Forget the Mason-Dixon line. You know you've officially hit the South when biscuits begin turning up on the table. Southern cooks are noted for many foods, from fried chicken to collard greens, but nothing is more iconic in Dixie than a biscuit.
For home cooks who have strived, and failed, to get them right, a new book acts as guide.
The secret is the flour, says Nathalie Dupree, the doyenne of Southern cooking and co-author with Cynthia Graubart of "Southern Biscuits" (Gibbs Smith, $21.99).
"It's flour and, as (food scientist and cookbook author) Shirley Corriher says, it's that touch of grace."
Southern flour brands are softer than typical all-purpose flours because they have less protein, which in turn makes for a more tender, flaky biscuit. You can make biscuits with all-purpose flour, the authors note, but use less of it or cut it with lighter cake flour.
There is certainly an art to making biscuits. While you don't have to be Southern to make a fine biscuit, Dupree says Southern cooks have historically known "what they're aiming for" in that pursuit: the lightest, fluffiest, softest biscuits possible.
"Lots of times, if you don't realize how light they are supposed to be, you'll settle, like settle for a fast food biscuit. They can still be good but not great," says Dupree, author of several cookbooks and star of a series of public television cooking shows.
No one is born able to make a biscuit, Dupree contends in the book. Knowledge and technique — and, if you're lucky, a biscuit-making mother or grandmother to learn from — are required.
She fears it's a dying art with the younger generation. She promises, though, that "people using this book will be able to make biscuits that will make their children weep for them when they are dead and gone just to eat their biscuits again."
Dupree suggests would-be biscuit makers buy $10 worth of flour and the fats of their choice, lock themselves in the kitchen to experiment — and do it with a clean conscience.
"Biscuits are definitely classified as a sin for some," she says.
"They will make biscuits using unbleached or whole wheat flour. That's an oxymoron to me. If you are going to sin, then just go ahead and sin. Don't do it halfway. Think. Eat it and enjoy it. Sit down and put on lots of butter. Say to yourself, I'm going to love it, I'm not going to judge it."
Julia Regner's sturdy dorm biscuits
Prep: 10 minutes
Bake: 15-25 minutes
Makes: 9 biscuits
Note: This simple version from "Southern Biscuits" embodies the key steps in biscuit making. Make sure to mix until the dry ingredients are just moistened.
2 1/4 cups biscuit mix, see recipe below