Those Southern Staples – Biscuits and Cornbread

(originally published March 2002, in Co-options, the newsletter of Sevanada Natural Foods Cooperative in Atlanta, GA. )

I come from a long, proud line of biscuit makers. My mother’s mother (Pansy) could make a pan of biscuits that you would swear could float off the plate. My mother (Jo) has always been convinced that her biscuits aren’t as good as Pansy’s, but they are. You find yourself reaching for the preserves just to have something to hold them down. Vegan biscuits were one of the things that I just had to get right, and now that I have, I’ll tell y’all the secrets.

Actually, making good biscuits isn’t hard; it’s just a matter of practice and keeping a few simple rules in mind. These are to a) choose a low gluten (low protein) flour, b) keep the ingredients cool or cold, c) handle the dough as little as possible, d) bake these items at a higher temperature than you might expect (400-450 F), and e) serve them hot – as soon as they’re ready. I usually try to make sure that everyone is seated at the table before I pull the pan out of the oven! (These rules also apply for scones, soda bread, and pie crusts.)

For those of you who are into the kitchen science thing – here are the reasons behind the rules:

a) Low gluten flour – This surprises a lot of people, since they’ve heard that high gluten flour is often called “bread flour”. What they don’t understand is that biscuits are not really “bread” in the classic sense – they are pastry. Look for flour that says “soft wheat” or “pastry flour”. “All-purpose” flour will be alright. Avoid “bread flour”. For truly light Southern-style biscuits, use a self-rising biscuit flour like White Lily. I don’t recommend this for everyday eating, of course, but biscuits are pretty high in fat, so I wouldn’t recommend them for everyday eating anyway.
b) Keep the ingredients cool – Pastry is often “short” or rich in shortening. Shortening is called that because it shortens the gluten strands in the flour, making the final product flaky and tender, rather than chewy like a yeast bread. In order to maximize the flakiness in your biscuits or other pastries, you want the fat (shortening) to remain in discrete units rather than melting into the flour. The small chunks of fat keep the flour layers apart and contribute to the overall flakiness of the product. I have cool hands, so I work my shortening in using my fingers during cool weather, but if your hands are warm, you’ll want to use a pastry cutter (which looks like a handle with a half-moon shaped set of wires or blades attached). If you leave your shortening in fairly large chunks, you’ll have very flaky biscuits, but they’ll fall apart. If you work all the shortening in until your flour resembles coarse cornmeal, your biscuits will be tender, but not flaky. For the best flaky-tender balance, work most of your shortening in until the flour looks like coarse corn meal, but leave a few pea-sized pieces of shortening as well.

I use a natural, non-hydrogenated, organic shortening made by Spectrum. Keep it cool, but not in the refrigerator. It gets soft at temperatures above 72F, but becomes almost unworkably hard below 60 F. Cool room temperature (68 F or so) keeps it at a perfect, workable texture.
c) Handle the dough as little as possible – This is related to the low-gluten flour rule. The protein in wheat is developed by kneading. When you are making a yeast bread, you want these sheets to develop so that they will trap the tiny bubbles of CO2 that the yeast gives off. That is what makes yeast bread rise, and gives it its distinctive chewy texture. If these gluten sheets are allowed to develop in biscuits, however, it makes them tough. Only knead your dough enough to incorporate all the dough into a mass. If this takes more than about 5 or 6 strokes, you need to add a bit more liquid.
d) Bake the biscuits at a high temperature – This allows the moisture in the biscuits to quickly turn into steam, which makes them puff up and gives them a lovely crust. Slower baking will make the biscuits tough, not light and crusty.
e) Serve them hot – while the steam is still escaping. It gives the biscuits that lighter-than-air quality.

Since St. Patrick’s Day is the 17th, I’m also including a simple vegan soda bread recipe. This one isn’t entirely traditional, since it includes both baking powder and baking soda, but it’s very tasty. Soda bread isn’t rich like biscuits, but all the same dough handling rules apply. I think of it as Irish hoecake!

The rules about high temperature baking and serving hot also go for cornbread, and I’ll include a recipe for that as well. My paternal grandmother (Theone) thought that it wasn’t a proper meal unless there were both cornbread and biscuits on the table. (Too bad her biscuits weren’t as good as Pansy’s!)

