Biscuits and gravy is a Southern classic, but far too many people aren’t getting all they can out of this comforting breakfast staple. Regardless of your culinary or baking skill, there are probably just a few things you’re doing wrong.
How to perfect real Southern biscuits
Much like a Texas gal’s hair, Southern biscuits are known for a light, flaky texture, high rise and tender softness. Taking these steps will ensure they turn out that way.
1. Use real, unsalted butter
Butter has a high water content, which creates steam to give great rise. Using unsalted butter lets you control the salt, which is an important part of the leavening process.
2. There’s no sub for buttermilk
Regular milk just won’t add the necessary fat and acidity to create the flavor and tenderness needed. That said, substituting a quarter of the buttermilk for some heavy cream actually does add a bit of extra fat, making it a more tender biscuit.
If you are out of buttermilk, you can make 1 cup of buttermilk substitute by adding 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar to a measuring cup and adding enough whole milk to make a full cup. It’s not as good as real buttermilk, but it’s better than regular milk.
3. Use a low-protein flour
All-purpose works, but a soft wheat flour like White Lily (the Southern standard) is best. You’re doing a lot of work following these tips to avoid developing gluten, a composite of protein found in wheat flours, which can make your biscuits tough. Starting with less protein from the beginning reduces the risk of doing that.
4. Skip eggless recipes
Eggs contribute to that classic Southern rise and soft texture. The yolk adds fat, which, as we’ve already discussed, contributes to the biscuits’ softness, and the egg also works with the leaveners to get that classic Southern volume.
5. Keep cold ingredients cold
Cut the butter into marble-size cubes, and freeze it before use. All other cold ingredients (including the eggs) should be kept in the fridge until you’re ready to use them. After the wet ingredients are mixed, put them back in the fridge until you’re ready for them.
6. Whisk the dry ingredients
The whisk acts to fully combine and sift the dry ingredients.
7. Use a pastry cutter
When you cut the butter into the dry ingredients, use a pastry cutter, and work quickly. Using your hands will undo all the work you’ve done to keep the butter cold.
8. Don’t overmix
Small pieces of butter should still be visible (like crumbs) after the cut-in. Mix in the wet ingredients until it just starts to look like dough. It’s OK if it’s not a cohesive ball or there’s a little flour on the sides. In fact, it should kind of look like several clumps of dough, and it won’t be smooth.
9. Let it rest
Put it in the fridge to let those vital cold ingredients have a little break from the heat of working with it. Half an hour should do it.
10. Be gentle with the dough
Form it into a dough ball on the cutting board. No kneading, no squishing. That will make it tough. As you do so, press it into kind of a rectangle, then fold it like you would a letter before you put it in the envelope. Then press it out into a larger rectangle again, and repeat the trifold procedure. Then you roll it out to about a 1/2-inch thickness. Place the dough between two pieces of waxed paper, and let it rest another 15 or so minutes in the fridge.
11. Keep biscuit cuts close together, and do not twist!
Start from a corner, getting as close as you can to the edges without missing dough, and press firmly, then lift, and remove the biscuit. Twisting pinches the edges of the dough, inhibiting rise. (Although grandmas have been doing it for decades, a water glass might do the same thing, so use a cutter). Then proceed by getting as close as you can to the previous cut, leaving as little dough behind as you can. You want to have to roll it out only one more time (to avoid overworking that gluten).
12. Place strategically on the pan
Place the biscuits on the pan gently touching one another. I just use a 9-inch round cake pan (good enough for my grandmother, good enough for me). Avoid those biscuit pans that keep them separate. First, having them touch contributes to better rise. Additionally, while you want those tops nice and golden, if they’re touching, those sides are protected, so they’ll stay nice and soft. My dad and brother used to fight over the two centers of my grandma’s hot rolls (different recipe, but same concept) for that very reason.
13. Brush with egg wash, not butter
It’s tempting to slather the tops of your biscuits with more delicious butter, but save it until they come out. This is where we get to an important balancing act. You want moisture to escape from the sides so the biscuits rise, while trapping it in on top so they don’t dry out.
Remember what I said about the butter’s liquid content producing steam? When that steam is released on the sides, the biscuits get light, fluffy and tall. But to avoid losing too much, rather than brush the tops with butter, you’ll brush with egg wash, which will seal that in and give the biscuits the same attractive finish as butter. Just avoid brushing the sides so you don’t seal in the steam there.
How to perfect real Southern gravy
Southern gravy isn’t generally white like you see at many a fast-food joint. It often has crumbled sausage, but either way, the gravy is smooth with layered flavors.
14. Pan drippings are key
In the South, we save the drippings from bacon and sausage to use for later recipes. Really, it’s OK… just let it cool a little, and then before it sets up into solid fat, pour it into a jar with an airtight seal, and store it in the fridge. Using at least a little is the key to authentic Southern flavor. If you’ve made sausage crumbles to put into the gravy later, just reserve that by using a slotted spoon to move the meat out. Or you can use your reserve straight from the fridge.
If you end up needing more fat than what’s in the pan, you can use vegetable shortening to round it out, depending on how much sausage flavor you like. But at least some fresh or reserved pan drippings are vital. That’s why real Southern gravy isn’t white.
15. The secret weapon: Evaporated milk
Great Southern gravy doesn’t use regular milk, but a half-and-half mixture of evaporated milk and water. If you like a richer gravy, use less water. If you add too much evaporated milk, a little regular milk will fix it.
16. Season as you go
Food just tastes different if you season during each step. Add a little salt and pepper as you’re making your roux, when you add the liquid and again at the end, to taste.
17. Keep stirring, and monitor the heat
Once you add liquid, it can thicken really quickly and may get lumpy if there isn’t enough liquid. Keep stirring, and don’t be afraid to reduce the heat to give yourself more time if you need to.
18. Don’t be afraid to riff
I asked my mom for her recipe for gravy (to date, hers is the best I’ve tasted). Turns out she just wings it. If you feel like you need a little more fat or flour or liquid, just add it.