A Quest for New York’s Perfect Biscuit
October 8th, 2015
By Ligaya Mishan
A Southern biscuit is equal parts comfort and controversy, its quality, authenticity and very classification as a biscuit subject to dispute. Its most crucial ingredient is not flour, fat, leavening or liquid, but nostalgia. The biscuit you ate at your grandmother’s knee is the only biscuit there will ever be.
Nevertheless, a number of New York City chefs and bakers have decided in the last few years to devote themselves to the biscuit’s tricky art. Takeout shops and restaurants revolving around biscuits have opened in the East Village; Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and Astoria, Queens. Small-batch biscuits can be ordered online from independent bakers who may show up on your doorstep or send their husbands to deliver them.
Over the last month, I’ve sampled biscuits from nine of the newer vendors in town. No two were alike. In their array of sizes, flavors and textures, they were Rorschachs of buttermilk, revealing my prejudices: I tend to favor flaky middles over crispy bottoms, salty over sweet, and biscuits eaten straight, free of such interferences as honey or jam.
Biscuits are personal. Those who champion crunch, sweetness and slathering, please feel free to draw your own conclusions from my descriptions.
All the biscuits I tried shared the tang of buttermilk, and all but one were made with butter rather than lard or shortening. Consideration for (or fear of) vegetarians is partly to blame, although most bakers said they preferred the taste of butter. Some relied on White Lily flour, which is milled from soft winter wheat, has less protein and yields a lighter crumb. It’s a Southern staple that’s costly to secure northeast of the Mason-Dixon line.
As for the sorcery of their making, everyone I spoke with agreed: keep the ingredients as cold as the tomb. Touch them as little as possible. And don’t twist the biscuit cutter, which can hinder the rise.
At BeeHive Oven, which opened in Williamsburg last year, biscuits are served under a Texan flag pinned to the ceiling. Treva Chadwell, who runs the restaurant with her husband, John, grew up in South Texas, where her family goes back eight generations.
Her biscuits are an approximation of her grandmother’s, which were flat, with hard, browned bottoms. Ms. Chadwell’s are taller, sometimes nearly toppling, their slopes suggesting landslides of dough. They have amber lids and interiors that are somehow fluffy and dense at once, delicate yet robust enough to survive when stuffed with fried chicken or shrimp rémoulade.
Two blocks south of BeeHive Oven stands Pies ’n’ Thighs, a Southern restaurant born in the back room of a biker bar nine years ago and settled at its current address in 2010. (A second location opened in January on the Lower East Side.)
Sarah Sanneh, the head baker, comes from Corona del Mar, Calif. She has Southern roots, but her biscuit recipe was improvised, not inherited. It includes all-purpose flour cut with lower-gluten pastry flour, for airiness; higher-fat European butter, frozen and chopped; and a final brushing with egg and heavy cream.
The resulting biscuits are glories, faintly fissured along the sides, their tops and bottoms gilded like pie crust and close to goldenrod in color. They start to crumble at the touch. Inside, they have layers like a secret dossier. They’re best eaten moments out of the oven, when the liquid in the butter has gone up in steam but still hovers like a ghost.
Annie Etheridge, a 13th-generation south Virginian who can trace her mother’s family back to the Jamestown colonist John Rolfe, started selling her biscuits at street fairs a year ago under the name Field & Clover. Baked in a commissary kitchen in Harlem, they were some of the finest I tried, modest in height and gorgeously tender, with seams of tiny air pockets, internal layers like an Elizabethan ruff, and firm, burnished caps and bottoms. There’s not a trace of sugar in the dough.
Despite my purist bent, my favorites came with thoughtfully balanced fillings: Cheddar inside dough suffused with black pepper, popping like gunpowder; homemade strawberry-peach jam, smooth and no sweeter than need be; and dark chocolate, like a pain au chocolat, only with enough chocolate for every mouthful.
Liz Santiso of the Brooklyn Biscuit Company, a caterer and online shop, works out of a commissary kitchen in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. She’s a Connecticut Yankee married to an Oklahoman who dared her to make biscuits. It took her a year to come up with a recipe, partly in consultation with her grandmother-in-law, who used lard and White Lily flour. (Ms. Santiso opted instead for butter and King Arthur flour.)
