My early twenties can be broken into three eras: Bagel, Scone, and Biscuit. The first took place, entirely, in an all-you-can-eat dining hall. Mass-scrambled eggs, mystery-vegetable cream cheese. Let’s skip ahead:
Edinburgh, Scotland; three months. I was studying abroad, which meant eating abroad, which led to two important discoveries: One, I don’t like meat pies. And two, I do like scones. Even love. In the U.K., they are tall, crusty, and handsome—oversized, some as big as a softball, fluffy and tender, flecked with chewy fruit or funky cheese, served with syrupy jam and clotted cream. During my time abroad, scones were everywhere I went. (Or, I went everywhere scones were.)
Research Triangle, North Carolina; three and a half years. I worked at a pie-and-biscuit bakery, where I made, well, pies and biscuits. Much like scones in Scotland, biscuits are omnipresent in the South, popping up everywhere from mimosa brunches to midnight drive-throughs. They are rarely embellished with mix-ins, but often sandwich-fied (fried chicken, hi). Like scones, biscuits are crusty and fluffy, sturdy and tender; they're buttery, everyday miracles. And yet, I kept meeting southern folks who insisted that they didn’t like scones.
“But they’re just like biscuits!” I insisted. “Then why don’t you just make biscuits?” they countered. Which is fair. Also, a question that asks another question: What’s the difference?
Head to the index of The Joy of Cooking and the biscuits entry reads, “see also scones.” The authors even describe scones as “sweet, rich biscuits.” This sentiment is echoed in How to Cook Everything: "Scones are really just ultra-rich biscuits." Is a scone just a type of biscuit? Is a biscuit a type of scone? Are they different names for the same thing? Let's sort it out.
The basic baking methods for scones and biscuits are indistinguishable: Start with a wheat flour-based dry mixture composed of leaveners like baking powder or baking soda, salt, and sometimes sugar. Cut in a fat—like butter, lard, or shortening—until the mixture is pebbly. Stir in a liquidy dairy—like buttermilk or cream—until a dough forms. Don’t overwork! Drop onto a baking sheet. Or, roll and cut out.
If the templates are identical, it must be the ingredients—and their quantities—that make the difference. Let's stick with The Joy of Cooking and compare the core recipes. Both the Buttermilk Biscuits and Classic Scones start with 1 ¾ cups flour, which makes our job easy as pie (which is a whole different story for another day):
- The biscuits call for 2 teaspoons baking powder and ½ teaspoon baking soda. The scones call for 2 ¼ teaspoons baking powder but no baking soda. Why? The answer is in the liquid…
- The biscuits call for ¾ to 1 cup buttermilk—acidic!—which activates that baking soda. The scone recipe calls for 1/3 cream—not acidic but higher in fat. So the scones have less liquid, but the recipe also calls for 2 large eggs, which equal about 1/3 cup.
- The biscuits call for 4 to 6 tablespoons butter or shortening. The scones call for 8 tablespoons butter—roughly twice the amount.
- The biscuits call for no sugar. The scones call for 1 tablespoon.
- The biscuits are brushed with melted butter or milk. The scones are coated in egg wash, then sprinkled with sugar or salt.
- Both are rolled out. (Biscuits can also be scooped and plopped.) The biscuits are cut with a "biscuit cutter" (round), while the scones are cut into a "classic wedge shape" (triangle) or into sticks. (Scones can also be cut into circles or even squares.)
The fat in biscuits, both its type and amount, is flexible; in scones, not so much. The classic liquids used in biscuits and scones differ as well. Unlike biscuits, scones typically include sugar and eggs. Scones' shape is flexible; biscuits, not so much. The final touches also differ.
The best part about knowing all of this? It gives you the freedom—nay, the power!—to play around and bend the biscuit and scone rules, even break them. Here are a few ways to get started:
- Adapt the fat in a biscuit recipe. Start by replacing half the butter with shortening, lard, or rendered bacon fat. Or vice versa.
- Biscuits love buttermilk because it's an acidic dairy product. So call in some other, close-minded friends, like plain yogurt or crème fraîche. If you can find it, try full-fat buttermilk; you'll taste the difference.
- Same idea for scones: They love cream because it's rich and fatty. So try full-fat yogurt or crème fraîche to impart some tang. (Claire Ptak does just that in The Violet Bakery Cookbook with her prune and oat scones.)
- If you're serving biscuits in a sweet context—say, with honey and butter—steal some scone inspo. Add some sugar (anything from a pinch to a few tablespoons) into the dough. Brush the tops with cream (or, better yet, a mix of egg yolk and cream), then sprinkle with raw sugar before baking .
- If you want to transform biscuits into pseudo-shortcakes, follow the method above, then add a couple egg yolks to the dough.
- Turn biscuit sandwich ideas into scone mix-ins. Maybe add some diced smoky ham and cheddar. Or crumbled sausage and pimiento cheese. Play around and see what you come up with!
Are you team biscuit or team scone? (Or both?) Tell us why in the comments below!