How to Make Southern Cathead Biscuits as Big as, Well, Your Cat’s Head

These extra large biscuits are crisp, golden, and exceptionally fluffy. Plus: They’re easier than classic cut biscuits.

Overhead view of cathead biscuits
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Though I’m a born and bred Northerner hailing from New Jersey, I started baking professionally while living in Birmingham, Alabama. Before moving to the South, I’d only ever encountered one type of biscuit: a tall, buttery, buttermilk biscuit with flaky, neatly-stacked layers. This common variety (which I’ll refer to from here onward as a “cut biscuit”) is what many Americans consider a Southern-style biscuit. And it is—but it isn’t the only one. After I moved to Alabama, I quickly learned that the field of Southern biscuits is vast. Within the main categories of cut biscuits and drop biscuits, there are myriad variations: cream biscuits, sweet potato biscuits, angel biscuits, benne seed biscuits, and my particular favorite, cathead biscuits. 

Side view of buttered cathead biscuits
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Cathead biscuits, a variety of drop biscuits, are quite popular in the American South, but lesser known elsewhere. These extra large biscuits are crisp and golden on the outside, while remaining exceptionally fluffy and moist on the inside. As a bonus, they’re much easier to make than classic cut biscuits. Before I dive into the particular wonders of cathead biscuits, it’s important to understand the two main methods used to make biscuits.

Cut Biscuits vs. Drop Biscuits

The main difference between cut biscuits and drop biscuits rests in technique—the former is rolled and cut, whereas the latter is simply dropped onto the pan, either with a measuring cup, cookie scoop, or a pair of hands. While cut biscuits are tall, layered, and flaky, drop biscuits are softer, fluffier, and more tender. 

Overhead view of placing into pan
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Most cut biscuits recipes call for rolling, folding, or stacking the dough to create flaky layers. This step is crucial to achieving tall, flaky biscuits, as the butter melts and produces pockets of steam inside the pastry, but the method leaves lots of room for user error. Work the dough too much, and you’ll develop excess gluten, resulting in dense, bready biscuits; move too slowly and the butter inside will melt, compromising the biscuit’s flaky structure. Since drop biscuits don’t require rolling or cutting, there’s less risk of overworking and warming up the dough. The dough can also absorb more liquid without becoming too difficult to handle, as there’s no rolling or folding involved.

A Brief History of Cathead Biscuits

Cathead biscuits are a supersized variety of drop biscuits, so named for their gargantuan size as the biscuits are quite literally as big as a cat’s head. Rumor has it that these biscuits date back to the Civil War when, to save time, cooks simply plopped mounds of dough onto a baking sheet. Some Southerners say these colorfully-named biscuits originated in Appalachia; others, the Mississippi Delta. Needless to say, the biscuits became a regional staple, and today, you can find them at barbecue joints, truck stops, meat-and-threes, and home dinner tables across the American South. The fluffy interior makes it an ideal vehicle for sopping up gravy, meat juices, or whatever else is on your plate.

In a 1996 review for the New York Times, journalist Rick Bragg noted that very few Atlanta restaurants still served traditional Southern-style food. He argued that the region’s best home-style cooking could be found in homes themselves, opening with a description of the biscuits he enjoyed at 75-year-old Mrs. Ruby Pearl Barber’s kitchen table: “Down here they call them cathead biscuits, because they are about the size of a kitten's head, crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, slathered with muscadine jelly and white butter, or opened up and smothered in white milk gravy.” The only problem? These biscuits weren’t for sale.

Side view of cathead biscuits
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It’s precisely for this reason that cathead biscuits have remained somewhat of a Southern secret: they are the South’s humble, everyday biscuit, found at greasy spoons and on checker-clothed tables. Unless you grew up in the South or chose it as your adopted home like I did, it’s entirely possible that you’d never encounter one.

