Old Fashioned Cooking: My Grandma's Buttermilk Biscuits

Memories and Cooking Go Together

Science has shown over the last several years that your sense of smell is the first one associated with memory, and I have to agree. My earliest recollections include the smell of buttermilk biscuits and bacon resting heavily on my nose, and I still associate these smells with my grandparents.

There was never a day at my grandmother's house when she did not make buttermilk biscuits. Every morning, my mamaw got up, pulled out the big board and put it on the table. Her biscuit recipe was simple, developed after years of practice. From the flour bin - an erstwhile tin trash can - she pulled her rolling pin, sifter, and big glass mixing bowl filled 3/4 full of flour. And I sat there at the table and watched as she sifted, mixed, kneaded, rolled, and cut biscuits. Every single day.

Her recipe was a little avant-garde for most modern cooks, involving measuring with her hand things like salt and baking soda. She had never to my knowledge owned proper food scales, measuring cups or spoons, instead dipping things out with improvised implements or her hands. It was the way she'd been taught by her mother, and the way women had baked in Appalachia for two hundred years or more.

Since it's hard to get a consistent measurement for the direction "just dip out a handful of lard," modern measurement translations are starred beside each of her measurements. Remember, this is the way your grandparents probably put recipes together; only after Betty Crocker cookbooks became normal did precise and scientific measurements become a normal part of home cooking.

Mamaw's Buttermilk Biscuits

Ingredients:

  • Large mixing bowl of flour
  • Fingerful of salt  (*about 1 tsp)
  • Heaping silver spoon of baking soda (or sodie, as she said)  (*1 tbsp baking soda)
  • Three overflowing teacups of buttermilk  (*3 cups buttermilk)
  • One handful of lard, just dip in and throw it into the buttermilk.  (*3/4 cups lard or shortening)
  • I recommend also adding about 1/8 cup of sugar to leaven out some bitterness

Prep: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place a rectangular pan with a small handful of lard (that's about 1/4 cup) in the oven.

  1. Sift out the flour and discard any lumps. Make a big depression in the center of the bowl. 
  2. Add dry ingredients, then add buttermilk, then add lard (or shortening). 
  3. Hand mix ingredients in the depression, letting flour add itself as you mix. Gradually, you'll form a wet dough. Mix by hand until the dough starts to pull away from your fingers. 
  4. Generously flour your rolling surface. Pull out dough and place, wet side down, on the flour. Knead dough until it forms a soft dough, about 3-4 minutes; add flour to board as needed. 
  5. Roll dough out. Cut biscuit shapes. You can pick up the excess dough and cut more biscuits as needed, or you can loosely lump them together to make the "special biscuit." (More on that later.) 
  6. Pull pan out of oven, and tilt so that the melted lard shifts to one end. Take each biscuit, dip the top in the melted lard so about half of it is dampened by the grease, then place it in the pan on the other end. Biscuits should touch. In fact, to do it right, they should be squished together a little. 
  7. At the bottom of the pan, place the "special biscuit". You shouldn't have much grease left down there at this point. 
  8. Bake your pan of biscuits for about 20 minutes, until the tops are a golden brown.

The best way to eat these biscuits is with country white gravy made with lard and pork drippings (that can be ham, pork chops, sausage, etc.) or with jelly or sorghum molasses.

About that special biscuit: all those odd edges make a particularly crispy surface. If you love the crispy bits, just drop the rest of the dough into the end of the pan, not squishing anything together. You wind up with a biscuit that's mostly crisp, with a soft moist center.

One More Thing: Fun with Biscuit Dough

I used this recipe once when babysitting a little boy. We made the dough together, then instead of cutting it shaped it into all kinds of things: bugs, skeletons, worms, and whatever else delighted the grossness-appreciation module all little boy brains contain. After baking at 400 degrees for 12 minutes on a cookie sheet, they made really tasty crunchy snacks. You know, that kid asked me to make biscuits with him until he was sixteen years old? We did it a couple more times, but they were never as tasty as that first batch.