The pig sitting outside the entrance at Serious Biscuit in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood is covered in chalk, doodles scribbled by those patiently waiting for a table during the weekend brunch rush hour. The porker’s name is Biscuit, which seems fitting given the casual cafe’s mission to do right by the best breakfast bread product in the world.
When James Beard Foundation award-winning chef and restaurateur Tom Douglas opened the place in early 2010, Seattle was woefully lacking biscuit options. Tom had been to Pine State in Portland, Ore., a few times and was impressed with the vibe. He thought Seattle was ready for a Serious Biscuit and the company’s pastry chef, Stacy Fortner, couldn’t have agreed more.
“The first thing I did after becoming pastry chef was change the biscuit,” said the Kentucky native, who had been craving a taste of her home state since relocating to the Pacific Northwest. Her initial efforts to introduce a better biscuit appeared at the restaurant group’s Dahlia Bakery, so when Tom talked to her about the Serious Biscuit project, she was pumped.
She scoured vintage Southern cookbooks for a recipe that made sense, something that was fluffy and flavorful, yet sturdy enough to hold the sandwiches that are the foundation of the menu at Serious Biscuit. She hit flour-y gold in a well-worn spiral bound collection from the Kentucky Federation of Womens Clubs called Kentucky Hospitality: A 200 Year Old Tradition.
“I tweaked it to make it my own,” she said. That includes using a heavier flour than something like a White Lily, and baking them a bit longer so they’re a shade beyond golden.
“Tom likes a crispy biscuit,” she explained.
Walk into the bustling space that Serious Biscuit shares with one of the restaurant group’s three pizza joints, Serious Pie, and the air is perfumed with the buttery scent of the star sandwich ingredient being toasted off before being piled high with thick-sliced ham, fried green tomatoes, house-made peanut butter and housemade jam.
Customers line up at the counter, ordering from the massive menu that hangs from the ceiling. The lineup has changed little since Serious Biscuit made its debut. Ham, cheddar, fried egg topped with apple mustard is still the best seller, with The Zach coming in hot as another popular choice, named for a regular who requested bacon and egg on top of the juicy fried chicken. That sandwich is Tom’s fave, too, with creamy black pepper gravy on top.
The Southern-inspired biscuit sandwich menu also includes a catfish cake dressed in a green olive tartar sauce and crispy ham hocks partnered with collard greens and smoked onions. The short list of sides balances out the flour portion of the menu by paying tribute to corn. Grits are from Anson Mills, and hush puppies get a bit of heat from chopped jalapeno peppers.
On Serious Biscuit’s first day back in 2010, the kitchen baked about 50 biscuits. These days, it’s up to 500. The neighborhood has become known as Amazonia, as office buildings for the online retail Goliath have transformed an area that used to be an industrial wasteland. South Lake Union is now home to towering office buildings, apartments and condos. The city’s restaurant scene has experienced tremendous growth, largely because the new construction is mandated to have retail space on the ground level, and much of that has become pubs, cantinas, fast-casual Asian and bagel shops. Serious Biscuit and Serious Pie were among the first to carve out a spot in the neighborhood, and, judging by the steady stream of customers on a recent weekday, that move has paid off.
But a killer location is only part of the key to its success. Everything comes back to the biscuit.
All members of Stacy’s pastry crew know how to mix, roll and bake off the biscuits because consistency is essential. The prep is ongoing throughout the week, with various pastry chefs cutting pounds and pounds of butter, so it’s ready to go each morning when the process begins around 5 a.m.
“We even pre-measure the dry ingredients and keep them in the freezer, so they’re extra cold,” Stacy explained.
The biscuit making procedure was laid out, step-by-step in The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook (2012):
Cold butter is cut into the dry ingredients.
Cold buttermilk is added and the dough is mixed by hand.
Biscuit dough is kneaded lightly and shaped into a rectangle.
The dough is flattened to ¾-inch thickness with a rolling pin before being cut into squares.
They’re baked in a 475-degree oven for about 14 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time.
Before serving, the cooled biscuits are split in half and toasted.
Here’s the full recipe, which yields about 20 2 ½ inch square biscuits:
5 ½ cups all-purpose flour (1 pound, 14 ounces)
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 ½ cups cold unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch dice, plus a few tablespoons melted butter for brushing
3 cups cold buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F.
In a large bowl, using a whisk, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the cold to the bowl and using a pastry blender, two forks or fingertips, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the butter is the size of peas. Add the cold buttermilk and use a rubber spatula or both hands to mix the dough until everything is just combined. Do not overmix.
Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead 4 or 5 times, just until you have a smooth surface on top. Use your hands to shape the dough into a rough rectangle, then using a rolling pin to roll out the dough to a rectangle ¾ inch thick. Use a knife to cut the rectangle into 2 ½ inch squares.
Place the biscuits on a parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing them about an inch apart. Brush the tops with melted butter.
Put the biscuits in the oven and bake until golden brown, about 14 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time. Remove the pan from the oven and cool on a wire rack for a few minutes. Serve the biscuits warm.
Serious Biscuit Trivia:
At the breathtaking Starbucks Reserve Roastery, Serious Biscuits are available for breakfast and lunch, though they’re low-profile, devoid of the restaurant’s branding, making it the most famous under-the-radar biscuit in the country.
Those in the know are thrilled to have this delicious option, best enjoyed with a cup of single-origin pour over coffee.
Leslie Kelly is a Seattle-based food writer, who learned to LOVE biscuits while living in Memphis, Tenn., working at The Commercial Appeal. She's a member of The Southern Foodways Alliance, and is obsessed with fried chicken, barbecue and ramen. She's currently Senior Editor at Allrecipes.com.