Every culture has its quick bread, and the American South’s is the fresh-from-the-oven biscuit. For every grandma, there’s a biscuit technique. And for every biscuit, there’s a pairing—from gravy to jam, country ham to sausage.
A biscuit, like a roll, can accompany basically any meal, and one of the upshots of being served alongside Southern fried chicken in particular—especially as fast-food joints KFC and Chick-fil-A multiplied—was that chicken with biscuits became chicken on biscuits. That is, chicken biscuits.
“It wasn’t created as a fad,” explains Treva Chadwell, chef at BeeHive Oven, a Brooklyn biscuit restaurant with roots in Texas. “The biscuit is still humble.”
A chicken biscuit sandwich is sort of humble, but less so. It’s a sandwich reaching for a higher plane, with its crispy marinated meat and rich, flaky crumb. But that fumbling elegance comes with a lack of flexibility: The chicken biscuit has needs. It needs sturdiness from a slightly dry biscuit and moisture from wherever it can find it—to combat the dryness. It needs flavors to turn two potentially bland foods, chicken and biscuits, into a flavor bomb and a satisfying meal.
With help from the Chadwells—Treva and her husband, John, own BeeHive together—and another Southern biscuiteer, Jonathan Price of Empire Biscuits, here’s how to build the chicken biscuit, at home, to your precise sandwich specs.
1. Biscuit Ingredients
Flour, fat, and milk: those are the essential three components of a biscuit. But every good biscuit baker will reach for a different box, tub, and carton. “There’s a million reasons people make the biscuits they make,” says Chadwell.
For flour, many—Empire’s Price included—swear by the low-gluten White Lily, common below the Mason-Dixon Line and tough to source above it. Made from soft winter wheat, the stuff keeps quick breads flaky. For fat, you’ll find devotees of butter, lard, and vegetable shortening, their preference typically based on what grandma had available. These days, butter is most common. As for milk, buttermilk is the standard. It “gets you a light texture without greasiness,” says Chadwell.
The proportions of ingredients varies, too. Some people swear by half as much butter as I like, which (for a small batch) is 1¼ cup of flour to 6 tablespoons of cold butter and a ½ cup of buttermilk. To that, you’ll also want 2 teaspoons of baking powder as leavening, ½ teaspoon salt for flavor, and a teaspoon or two of sugar, which helps the biscuit tops brown. But if all this sounds heretical because you already know granny’s recipe by heart, stick with what you like: Your favorite biscuit will yield the best chicken biscuit. (If you’re stuck, try this one from baker Millicent Souris.)
2. The Dough
Here’s the biscuit-making method: You mix together the dry ingredients, then crumble in cold butter with your fingers, touching everything as little as you can to keep the butter cold (melting the fat for the first time in the oven yields flakiness). The last step is integrating the buttermilk to form a dough.
There are an awful lot of biscuit instructions warning bakers that over-mixing causes toughness—so many, in fact, that Chadwell thinks newbs have gotten afraid to touch their dough at all.
“You have to work it enough to be able to do something with it,” she says. Her middle-ground advice is to fold rather than stir. This way, “you get layers, but you’re not activating the gluten in the flour.” After just barely incorporating the buttermilk, dump the dough on a floured surface, flatten it, then fold it back in on itself like a letter, in thirds. Flatten again, fold again, then repeat once more. This process produces optimal ingredient integration, plus layers so divided they act as additional leavening, all without toughness.
3. Cutting and Baking
Now that the dough’s made, you want the biscuits in the oven as soon as possible, so cut them quickly. If you’re serious, buy a sharp, high round cutter with a 4-inch diameter so that you can get clean edges without twisting the cutter. Otherwise, use a knife to shape rectangular biscuits. Bake at a high temperature—a preheated 450°F or even 500°F oven produces a pie dough-like crust and a doughy interior. After 10 or 12 minutes, depending on the size, the biscuit should be done. The outsides will be golden, and the biscuits will be puffed up. You owe it to yourself to eat one as soon as you can.
In cutting and baking, as in mixing and choosing your ingredients, you’ll find a lot of advice from veterans. Don’t ignore it. Every trick you hear, follow it: “A biscuit recipe is one of those things where a lot of stuff that sounds like voodoo is still true,” says Price, who experimented with every secret he uncovered. He’d ask himself, “‘Is this really necessary?’ And the answer is yes.”
