There’s a scientific reason no one outside the South can nail them.
HN Discussion: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18524157
Posted by Xcelerate
(karma: 8012)Post stats: Points: 94 - Comments: 57 - 2018-11-24T21:48:24Z
In subsequent attempts, I tried everything I could think of to get it right. I worried about buttermilk quality, so I bought an expensive bottle at the farmers’ market, which did nothing. I tried different fat sources, including butter and lard, which made small differences in flavor and texture but still resulted in a shape and density better suited for a hockey rink than a plate. I made sure all of my ingredients were ice-cold when I started mixing, which is a good tip in general, but did not fix my problem. I kneaded the dough more or less, made it wetter or drier. The only thing left was the flour, but I figured it couldn’t be that—wasn’t self-rising flour the same everywhere? We had just used regular grocery-store flour back home.
Out of ideas, I did what any self-respecting Millennial would do: I Googled it, and then I called my mom, and then I placed an Amazon order.
The one ingredient I took for granted had indeed been the key all along, says Robert Dixon Phillips, a retired professor of food science at the University of Georgia. To make a good biscuit, “you want a flour made from a soft wheat,” he says. “It has less gluten protein and the gluten is weaker, which allows the chemical leavening—the baking powder—to generate carbon dioxide and make it rise up in the oven.” It turns out that in most of the U.S., commonly available flours are made from hard wheats, which serve a different purpose. “Hard wheats are higher in gluten protein, and when they’re turned into a dough, the dough is very strong and elastic and can trap carbon dioxide,” says Phillips. If you want to make bread, you want a hard wheat. Northern biscuits suck because they are made with bread flour.
At first, this information felt like a huge relief. I just had to buy the right flour. I’m great at buying things! Unfortunately, the problem was a little more complicated. According to Sarah Simmons, a chef from South Carolina who has owned food businesses in both New York and the South, finding soft wheat flour north of Washington, D.C., is tricky even for pros. “Northerners don’t have it. I couldn’t get it commercially, even,” she told me. “We had to make our own flour blend, and I spent probably nine months working on it, trying to get the right amount of protein.”
The crux of this problem is a brand called White Lily, whose name and logo is familiar to virtually all southerners but foreign to most people outside the region. White Lily was founded in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1883, and although other contemporary brands now make serviceable biscuit flour, it still dominates grocery baking aisles across the Southeast. Biscuits are now as common an inexpensive staple bread in southern diets as bagels or kaiser rolls are in New York, but for generations of rural, working-class southerners, they were a luxurious treat. “When my grandmother in western North Carolina said bread, she meant cornbread,” Phillips told me. “The biscuits were a special thing. We’d have them on Sundays.”
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