American biscuits are known for their simple ingredients, humble origins, and delicious buttery flavor. Contrary to some opinions, they can be made anywhere in the US with enough attention paid to process and basic, not-so-special ingredients.
The hot topic of 2018 (discourse on which triggered by a well intentioned Atlantic article) was the flour used to make the biscuits. True to their low maintenance form, biscuits quire a low-protein more-refined flour: all purpose flour, the most accessible throughout the US. This flour enables a flaky, crumbly texture, closer to a pastry or croissant (optionally made with pastry flour) rather than gluten-full bread (bread flour). For a more delicate texture (but not necessarily more delicious or authentic), you could mix the AP flour with pastry flour.
Next, cold ingredients are key, especially the butter. If the butter is not icy cold, it will combine completely with the other ingredients, and an over mixed dough will lose the flakiness and lightness moisture and fat pockets provide.
Finally, one must not work the dough for more than 10-20 turns. Too much more would melt the butter, over mix, build too much gluten, and toughen up the dough. Rather, once the dough is mixed enough so there are little flour pockets but there are still clear little chunks of butter, roll out the dough and cut out circles using a jar lid or glass. Place on a lightly buttered pan and bake!
As an eager and experimental baker, I love a good baking challenge. So when Amanda Mull of the Atlantic wrote the article that inspired this piece, “Why Most of America is Terrible at Making Biscuits,” I had to test to see if her claims were true. Was most of America terrible at making biscuits? Was I not up to the challenge?
I tested her hypothesis. On first try, my biscuits were terrible and I subscribed to her statement that White Lily flour, not available in most of the US, was key. Upon a second attempt and some follow up research inspired by this NPR article, found her claims to be false.