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Biscuits and Gravy: History of an American Dish + 10 Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Biscuits and gravy is a centuries-old American dish

Biscuits and gravy is a centuries-old American dish

A Dish Born of Necessity

Some foods are designed as a celebration. Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, became a national hero by defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. Beef Wellington was created in his honor. The Baby Ruth candy bar was invented in 1921 when New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth was at the top of his game. The Passover seder is a ritual meal celebrating the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt.

Other meals allow us to revel in the foodstuffs and blessings of the moment—a day at the farmers market might result in a “let’s-use-what-we-found-today” minestrone. A weekend at the shore could invite a clambake.

But for some meals, there is no celebration, no revelry, no blessing—only desperation and deprivation. Some foods are born of loss and hunger and a struggle to survive. Biscuits and gravy is one of those meals.

In 1995 the term “food desert” was coined to describe any geographic area (especially low-income neighborhoods) without access to grocery stores. But that problem didn't suddenly crop up in the 20th century. More than 300 years ago, starvation was a frequent guest on this side of the Atlantic. In history books, we hear of the starving pilgrims, but poor harvests didn't end with the legendary “First Thanksgiving.” In the early 1700s, the British government began requisitioning North American wheat for their army. Merchants sold their wares where they could make the biggest profit (capitalism at its finest). The European market was much more lucrative than the needs of their neighbors.

Severe food shortages continued during the American Revolution, and the cause was both home and abroad. The British government blockaded food supplies, and what little was available in the colonies was requisitioned by the colonial army. In response, there were more than 30 food riots between 1776 and 1779.

With meager supplies in their pantries, home cooks fed their families the best they could—flour and milk made filling (albeit) hard disks of bread that were softened somewhat by a ladleful of gravy made with whatever meat or meat-flavored bits could be found. Often, the meat was nothing more than a crumble of sausage, a scrap of bacon fat, or a bit of lard. Such meals were lacking in nutrition, but at least they filled the stomach.

"Gravy implies a certain excess. And a certain economy. Spread butter or jam on a biscuit and you better it. But ladle sawmill gravy on a biscuit, until the crown of that biscuit can barely be seen amid a pool of sausage-pocked gravy, and you transform quick bread into a feed suited for plow hands. The Southern way with gravies was born of privation...and when folks are poor they make do. Which means folks make gravy."

— Sara Roahen & John T. "The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook"

biscuits-and-gravy-history-of-an-american-dish-10-recipes

Please Explain "Biscuits and Gravy"

My friends from “across the pond” are probably confused (or disgusted) by the name of this very American dish. For us, biscuits are unsweetened, baking powder-leavened rounds of bread, much the same size, and taste, as a scone. What you call “biscuits” we call cookies.

Biscuits and gravy can be served at any meal, but it most commonly appears at breakfast.

Recipes

Hot and flaky homemade biscuits

Hot and flaky homemade biscuits

1.1 Perfect Biscuits

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) butter, frozen (see important note below)
  • 1 1/2 cups cake flour
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450°F.
  2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  3. Shred the frozen butter on the largest holes of a box grater.

    Important Note—One stick of butter is the equivalent of 1/2 cup or 8 tablespoons. You will grate 7 tablespoons from the whole stick of butter. One tablespoon will remain. Set it aside for use in another recipe.

    Next, shred 3 tablespoons from the 1/2 stick of butter. Again, you will be left with 1 tablespoon, which you will also set aside for another purpose. You should now have 10 tablespoons of shredded butter. Place the shredded butter in a bowl and place it in the refrigerator to keep chilled.