Though cut biscuits still remain the standard in restaurants, bakeries, and grocery aisles, cathead biscuits have begun to earn nationwide recognition as Southern bakers and cookbook authors, including Cheryl Day and Jocelyn Delk Adams, have begun to share their recipes for the Southern staple. In 2013, Biscuit Head—an Asheville, North Carolina breakfast shop specializing in cathead biscuits—catapulted the lesser-known variety into the national spotlight, earning accolades for their fluffy, extra-large biscuits. It’s the shop that first introduced me to cathead biscuits, and the first time I tasted one, I marveled over its tender crumb and unexpectedly light texture. It was not heavy nor greasy—it was airy and plush. I’ve been hooked ever since. 

Dialing in the Ingredients for the Best Cathead Biscuits

In my quest to develop a recipe for soft, fluffy cathead biscuits, I started with a basic biscuit ratio (one of the general tenets of baking): one part fat to two parts liquid to three parts flour. Because drop biscuits can handle more liquid than a cut biscuit—since they don’t have to be rolled and cut—I increased the quantity of buttermilk to nearly equal the amount of flour. I also increased the amount of fat to yield a lighter, airier biscuit, as the butter melts in the oven and creates pockets of steam. Buttermilk contributes moisture and tang, its acidity reacting with the leavening agent to produce a rise. Once I’d settled on a basic formula, I sought to answer two primary questions: Which types of flour and fat would yield the fluffiest, most tender biscuits?

All-Purpose Flour vs. Cake Flour

It’s not just tradition that makes Southern biscuits better than the rest—it’s the ingredients used, too. Before national transportation networks enabled more widespread, cross-regional trade in the early 19th century, all flour was milled from local wheat—soft red winter wheat in the South, and a combination of soft and hard wheat in the North. “Hard wheat has a higher protein content (11-15%) than soft wheat (5-9%), meaning the former has more capacity for gluten development than the latter,” explains former Serious Eats editor Kristina Razon in her guide to the types of flour. The lower-protein flour made Southern baked goods (including pound cake, pie crust, and biscuits) particularly tender. White Lily—the South’s signature flour brand—still uses 100% soft red winter wheat (for a protein count of 9%) and is only available regionally. White Lily’s low protein content of 9% means it produces soft, fluffy pastries, and is ideal for preparing cathead biscuits.

If you don’t live in the South, it may be difficult to locate White Lily flour. You can, however, create a similar product by blending all-purpose flour (typically 10–11% protein) and bleached cake flour (7–8% protein) This is the approach Day takes in her recipe for cathead biscuits, calling for a 50/50 split. But I wondered if using two types of flour was really necessary. Part of the appeal of cathead biscuits is, after all, its ease and unfussiness. 

To determine if mixing two types of flour really made a difference, I tested this biscuit recipe with cake flour, a 50/50 blend of all-purpose and cake flour, and only all-purpose flour. 

  • Cake flour: The biscuits made with only cake flour were too crumbly and spongy, more closely resembling a scone or shortcake than a biscuit. They lacked structural integrity and crumbled easily when lifted off the plate.
  • 50/50 all-purpose flour and cake flour: The biscuits made with a 50/50 split of cake flour and all-purpose flour were significantly more tender and fluffy. The crumb was tender and soft, yet sturdy enough to qualify as a biscuit.
  • All-purpose flour: The biscuits made with only all-purpose flour were passable, but slightly tough and dry. Fine for smothering in gravy, but less ideal for a breakfast sandwich or eating out of hand.

In short: It’s absolutely worth seeking out cake flour if you want soft, pillowy biscuits. Avoid unbleached cake flour, though which can turn the biscuits dense, as former Serious Eats editor Stella Parks noted in her article on bleached cake flour.

I also recommend using bleached, enriched all-purpose flour (such as Gold Medal or Pillsbury) for this recipe. Both gain enough structure from a moderate protein count (10–11%) and undergo a bleaching process to further soften the wheat, yielding a more tender crumb. Avoid King Arthur all-purpose flour here, which has a higher protein count of 11.7% and can lead to denser biscuits. (You can read more about the various types of flour and their protein quantities in this guide to types of flour.)

