The great search to find out what a cathead biscuit actually is
Angel, cream, buttermilk — there are several kinds of Southern biscuits, all of them delicious when made properly and, of course, with love.
Most biscuit types come with distinct descriptors of what make them so — buttermilk biscuits are obviously made with buttermilk, cream biscuits with cream and angel biscuits are yeast-risen and “light enough to taste like they came from heaven,” as they say. If you’re from the South, or have visited the region, you’ve undoubtedly heard of or had a cathead biscuit. If you’re like me, however, you likely never thought to ask why it’s called what it’s called, or even what defines a cathead biscuit in the first place. (Probably because you’re too busy enjoying one to question it.)
I decided to do a little digging to find out what a cathead biscuit actually is, where its name came from and if there are any other interesting tidbits about this mysterious biscuit.
I was about to discover that the answer to my question is … a bit unclear.
But first, a bit about biscuits
To understand where this question goes, we need to first understand a bit more about the biscuit-making process. Essentially, there are two ways to make biscuits: rolled or drop. Rolled biscuits are just that — biscuits that are rolled out with a rolling pin, cut with a biscuit cutter and baked. This process is what most people picture when they imagine biscuits being made, and the result is typically uniformly-cut, round, crispy-bottomed, golden brown, fluffy biscuits. The other type, drop biscuits, are formed by dropping a rolled ball of dough onto a baking sheet or cast iron skillet. These biscuits can also be uniform (if you’ve got a good eye), and are often crunchier on the outside, more crumbly than flaky.
So, are cathead biscuits rolled or drop biscuits?
That’s where things get tricky — and debatable.
Chef Jeffrey Gardner and I talked at length about this, and we agreed that most Southerners would equate cathead with the drop or the “roll a ball of dough in your hands” method. Our super scientific Google search, however, found that 7 out of 10 cathead biscuit recipes called for rolling them out. According to Southern Living’s The Southern History of Biscuits, cathead biscuits must be drop biscuits, stating that cathead biscuits were “born out of necessity; they had to get things done quickly, do it simply: Make your biscuit dough, and then pull and drop huge clumps of the buttery dough onto your baking sheet.”
Most of the anecdotal research I found leaned toward the drop method as the cathead standard. Because it was so inconclusive, I thought perhaps preparation method isn’t the defining factor when it comes to cathead biscuits — rather it was the baking method. Well-known Southern cookbook author Jim Villas determined that “cathead biscuits must be shaped by hand, not evenly cut with a biscuit cutter. The dough will be more crumbly than mealy, the texture of the biscuits should be slightly crunchy on the outside, and they should be baked only in a cast iron skillet.”
Aha! By this account, cathead biscuits must be baked in a cast iron skillet, regardless of whether they’re rolled or dropped (although “shaping by hand” does indicate a drop method over rolled.) According to Chef Jeffrey, “once you’ve rolled [the biscuits] out, it makes the most sense to cut them verus tearing for better uniformity of shape and rise. You could tear them if you wanted, I suppose. I’ve just never seen it done from that stage.” Although likely, it’s unclear if Villas was describing the drop method as the definitive way to make cathead biscuits, so I can’t say for sure. His definition was, however, the most decisive description of the texture, shape and characteristics of a cathead biscuit, which, honestly, still wasn’t very clear.
What the heck is a cathead biscuit, then? Do we even know?
The only reasonable conclusion in this biscuit saga is that a cathead biscuit must be defined by its size. If the biscuit is the size of a cat’s head (no joke, that’s where the name came from — mystery solved), it’s a cathead biscuit. You can roll it, drop it, cook it on a baking sheet or in a cast iron skillet and as long as it’s the size of a feline noggin, you’ve got yourself a cathead.