    Why should you do it this way? The answer is simply that you cannot grate the entire stick (or one-half stick) of butter without also grating your fingertips.
  4. Sift together the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
  5. Add the chilled grated butter and toss gently to coat all of the butter shreds with flour.
  6. Pour in the buttermilk and stir quickly and gently until buttermilk is incorporated.
  7. Turn out onto floured work surface and pat into a 7-inch by 7-inch square.
  8. Roll out to a 12-inch by 9-inch rectangle, with the short (9-inch side) parallel to the bottom edge of the counter (near your tummy). Use the bench scraper to help release the dough from the work surface and fold it like a business letter—the bottom third will fold up to the middle, and the top third will be folded down.
  9. Turn the dough 90 degrees and then roll again into a 12-inch by 9-inch rectangle. Fold again as above. Repeat this process until the dough has been rolled and folded 5 times. Each time you should find that the dough is becoming more smooth and cohesive.
  10. When the final roll and fold is completed, roll the dough into an 8-inch square. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes (or in the freezer for 10 minutes).
  11. Next slice the dough into 9 equal squares. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven and bake for 12 minutes.

"Homemade" Cake Flour

This isn't perfect but will do in a pinch if you can't find cake flour at your store.

For each cup of cake flour needed:

  • Measure out 1 cup of all-purpose flour.
  • Remove 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour and place it back in your flour canister.
  • Replace the removed all-purpose flour with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch.
  • Sift flour 5 times. Yes… 5 times. Sifting the flour and cornstarch together will help thoroughly combine the mixture and help to lighten and aerate the flour.

By replacing a bit of the all-purpose flour with cornstarch, you are removing some of the gluten and replacing it with a neutral, tenderizing element.

Final Tips for Perfect Biscuits

  • Make sure your baking powder and baking soda are fresh. Check the expiration date on the package. If near or past the expiration date, buy new. If you can't find the expiration date, also buy a new one. In the grand scheme of things, baking powder and baking soda are relatively inexpensive. Your flour, sugar, and quality butter are not. Don't risk wasting them on inferior leavening.
  • The first thing you should do is preheat your oven. It should be completely preheated (every little nook and corner) when you pop those biscuits in the oven.
  • Prepare your ingredients and tools in advance so that once you get started, you can work quickly and efficiently: shred the butter and put it back in the fridge, measure out the buttermilk, flour the counter, and get out the biscuit cutter and baking sheet.
  • Use very cold/frozen butter, and keep it in the fridge until you’re ready for it. Work the butter quickly into the flour so that it doesn’t have a chance to even think about melting!
  • When you add the buttermilk, stir lightly! Use a fork--it will be clumpy. You don't want a smooth dough!
  • Use all-purpose flour to dust the work surface.
  • Don’t pat the dough out too thin. If you want high biscuits, don’t roll the dough any thinner than 3/4 – 1 inch.
  • When cutting biscuits, use a sharp cutter and press straight down and up. Don’t twist!
  • Place cut biscuits together on the baking sheet so that they are touching. Like trees in a forest, they support each other.

1.2 Perfect Gravy

Sausage Gravy Biscuit Cups

Sausage Gravy Biscuit Cups

2. Sausage Gravy Biscuit Cups

In our first spin-off recipe, biscuits are placed in the bottom of muffin cups (cupcake pans) and then topped with savory sausage gravy. A sprinkle of cheese on the top holds it all together. This is probably the way I should eat biscuits and gravy—these hand-held sausage gravy biscuit cups give equal proportions of bread to the sauce. (If left to my own devices, I always manage to ladle an extra helping of gravy on my biscuits.)

Chicken and Gravy Biscuit Sandwich

Chicken and Gravy Biscuit Sandwich

3. Chicken and Gravy Breakfast Sandwich

Chicken and gravy breakfast sandwich takes our original theme to a whole new level of delicious decadence. Jumbo biscuits are topped with packaged or homemade sausage gravy, a crisp fried chicken cutlet, and a fried egg.

How do you like your egg? My daughter insists on firm yolks; I'm in the ooey-gooey runny yolk camp. I think a poached egg would work equally well on this breakfast sandwich.

Sausage and Gravy Breakfast Pizza

Sausage and Gravy Breakfast Pizza

4. Sausage Gravy Breakfast Pizza

My favorite part of biscuits and sausage gravy is the gravy. (Yes, I know, that's a shocking admission from someone nicknamed the Carb Diva.) There's only one thing that could improve that sausage gravy—more sausage—and this sausage and gravy breakfast pizza delivers.

Refrigerated pizza dough gives you a jump start in assembling this pizza but if you would prefer to use homemade pizza dough, feel free.

