As a native New Englander, mostly everything you learn at a Southern biscuit festival is a tip of some kind—and such was the case at Knoxville, Tennessee’s 8th-annual International Biscuit Festival recently. The festival has been popping up on Biscuit Boulevard (yes, it's really called that year-round) in Knoxville for eight years now, with bakers from all over the south competing for the title of Grand Champion.
And as an eleven-year-old demo-ing her championship biscuit this past weekend said, “we just do it as grandma taught us.” I never had a biscuit-slinging grandma, and I certainly wasn’t winning anything for my cooking before junior high.
More: Get our tips for the rest of your Knoxville trip, from costume shops to general stores.
So you eat many biscuits, and you take many notes—and after attending this biscuit-laden weekend three years running, you pick up a thing or two. By this time, it’s a little more like you had a Southern second cousin, or at least a very friendly Southern neighbor. Here are the best things I learned about biscuit-making at this year’s festival—for those of you who already have a handed-down family recipe and for those of you who don’t know a biscuit from a scone edgewise.
Let your definition of "biscuit" be open to interpretation.
Something we believe applies to everyday cooking also applies to biscuits—and, to be clear, this method is Southerner-approved: There is no one right way to make a biscuit. I saw cauliflower biscuits studded with Tennessee-made Benton’s bacon; I saw lemon zest in dough; I saw banana biscuits; I even saw a Thanksgiving-inspired one, decked out with pulled turkey, green beans, and gravy. Biscuit recipes are not unbreakable rules. There—less intimidating, right?
Grate your butter!
Almost every cook demo-ing biscuit-making on the day of the baking contest grated cold butter into their flour. Why? Because doing this allows you to work with very cold butter very quickly—before it has a chance to melt. (The colder the butter is when it goes into the oven, the bigger the steam pockets it creates as it bakes and the higher your biscuits rise.) To follow suit, just grate cold butter over the largest holes of a box grater, directly over your dry ingredients.
Biscuit scraps can be as good—or better—as the real thing.
This foxy little tip is brought to us by Ben Mims, formerly of Saveur: Cut your biscuits with a cutter while they’re on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Take the web of leftover biscuit dough and bake it as is—once it’s done, fill the cracks and holes and crags with different jams and whipped cream. What you get is part slab-biscuit, part crumble—something almost worth making biscuits for alone.
But if all you want is the real thing, ditch the biscuit cutter…
…and slice your biscuits into squares. No scraps! Justin Chapple of Food & Wine instructs to use a very sharp knife, and cut firmly and straight through the dough—the more you wiggle your knife, the more of a chance you’ll seal the edges, preventing them from rising in the oven later.
You don’t need measuring cups.
This isn’t going to be a tip about why you should “bake by feel”—because the only way you’ll ever get there is by baking batch after batch, and that’s not much help to us novice bakers (ahem, Yankees), anyway. When you find yourself without a measuring cup, use a Solo cup instead (you know the ones). A standard size is 18 ounces; if the recipe calls for 12 ounces of buttermilk, you’ve got a much better benchmark for eyeballing.
Skip the hot water.
When you’re done mixing, never wash your hands with hot water, which activates the gluten in flour and makes your hands into a gluier mess than they were before. Go cold and you should be just fine.
Now you're ready to bake, right?
What are your best biscuit tips? Tell us in the comments below!
For more information about traveling to Knoxville, and the rest of Tennessee, head here.