4. Reheating the Biscuit
Among those bits of traditional wisdom, you’ll find people that swear you either can or can’t reheat biscuits, and that you can or can’t make the dough ahead of time. The truth is relative and depends on the dough and the occasion. Still, why not aim to eat biscuits as soon after baking as possible? If you’re hosting a party and need to reheat them, turn the oven up high again and brush the biscuits with a little water (a trick that helps reform the crust). A few minutes in the oven and they’ll be good as new. And one last piece of sorcery: Supposedly, a true biscuit baker never refrigerates her dough. Instead, freeze any leftover dough if you make more than you want to bake.
5. The Chicken
Any fried-chicken recipe using boneless cuts will thrive in a chicken biscuit, so long two contingencies are met. Firstly, “the chicken needs to be as juicy as humanly possible,” says Price. Marinating the chicken in buttermilk and hot sauce keeps each bite moist and starts to imbue the pieces with flavor. Secondly, the outside should be crunchy. To optimize texture, Chadwell suggests buying chicken tenders. “We like putting two pieces of chicken on the biscuit,” she says. Smaller pieces doubled up create more surface area for crunch, plus a faster cooking time.
6. The Coating
Season some flour with as little as salt or as much as paprika, thyme, and pepper, which is BeeHive’s mix. Put that on a plate. To coat, shake the buttermilk marinade off each piece of chicken, then roll it in the flour. If you want a thick crust, you can double dip in buttermilk before submitting the chicken to a second roll in the flour. Leave the floured chicken to dry on a plate or rack while you heat the oil.
7. Frying the Chicken
Fortunately for home cooks, you can deep fry chicken in just an inch or so of oil, in a skillet. That means you can waste less canola oil. Get the oil to about 350°F—if you don’t have a thermometer, signs that you’re at the right heat are a shimmering effect on the surface and a dramatic reaction to a flick of water.
The timing of frying the chicken vis-à-vis baking the biscuit is actually pretty clean—a good omen for the pairing. Because half of your sandwich cooks in the oven and half up top on the stove, “You don’t have to share space. They can happen concurrently,” says Chadwell.
Here’s the schedule: Flour the chicken, then set it aside. Preheat your frying pan and oil. Speed through making the biscuit dough, then pop the biscuits in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Catch your breath. Start to fry. White-meat chicken pieces fry in about half of biscuit baking time—call it 3 minutes per side. Rest the chicken on paper towels, pull the biscuits from the oven, and assemble your sandwich as soon as the biscuit is cool enough to touch.
8. Honey and Hot Sauce
“When I started doing menu development, everyone was doing the same thing: sweet and spicy,” says Price. “For good reason. It’s f**ing delicious.” The simplest way to embrace the unstoppable flavor combo is to serve plain chicken biscuits with a bowl of honey and a bottle of hot sauce alongside for drizzling to taste. You can increase the gourmet factor by spreading on honey butter or mixing up hot sauce mayo. Among other sweet and spicy condiments at BeeHive, the Chadwells offer a homemade Jezebel sauce (a Southern classic of apples, pineapples, and horseradish) tweaked with hot sauce that adds a jammy sweetness and a bit of spice to the sandwich.
9. Sauces, Slaws, and Pickles
A range of Southern-inspired dressings and salads—from gravy to ranch, and quick-pickled summer squash to the cabbage slaw pictured—lend the chicken biscuit range beyond sweet and spicy. They also serve an invaluable role in keeping the sandwich from getting so dry you can barely swallow.
“That’s a huge issue,” says Price. “A biscuit is a relatively dry product.” That’s why he dresses the chicken biscuit on his menu with ranch and pickled tomatoes. “The ranch is crucial,” he says. As is “the green tomato, which is in brining liquid.”
Taking a cue from another brunch mainstay, others turn to gravy for moisture. You can easily make gravy in the pan after frying your chicken: Pour off most of the oil, brown some flour in what remains, then add some broth and milk, cooking until the sauce thickens. Season well. If you manage to plan in advance and have time to cool your gravy, you’ll be able to spread it on like mayonnaise.
Just as you can make any biscuit and rely on any favorite fried-chicken recipe, you’re going to want to assemble your chicken biscuit idiosyncratically. Remembering that chicken and biscuits were originally a side-by-side pairing, imagine crafting a series of perfect bites as you assemble, keeping the biscuit, meat, and condiments in proportion.
As you try out recipes and toppings—particularly if if you aren’t tied to one grandma’s formula for chicken, biscuits, or the combination—you should get creative. “Thinking of new uses for the biscuit is a lot of fun,” says Chadwell. “I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface.”
Lastly, know that eating chicken biscuits is really messy. The biscuit will crumble and the sauce will drip off. The slaw will explode onto your plate and the table. Plan to devour them around friends.