Midway: Workshop on Beaten Biscuits Keeps a Southern Tradition Alive
Beaten biscuits, once a Southern staple, have largely disappeared from the culinary landscape. They have long been identified with another traditional staple, country ham, being seen by many as the ideal delivery system for the salty meat.
Beaten biscuits are denser and harder than traditional soft or buttermilk biscuits, and they don’t crumble like a “normal” biscuit. They actually are closely related to hardtack, associated with the Civil War. A version of beaten biscuits is also made in the American northeast to eat with—and often float in—chowders, like homemade oyster crackers. The first recorded recipe of beaten biscuits is from Harriott Pinckney Horry’s South Carolina cookbook in 1770 (published as A Colonial Plantation Cookbook). From South Carolina it spread into the upper South.
With a renewed interest in traditional Southern foodways, including increased focus on traditionally cured country ham, it stands to reason that a revival of interest in beaten biscuits couldn’t be far behind.
Central Kentucky chef Ouita Michel, owner of Midway’s Holly Hill Inn, has been a visible champion of traditional Kentucky food. Michel is insistent that food culture cannot be left to restaurants. “Restaurants are corrupt,” Michel said at a recent panel discussion at the University of Kentucky’s M.I. King Library.
Restaurants can highlight folk cuisine, but unless they have a vibrant food culture behind them, restaurant menus can become little more than historical curiosities. To help revive that culture, Michel has championed local practitioners of traditional cooking and brought their expertise to an increasingly interested audience.
It was in this vein that Michel sponsored a Beaten Biscuit Workshop at the historic Midway Christian Church this past Saturday, April 11. (Restoration church history buffs will know Midway Christian Church as the first place instrumental music was introduced to a Disciples church service.) Midway seems to be teeming with traditional Kentucky cooks, which may explain why Michel made her home there.
The workshop featured the expertise of Charles Logan, who has been making beaten biscuits for 25 years. Logan is part of a traceable Midway beaten biscuit genealogy that goes back a century, but many Midway’s most visible biscuit bakers have passed away in the past few years. It’s a tradition in danger of being lost.
One of the reasons that beaten biscuits are no longer made as frequently is that the process requires a specialized rolling machine known as a biscuit break. Most are hand cranked, although some—like Logan’s—have an attached motor. The machines haven’t been made in decades, maybe a century, and they tend to take up a bit of room.
During the workshop one of the first questions for Logan addressed the biscuit breaks.
“Are biscuit breaks necessary to make beaten biscuits?”
Logan paused, thought, and answered:
Practically speaking Logan is right. Beaten biscuits began as literally biscuit dough that was hand beaten with a rolling pin or paddle, folded, beaten more, folded, beaten more. Without a biscuit break no one is going to spend the time and effort to make them.
The ingredients in beaten biscuits are simple: flour, milk (and/or water), and butter/vegetable oil/lard, a small amount of baking powder and sugar. Logan prefers Crisco. Michel uses cold butter that she grates. Someone brought lard made beaten biscuits that I tried, and from that limited sample I would probably opt for the lard version. (It’s worth noting that despite its bad reputation over the past 40 years, lard is regaining its old status and recognition that it’s not really bad for you.)
The biscuit dough is then run through the break rollers, folded, rolled, folded, rolled. Michel compared this process to making pastry crust, creating layers to make the biscuits flakier. Beaten biscuits originated during a time when access to leaven was limited or non-existent, thus original beaten biscuits were unleavened. When the rolling is finished, you want to end up with a fairly stiff dough. Chef Ouita compared it to “baby cellulite.”
If you’ve had beaten biscuits you know how different the texture can be from soft biscuits, but having them hot out of the oven mitigates the difference. Like any hot biscuit, they’re wonderful. Beaten biscuits are made small, usually 1.5″ in diameter, with punched holes in the top. Properly made, they will split perfectly, just waiting for some country ham, and maybe a dab of apple butter, too, as Chef Ouita serves them.
Interest is high in traditional Kentucky foodways as the one hundred in attendance at a beaten biscuit workshop in a small town showed. Chef Ouita Michel is to be applauded for finding and featuring the expertise of cooks like Charles Logan. For those of us interested in traditional foods and technique, we can’t simply treat food as a spectator sport, but must actively revive these dishes in our own kitchens.
Does anyone have a line on a good biscuit break?
Charles Logan’s Beaten Biscuit Ingredients
4 cups flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 tbs sugar
2/3 cup shortening (Crisco)
1 cup milk
Chef Ouita Michel’s Beaten Biscuit Ingredients (Pictured)