Her biscuits are beautiful hulks that stay tender for days. The classic, baseline version comes with coarse grains of sea salt glittering on top. Another is tawny with chipotle powder and New York Cheddar, smoke in every cranny; the heat keeps escalating, and lasts. Even better is one with staccatos of black pepper and goat cheese, which bring not so much a flavor as a sense of expansiveness.
At Root & Bone, which opened last year in the East Village, the biscuits are demure, almost the size of petits fours. Jeff McInnis, the chef, who grew up in Florida near the Alabama border, named them after his great-grandmother Daisy. They sink a little under the teeth and practically exhale butter. In Mr. McInnis’s slightly arch take on biscuits and gravy, they’re served with a dipping sauce of dark chicken jus, fortified with honey and accompanied by twigs of fresh thyme, sea salt and a swath of benne (sesame) seeds.
Sam Crocker, the chef at Burnside Biscuits, which opened in Astoria in July, is a fellow Floridian. He offers two biscuits, one with duck fat and butter, the other with butter alone, both monumentally salty and best addressed with jam or balanced, in a sandwich, by blackened catfish or fried oysters. A third iteration comes with an herb sauce rife with za’atar, a nod to the use of thyme and sumac in Southern cooking. It evokes revved-up Italian dressing.
Empire Biscuit, which opened in the East Village in 2013, has nothing to do with the original empire biscuit (a sort of Linzer torte sandwich cookie). The shop is open 24 hours a day, for “breakfast, lunch, dinner, drunk,” as the legend on the front window says. Jonathan Price, an owner, was born in Virginia and grew up in Florida.
His biscuits are sturdy but still intensely rich. He refuses to use sugar in the dough; he believes that the biscuit should be a tangy, salty counterpart to something else. If someone asks for a plain biscuit (as I did), “I want to tell them, ‘At least put jam on it,’ ” he said. He’s right.
At Cheeky Sandwiches, which opened in 2009 on the Lower East Side, the chef, Din Yates, was born and raised in New Orleans. He uses both buttermilk and heavy cream, salt and sugar (“not a little, but enough”) and drops the dough on the tray. The result is satisfying, if not ethereal, a biscuit you can take a proper bite of.
The biscuits at Jacob’s Pickles, which opened on the Upper West Side in 2011, are laid in a sheet pan and cut into squares but left together so they bake nearly conjoined and retain more moisture. (The recipe was developed in the home kitchen of the restaurant’s owner, Jacob Hadjigeorgis, the son of Greek immigrants in Astoria.) They taste like cornbread minus the corn, close to cake and leaking butter, which stains everything they touch.
Fortunately, there’s room in the city for more than one person’s notion of a biscuit. Why not just praise their proliferation? Ms. Chadwell, whose little restaurant lies almost in the shadow of Pies ’n’ Thighs, thinks her neighbors’ food is delicious. “They’re happy with their biscuits,” she said. “I’m happy with mine.”
Where to Find Biscuits
182 South Second Street (Driggs Avenue), Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 347-987-4960; beehiveoven.com
The Brooklyn Biscuit Company
Phone and online only, 718-440-2288, brooklynbiscuitcompany.com
32-07 30th Avenue (32nd Street), Astoria, Queens; 917-832-7822;burnsidebiscuit.com
35 Orchard Street (Hester Street), Lower East Side; 646-504-8132;cheeky-sandwiches.com
198 Avenue A (12th Street), East Village; 646-682-9529;empirebiscuit.com
Field & Clover
Phone and online only, 917-941-3376; fieldandclover.com
509 Amsterdam Avenue (85th Street), Upper West Side; 212-470-5566; jacobspickles.com
Pies ’n’ Thighs
43 Canal Street (Ludlow Street), Lower East Side; 212-431-7437; and 166 South Fourth Street (Driggs Avenue), Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 347-529-6090; piesnthighs.com
Root & Bone
200 East Third Street (Avenue B), East Village; 646-682-7076; rootnbone.com