Butter vs. Shortening

Some bakers, including Day and Delk Adams, use butter as the only source of fat in their cathead biscuits, but plenty of home cooks I met in Alabama bake their biscuits exclusively with vegetable shortening, like Crisco. Each type of fat has its advantages. Shortening is composed of 100% fat and has a higher melting point than butter, which helps the biscuits hold their shape and yields a crumbly, crisp, and tender crumb. Depending on style, butter can range from 80 to 85% butterfat, with the remainder being milk solids and water. That water evaporates in the oven, creating pockets of steam inside the biscuits and results in lighter, flakier biscuits. Butter also brings richness and flavor that shortening lacks. 

Overhead view of butter melting in pan
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Initially, I suspected a combination of butter and shortening might create the optimal biscuit. Butter would bring rich flavor and lightness, while shortening would contribute tenderness and structure. After testing various ratios of butter to shortening to see which would yield the fluffiest biscuits, I found that any quantity of shortening—ranging from 2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup—made the biscuits slightly gummier and tougher. I ultimately opted to use just butter, which I grate to create smaller pieces that are quick to incorporate, reducing the chance of meltage.

5 Tips for Preparing Cathead Biscuits

Preheat the pan. A technique commonly used in the South to make cornbread, preheating the pan maximizes browning on the sides and bottom of the biscuits. 

Drop the batter in equal portions. Don’t worry about being neat or precise when you drop the biscuits into the hot pan—the biscuits are meant to be craggy. But dot try to make each biscuit about the same size so they bake evenly. 

Use cold butter. As the biscuits bake, the cold butter melts, creating pockets of steam that produce layers in the baked biscuits. If your butter is too warm, it’s likely it’ll melt into the dough before it’s even had the chance to bake, leaving you with biscuits that don’t have that unique flakiness.  

Add a little sugar. Though they contain a smidgeon of sugar, these biscuits are not discernibly sweet. Granulated sugar merely seasons the dough and aids in caramelization. 

Experiment with mix-ins. With equal parts sugar and salt, these biscuits can skew sweet or savory. Try folding in finely-chopped herbs, shredded cheese, chocolate chips, or dried fruit. Serve the biscuits on their own (I like them split and stuffed with a pat of butter and honey), use as the base for your dream breakfast sandwich, or, for a true Southern approach, smother in sausage gravy.

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 425ºF (220ºC). Set a 9-inch cake pan onto oven rack to preheat.

Side view of placing pan in over
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In a large bowl, whisk together all-purpose flour, cake flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Set aside.

Overhead view of mixing dry ingredients
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Thinly slice 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter and set aside. On the large holes of a box grater, grate remaining butter onto a cutting board or piece of parchment. Add grated butter to dry ingredients and toss to evenly coat. Using your fingers, rub butter in until mixture is crumbly with no large chunks of butter. The mixture should hold together when squeezed, a sign that the flour is properly hydrated.

Four image collage of adding butter to dry ingredients
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Make a well in the center of the dry mixture, then pour in the buttermilk. Using a fork or flexible spatula, mix until a shaggy, cohesive dough forms. Use your hands to gently fold the dough over itself a few times, mixing until dough is sticky and no dry bits remain.

Two image collage of mixing batter
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Once oven is preheated, remove pan from oven and set onto a trivet or heat-proof surface.  Add remaining 1 tablespoon butter to pan; using pot holders or oven mitts, swirl to evenly coat pan until butter has completely melted. (If butter does not melt fully, place pan back in the oven for 2 to 3 minutes).

Overhead view of butter melting in pan
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Divide dough into 7 equal portions, about 120g or 4 1/2 ounces each, and shape each portion into a rough ball. Arrange 6 balls of dough around the edge of the pan and place 1 in the middle; they should just be touching.

Four image collage of making biscuits
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Bake the biscuits until they spring back when touched, are golden brown on top, and register 190ºF (88ºC) when an instant read thermometer is inserted, about 35 minutes.

Puffy biscuits
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Let the biscuits cool in pan for 10 minutes, then use a spatula to slide the attached biscuits out of the pan. (Alternatively, serve biscuits directly in pan). Pull apart and serve warm with honey and additional butter, if desired.

Plating biscuits
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Special Equipment

9-inch cake pan, instant read thermometer

Make-Ahead and Storage

Biscuits can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 to 3 days. Biscuits can be individually wrapped and frozen for up to 1 month.