A Yankee Takes A Whack At Beaten Biscuits

Welcome to Biscuit Week, a special time set aside to cherish the most buttery and beloved of all quick breads.

I first learned about beaten biscuits from Joy Of Cooking, which is a good way to learn a little bit about a lot of things. According to the 1997 edition, beaten biscuits are the most rare and special biscuits of all: "To win unending gratitude, serve this classic accompaniment for Kentucky or Virginia ham to any homesick Southerner." The reason they are rare is because you have to fold and beat the dough, literally, with a heavy object like a rolling pin or a skillet or an ax handle for anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. This is how people got biscuits to rise before baking powder and baking soda became standard kitchen ingredients. In the great evolution of biscuits, beaten biscuits are the missing link between hard, crunchy English biscuits and soft, flaky Southern biscuits.

"Beaten biscuits are symbols of the Old South," the chef Bill Neal wrote in his book Bill Neal's Southern Cooking, "when time and labor weren't luxuries, but a way of life." This is a polite way of saying that prior to the Civil War, beaten biscuits were a regular part of daily life because there were enslaved people to do the beating. The food scholars John and Karen Hess have theorized that the beating technique was, like a lot of Southern foodways, imported from Africa. It's probably not a coincidence that beaten biscuits became less popular among white Southerners after the war, though historian Toni Tipton-Martin notes in her book Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries Of African American Cooking that they "held a place of honor in black cookbooks for generations," including the very first recipe in Abby Fisher's 1881 classic What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking.

But then in 1877, a Yankee from Vineland, New Jersey named Evelyn L. Edwards invented a dough-kneading machine called a biscuit brake. It worked like a hand-cranked pasta machine: the baker slipped the dough between two rollers over and over until it came out nice and smooth. John Egerton, one of the founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance, wrote nostalgically about his grandmother's biscuit brake in his book Southern Food At Home, On The Road, In History; at the time he was writing, the late 1980s, he said it was still possible to find biscuit brakes in antique stores in the stretch between Kentucky and northern Alabama.

Egerton also quotes this from Eliza Leslie's 1837 cookbook Directions For Cookery In Its Various Branches: "This is the most laborious of cakes, and also the most unwholesome, even when made in the best manner. We do not recommend it; but there is no accounting for tastes."

This made me even more curious to try beaten biscuits for myself.

It is possible, of course, in these glorious modern times, to make beaten biscuits without having to go to the trouble of beating something. You don't even need a biscuit brake; a food processor, according to both Joy Of Cooking and Atlanta Magazine, works just as well. (Joy says that hand-beating makes the biscuits flakier; Atlanta says there's no difference at all.) But if you're going to do the thing, you might as well do it properly. I decided to use a recipe from Karl Worley, the chef at Biscuit Love, a small chain in Tennessee, that had been reprinted in Garden & Gun; Worley had been taught the recipe by Egerton, who, in turn, had adapted it from the 1885 cookbook The Kentucky Housewife.

Worley's recipe is very basic. It doesn't include any niceties like sugar, just flour, salt, lard, and water. (There was none of the usual Southern proselytizing for White Lily flour, which is just as well since I live deep in Yankeeland and my local supermarket doesn't have any.) It all came together easily enough, smooth and only slightly tacky. It reminded me a little of the Chinese bao bing that come with Peking duck.

Then it was time to start beating. I used a wooden rolling pin. Bill Neal suggested "300 strokes, 500 for company," but I very quickly lost track. (Okay, the truth is, I didn't even attempt a serious count.) In between beatings, I folded the dough into thirds and turned it 90 degrees. And then I whacked it flat again.

Beating biscuit dough, it turns out, is almost as cathartic as kneading bread dough, and not nearly as messy. (Whenever I knead dough, I inevitably realize that there's something I have to touch that is not dough, which requires cleaning off my hands, and then the cycle starts again.) It's also a decent workout. After a while, I started to sweat. Which is something for February, and the oven wasn't even turned on.

All the recipes I'd looked at said I should stop beating the dough when it started to "blister" or "crackle." None of them, however, provided photos. Is it possible to beat beaten biscuits too much? Or are beaten biscuits done when you just get tired? After a while, I noticed there was a little more air between the layers than there had been before. The podcast I was listening to was wrapping up. It had been about an hour, maybe more. The rolling pin was starting to feel just a bit heavier. It was time.

I rolled out the biscuits and cut them, and docked the tops to let the steam out, and then I brushed the tops with butter just because Worley's recipe had seemed so austere.

It takes another hour to bake beaten biscuits. They smelled toasty, like other biscuits.

And then they came out, and then they cooled enough to taste, and then I took my first bite. And wow they were tough. Like hardtack, I assume. (I have never had hardtack.) Or dog biscuits. They didn't taste bad. They were just hard to eat, like a tall, crunchy cracker. I gave one to my dog, Joe, who is a native of northern Alabama, right at the edge of Egerton's biscuit belt. He didn't recall ever eating beaten biscuits in his early puppyhood, but he's still young enough that he'll try anything. Even he found it a little tough-going at first.

In the middle of the second biscuit, the taste started to grow on me. Joe agreed; he stood under the kitchen counter and looked up with his best Poor Pitiful Puppy face.

I split a biscuit open and was pleased to see that there were little flaky layers.

I tried one with ham. It was thin-sliced supermarket deli counter ham, not a warm, Southern country-style ham, so I don't think I got the full experience. The biscuit is meant to be a ham delivery system, which means that while it's okay on its own, it would be exponentially improved by a Smithfield ham. That's the problem with trying to reproduce certain foods out of the context of their place and time. You'll always get something wrong. Still, there's something to be said for trying. Now I no longer have to wonder. Instead, I'll be wondering about a really good Southern ham.