebration in 1863, he noticed the irregular forms of the biscuits that were served. It gave him an idea, and over the next decade he refined the design for a spring-loaded biscuit cutter. The first iteration of the biscuit cutter contained a board for rolling out dough, with an attached metal plate with a variety of biscuit sizes. The dough was rolled out and placed in the biscuit cutter, then the baker would pull the plate down, stamping out many biscuits at a time. In 1875, he applied for a patent for his invention.
A Pullman Porter whose name is lost to history is another African American who fundamentally changed how we consume biscuits. Pullman Porters were Black men who worked on Pullman trains that were essentially hotels on wheels. Their duties ranged from carrying baggage and shining shoes to setting up and cleaning the sleeping areas. One of the major duties of Pullman Porters was to cook for the dining cars. Cooks on the train used regional ingredients to make elaborate meals in small kitchens, and even baked loaves of bread that became known as the Pullman loaf. (The pullman loaf pan is named because of its resemblance to train cars.)
In 1930 Carl Smith, a salesman for a national milling company, was on a train bound for San Francisco. The kitchen was closed, but Smith asked the cook to make him something to eat and was quickly brought a plate of hot biscuits. Smith asked him how he was able to make them so quickly, and the cook told him he had created a pre-mixed blend of lard, flour, salt, and baking powder that he kept on ice; when he wanted to make a batch of biscuits, he just added the wet ingredients to the mix. Smith took the idea back to his employer, and the company created a version that could be mass-produced, debuting ready-to-bake biscuit mix on store shelves a year later.
1931 proved to be a pivotal year for biscuits; that same year, Lively Willoughby, a Kentucky inventor, obtained a patent for refrigerated biscuit dough in a tube. Marketed to the public as “oven-ready biscuits,” the product was acquired by Ballard and Ballard, and went on to become a familiar sight on grocery store shelves.
The introduction of biscuit mix and tubes of ready-to-bake dough hastened the spread of biscuits beyond the South. Biscuits were marketed towards women across America in ads from packaged goods companies, who touted them as a quick and easy way to make fresh bread. A 1934 magazine advertisement, for instance, promised, “Now! Anybody a Perfect Biscuit Maker!” Bolstered by such advertisements touting convenience and accessibility, biscuits spread from coast to coast, one can and box at a time.
Get award-winning biscuit baker Erika Council’s tips for better biscuits.
It was only a matter of time before biscuits left the hands of home bakers and kitchens and became commercialized. Today, almost every major fast-food chain has a biscuit on their menu, though Hardee’s was the first to add biscuits to their menu in the 1970s.
At that time, the Atlanta-based chain was not doing well, and a franchisee owner, Mayo Boddie, happened to eat a biscuit sandwich at a small restaurant. Although skeptical, he tested the idea of a biscuit breakfast sandwich in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where it immediately was successful. In 1977, biscuit breakfast sandwiches were available nationwide, and by 2018, biscuits accounted for nearly 50 percent of the chain’s revenue.
Breaking down the wide world of biscuits
Innovation, wider and more inexpensive distribution of flour, and regional preferences contributed to a proliferation of biscuit styles.
Drop biscuits, or so-called “emergency biscuits,” were first noted in the Boston Cooking School Cookbook in 1896. It’s an appropriate name because they can be made in a hurry, as the dough is dropped from the spoon onto the pan, rather than rolled or cut.
Drop biscuits have more liquid in relation to fat and flour, making a dough that’s too wet to be kneaded. They don’t rise as much as other types of biscuits, and are coarser in texture and appearance, but win for speed and ease.
By contrast, the appropriately named angel biscuits are incredibly flaky and light. The use of yeast plus a commercial leavening agent (baking powder, baking soda, or, in some cases, both) gives these biscuits their high rise and airy texture.
The first mention of angel biscuits was in 1950, although the actual creator is debated, as it is unclear which Southern flour brand first developed the recipe. Some claim it was an employee at White Lily, while others think it came from an employee at Martha White.
But buttermilk biscuits are the type with which most Americans are familiar. As its name suggests, the iconic biscuit uses buttermilk to provide acidity, which gives the biscuits their signature tang for a more flavorful bake.
This style of biscuit came to prominence when Church & Co. (now known as Arm & Hammer) began to sell baking soda, and the company advised housewives in a cookbook from 1900 to use buttermilk in their biscuits, because farmer’s wives had a readily available source of buttermilk, a byproduct of making butter.
Even within those styles, variations abound. Though biscuits contain few ingredients, preferences for each — from the types of flour, fat, and liquid used — reflect regionality, thrift, and, in many cases, the preferences of the baker. But despite their simple ingredient lists, mastering biscuits can be a lifelong pursuit. Some bakers swear by a particular type or brand of flour, while others claim the secret to their biscuits lies in a specific tool or technique.
For a relatively simple baked good, they are shrouded in mystique. Some claim a proper biscuit can’t be baked outside the South. Others use the basic biscuit form as a springboard for innovation — adding sourdough starter, laminating the dough with butter like a croissant, or creating biscuits with unusual flavors.
“Learning to make biscuits has been a life journey.” - baker Cheryl Day
Says baker and cookbook author Cheryl Day, “Learning to make biscuits has been a life journey. I became interested in baking when I was eight years old, and I don’t think I was happy with my biscuit recipe until I wrote my last cookbook.” Grain and Fire author Rebecca Sharpless notes that the process of making biscuits centuries ago was not just a point of pride. She writes, “When it’s a necessity, you just had to do it [make biscuits], and it took them years to get them completely honed.”
Today, the spread and popularity of biscuits throughout America cannot be denied. Biscuits can be found in the refrigerated section of every grocery store, on menus (including drive-thrus), and in gas stations and bakeries nationwide. But they’re also still made as they always have been, by home cooks who want a quick bread to serve hot with dinner. The legacy of the cooks of the 1800s who perfected an American staple should be lauded, and we owe them a delicious debt.
The next time you eat a biscuit, remember that you’re eating a bite of American history.
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Cover photo by Rick Holbrook; food styling by Kaitlin Wayne.