Old Fashioned White or Half-Whole-Wheat Biscuits

Recipe By: Lisa T. Bennett
Serving Size: 12
Preparation Time: 0:30

4 cups self-rising flour
1 cup Spectrum shortening
1 1/3 cups to 1 1/2 cups soymilk

Pre-heat oven to 450 F.

Cut shortening into flour until it resembles coarse meal with a few pea-sized pieces of shortening remaining. Mix in soymilk just until dough holds together. Press dough together lightly. Don’t overwork the dough or biscuits will be tough – 5 or 6 strokes should be enough or you should add more soymilk. It’s better to err on the side of too wet rather than too dry. Press dough out onto a floured board to 1/2 inch thick. Cut with a biscuit cutter or an old baking powder tin. Don’t twist the cutter! Doing so will cause the edges of the biscuits to seal and won’t allow them to rise properly. Bake in ungreased pan until lightly browned, 12 – 15 minutes.

Makes 12 medium-sized biscuits (enough for four moderately hungry adults).

Notes: Placing the biscuits close together in the pan will cause them to rise up and will yield tall biscuits with soft sides (classic Southern biscuits). Leaving a little space between them with make them crusty all over and a bit shorter and wider. Using a larger cutter will give you what are often lovingly referred to as “cat-head biscuits” (the name simply refers to their size).

Don’t overbake the biscuits or they will lose their delicate flavor and become slightly bitter. They should be pale with light golden-brown highlights.

Variation: Half-Whole Wheat Biscuits. Substitute two cups plain unbleached flour and two cups whole wheat pastry flour for the self-rising flour. Add 4 teaspoons baking powder and one teaspoon salt to flour before cutting in shortening. These biscuits will be heavier than the white ones, but will have more fiber.

Another Variation: Substitute Earth Balance for Spectrum Organic Shortening for a more “buttery” flavor. Omit salt.

(For an all-whole-wheat biscuit recipe, see the March 2004 article “Down Home Cookin’ ”.)

Corn Bread

Recipe By: Lisa T. Bennett
Serving Size: 8
Preparation Time: 0:45

1 cup full-fat soy milk (unsweetened preferred, but regular okay.)
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
3/4 cup safflower or canola oil
1 1/2 cups cornmeal (white or yellow)
3/4 cup whole wheat pastry or unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon Ener-G egg replacer powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 450 F.

Mix soy milk and vinegar – let sour. It will look lumpy and clabbered, like buttermilk.

Pour safflower oil into a cast-iron pan. Let it heat in the oven while you mix dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. (If you don’t have a cast-iron pan, use an 8″ round cake pan or an 8″ X 8″ square pan.)

Pour oil into a well in the dry ingredients. Add the soured soymilk – mix quickly. Batter should be like thick cake batter. If too dry, add more soy milk (doesn’t have to be soured).

Pour batter in hot pan, place back in oven and bake until golden and crusty – about 20-25 minutes.
Variations: add any or all of the following: a handful of corn kernels, diced red or green bell peppers, a tablespoon of diced jalepenos, or a teaspon of diced or pureed chipotle peppers.

Scannels’ Soda Bread

Recipe adapted from The Vegan Handbook
Serving Size: 8
Preparation Time: 1:00 hour

1 cup soy milk
1 tablespoon lemon juice or cider vinegar
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon unbleached sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 450 F. Spray an 8″ cake pan with non-stick spray and sprinkle flour lightly in pan.

Mix soy milk and lemon juice or cider vinegar to make “buttermilk”. The mixture will sour and look clabbered.

Mix dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Add “buttermilk” and stir until a ragged dough forms.

Knead dough lightly (5-6 stokes) just until it comes together. Shape into a flattened round. Place in the prepared pan. Cut a cross in the bread with a sharp knife, cutting about halfway down through the bread. This will allow the bread to “bloom” open.

Bake at 450 for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 400 and bake for an additional 30 – 35 minutes, or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. The bread will be very brown on top.

Serve warm, or allow to cool and cut in crosswise slices.
Variation: “Spotted Dog” – add 1/4 cup raisins or currants.

One response to “Those Southern Staples – Biscuits and Cornbread

  1. Pingback: Those Southern Staples – Biscuits and Cornbread - Vegan Style! | The South Will Rise