The fluffy biscuits of today are fairly modern creations, but in Winchester, Ky. one couple continues to pound them out the old-fashioned way.
The adjectives most commonly applied to biscuits today are “fluffy” and “light.” But “filling” and “long-lasting” were once the criteria for a good biscuit.
Fluffy biscuits are fairly modern creations, a result of the widespread availability of leavening agents. Commercial baking soda became available around 1840. Baking powder was introduced in 1856. And commercial yeast first went on the market in the United States in 1868.
The doubly light, extra fluffy angel biscuits described in church circle cookbooks are quite new, with both yeast and baking powder leavening the flour. Buttermilk produces just the right chemical reaction and adds enough moisture to create that treasured lightness.
Two centuries ago, however, long before mechanization and chemistry took over, biscuit making involved vigorous labor – clubbing dough until arms throbbed. The result was the beaten biscuit, with a shelf life of about a month.
To make a beaten biscuit, the dough of flour, lard and milk was whacked variously with mallets, skillets, axes or even baseball bats. The continuous folding and flattening of the dough made it soft and smooth. The layering and pounding introduced air and made the biscuits rise a bit in the oven.
In the late 19th century, J.A. DeMuth of St. Joseph, Missouri, lightened the labor by manufacturing what came to be known as a biscuit brake, a machine with two nickel-plated rollers mounted on a marble slab, supported by a cast-iron base like that of a sewing machine.
It saved the beaten biscuit, and it’s exactly the kind of apparatus used today by John and Judy Jackson in Winchester, Ky. For well over 30 years, the Jacksons have been cranking out beaten biscuits, now in their garage. They prick nine holes in every biscuit, as entry points for heat to help the biscuits rise, ever so slightly. In a year’s time, the Jacksons turn out around 5,000 beaten biscuits.
Most of them envelop country ham. Kentucky, in the heart of the country ham belt, is, without doubt, the beaten biscuit capital of the world.
While we extol and enjoy fluffy biscuits, it’s important not to forget the much longer history of the beaten variety and the axes, baseball bats and hand-cranked machinery that have been laboriously employed to bring them to the tables of the South.
Rub half a pound of butter and a little salt into four quarts of flour. Wet with a little more than a pint of new milk. Knead it, mold it, pound it, roll it half an inch thick, cut it and bake in a quick oven. To do it well will require an hour’s kneading.
(From “North Carolina Kitchens, Favorite Recipes: Old and New,” 1953.)