27 May 2020

U.S. “biscuits” — they are not “cookies”

It's ironic, but I received three packages of yeast over the past few days (thanks J. and K.), and yesterday I made some bread that is not leavened with yeast but with baking soda (bicarbonate de soude) or baking powder (levure chimique). This is a bread that we Americans call biscuits — I think they originated in places like Scotland and the Channel Islands, actually. At least that's what Wikipedia says, and I found this recipe for a yeast-leavened bread or cake that resembles our American biscuits and is called a Guernsey biscuit. A lot of Americans can trace their ancestors to Scotland and the Channel Islands — as I do.

Our American biscuits — a specialty of the U.S. South — resemble British scones, but they are not usually sweetened and they are not made with eggs. They are made with flour, fat — butter, lard (saindoux), margarine, or vegetable shortening — salt, baking soda (or powder), and an acidic liquid — sour milk, buttermilk, or yogurt. Anyway, these pictures show the ones I made yesterday. I made them with duck fat, because I have a lot of duck fat in the fridge these days. And because that was the flavor I wanted. We were going to eat these with our lunch of grilled chicken and a side dish of green peas that I also flavored with a little duck fat instead of butter.

The most important thing about making biscuits is to work the dough as little as possible. The first step is to "cut" the butter or other fat into the flour. The fat needs to be cold. I use a pastry cutter to do that, or you can just do it with your fingers if your hands aren't too hot. I also used French type 45 flour, which is "cake flour" that's made with soft rather than hard wheat varieties. All-purpose flour (French type 55) works too. Bake the biscuits in a hot oven.

In the photo on the right are two jars of melted duck fat. The smaller jar has some duck broth in the bottom.

Here's our friend Tom's recipe for biscuits, with our modifications to adapt it to the ingredients we can get here in France. For example, we can't get vegetable shortening. (Also, I doubled the recipe and ended up with seven three-inch biscuits. Tom lives in Illinois and I've known him since the 1970s. Walt uses the same recipe, with butter and yogurt, to make what we eat as "shortcake" with strawberries and cream. Thanks to Tom.

Biscuits for two
Makes 4 biscuits

4½ oz. flour by weight (about 125 grams)
1 tsp. baking powder or soda
1 pinch of salt
2 Tbsp. butter or other fat
½ cup buttermilk or plain yogurt (120 ml)

Preheat the oven to 450ºF (230ºC).

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder and/or baking soda, and salt. Using your fingertips or a pastry cutter, rub butter and shortening into dry ingredients until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. (The faster the better, you don't want the fat to melt.) Make a well in the center and pour in the chilled buttermilk. Stir just until the dough comes together. The dough will be very sticky.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, dust the top with flour, and gently fold the dough over on itself 5 or 6 times. Then press it into a 1-inch thick round. Cut out biscuits with a round 2- or 3-inch cutter (emporte-pièce) or cut it into squares or triangles with a knife, being sure to push straight down through the dough. Place the biscuits on a baking sheet (or in a cake pan) so that they just touch each other. Reform any leftover pieces of dough, working the dough as little as possible and continue cutting out biscuits.

Bake until biscuits are tall and a light golden brown color on top, 15 to 20 minutes.


The whole trick with biscuits is to handle the dough as little as possible. The more handling the biscuits get, the tougher they will be.

But don’t fret. It takes practice to be able to turn out consistently light biscuits. But look, there are millions of people that make great biscuits, and if you’re new to making biscuits, the only advantage they have over you is practice. Decide you want to make good biscuits and then just keep at it until you develop a feel for what the dough should be like.

There are a few interesting variations you can make with this dough. One thing is to shred some sharp Cheddar (or Comté) cheese and add it to the flour before the buttermilk goes in. That will make really nice cheese biscuits that are great with dinner. You can add some sugar, cinnamon, and raisins if you want sweet  biscuits.

I wish I had made some duck cracklings to add to my duckfat biscuits. Next time...


  1. Great looking biscuits! Who gets the seventh one? ;)

    I was telling my husband yesterday that I want to make scones. Must do it.

    1. We shared the seventh one (the smallest) as soon as they came out of the oven just to see if they were good. They were.

  2. I always remember Jane making biscuits for our mini Thanksgiving dinner (Aimée, Jane, and I). She made them in her au pair family's oven, and they were very curious about them!

    1. Jane from Maine... and I think of biscuits as being particularly Southern. My mother made them for breakfast so often when I was growing up.

  3. Oh those look good and nostalgic. There's nothing as wonderful as a flaky southern biscuit with butter. I bet that duck fat was amazing in them. Biscuits and gravy are a menu item in many southern restaurants.

    1. Is there a standard gravy recipe or can you eat biscuits with any kind of gravy?

    2. Traditionally, it would be pork sausage gravy. I don’t know how that’s made.

    3. Also cream gravy is popular on biscuits in the south....pan drippings, fat or bacon grease, with flour, milk, salt and a good quantity of pepper. A nice recipe book for southern cooking comes from Helen Corbitt; she wrote several, actually, and was in charge of the restaurants at Nieman Marcus in the 1960s - 80s, which leaned towards southern comfort food.


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