Overnight Biscuits and Gravy Casserole

Overnight Biscuits and Gravy Casserole

5. Overnight Biscuits and Gravy Casserole

In the Carb Diva house, we don't do the traditional Christmas dinner with a succulent roast, whipped potatoes, side dishes, and an English trifle. I prefer a brunch that begins when the presents are unwrapped and from which we can nibble and nosh all day long.

Overnight breakfast casseroles are the best! You do all of the preparation the night before, and just before your guests arrive (or as they slumber), you remove the casserole from the refrigerator and bake. This overnight biscuits and gravy casserole won't disappoint. Don't worry—the biscuits don't get soggy, and everything comes out bubbly and cheesy.

Slow Cooker Sausage and Gravy Biscuits

Slow Cooker Sausage and Gravy Biscuits

6. Crockpot Biscuits and Gravy Recipe

With just three ingredients, slow cooker sausage and gravy biscuits is an easy meal for breakfast, brunch, or (my favorite) breakfast for dinner. Use a crockpot liner for easy cleanup.

Chorizo Sausage Gravy With Cheddar, Scallion, and Smoked Gouda Biscuits

Chorizo Sausage Gravy With Cheddar, Scallion, and Smoked Gouda Biscuits

7. Chorizo Sausage Gravy With Cheddar, Scallion, and Smoked Gouda Biscuits

In this recipe (chorizo sausage gravy with Cheddar biscuits), our sausage gravy gets a spicy kick from chorizo—a garlicky Mexican pork sausage. Cheddar and smoked Gouda cheeses are stirred into the biscuit dough; when baked every inch of those biscuits is filled with ooey-gooey cheesy goodness. Don't worry if you don't have smoked Gouda; another smoked cheese (Provolone perhaps?) or simply more Cheddar cheese would be a fine substitute.

Skinny Biscuits and Gravy

Skinny Biscuits and Gravy

8. Skinny Biscuits and Gravy

Our signature dish will never be "diet" food, but this recipe for skinny biscuits and gravy certainly removes a lot of the guilt. Turkey sausage stands in for the traditional pork sausage. OK, so it's not as fatty and porky as the original, but the flavor is still there. And then Nicole bakes whole wheat biscuits. Chopped sage is added to the dough for a nice herby pop of flavor (and it kinda goes with turkey, right?). Whole wheat biscuits have a pleasant nutty taste (that's your reward for deleting cream and copious amounts of butter from the original).

Vegan Biscuits and Shiitake Mushroom Gravy

Vegan Biscuits and Shiitake Mushroom Gravy

9. Vegan Biscuits and Shiitake Mushroom Gravy

You can satisfy your craving for meaty flavor without eating meat—mushrooms are a well-known source of umami flavor, that savory fifth taste. (The other four are salty, sweet, sour, and bitter.)

Shiitake mushrooms are especially "meaty" and provide ample umami flavor to the gravy made with vegan butter, plant-based milk, and just a "pinch" of cayenne pepper. (Don't leave it out. Meat sausage is spicy, and you'll want that little kick of heat.)

The biscuits are delicate and fluffy—not what you would expect from a quickbread made without buttermilk. A splash of apple cider vinegar adds tang and an acidic jump-start for the baking powder to make these biscuits tall and proud.

Dear vegan friends, these biscuits with shiitake mushroom gravy are for you.

Gluten-Free Biscuits and Gravy

Gluten-Free Biscuits and Gravy

10. Gluten-Free Biscuits and Gravy

According to her website, eight years ago Celeste's husband was diagnosed with multiple food allergies. And so, she went on a mission, seeking out recipes that would accommodate his dietary restrictions but not deprive him of the tastes he loved. Along the way, she learned how to adapt her tried-and-true family foods and so the blog There Is Life After Wheat came to be.

My godson cannot eat gluten and, like Celeste's husband, has other food allergies as well. Her blog has been a gift to me, Her gluten-free biscuits and gravy are light and fluffy, savory and hearty, and just as good as the "original" biscuits and gravy of centuries ago.

Sources

© 2021 Linda Lum