Musings about Food & the Politics of Food.

TartQueen's Kitchen


Building the Perfect Biscuit

Posted on December 18, 2011 by Sahar

I’m from the South.  Or more accurately, Texas.  One of the things we love to eat here are biscuits.  Big. flaky, slightly crispy on the outside, soft on the inside biscuits. We eat them for breakfast with cream gravy & sausage, with stew, soup, and, with a little extra jam or honey, for dessert.  They’re a magical thing.

As  a bit of background, the word “biscuit” comes from the French words, “bis cuit”, meaning “twice baked”.  These are not, however.  That is, if they’re done properly. Biscuits fall under the heading of “quick breads”.  Meaning, breads that use baking powder and/or baking soda as a leavening as opposed to yeast.

Lovely fluffy, flaky, slightly crispy on the outside, biscuits

 

The most common problem when folks make biscuits is that they come out rather tough.  There are several reasons for this:

  • Too much flour was used.  This happens when the flour is packed into the cup measure instead scooped (see below).  As a result, more milk must be used to get the correct consistency.  By then, the dough is too heavy to rise properly and has been overworked.
  • The dough is overworked.  This makes a tough biscuit.  You’re not making a loaf of bread.  A light touch is necessary. (Also, see above.)
  • Old baking powder was used.  Check the date on the can.  If it’s expired, throw it it out and buy fresh.
  • The shortening or lard has been over mixed into the dry ingredients.  You want to have bits of shortening or lard visible.  As they melt in the heat of the oven, the bits melt and help to make the biscuits flaky.

 

Now, I’ve been using a recipe that I found, in all places, Texas Monthly Magazine.  From October 1984.  It’s a wonderful recipe.  It captures all that is good in a biscuit recipe: simplicity,  love, and deliciousness.

Here’s the basic recipe:

2 c. all-purpose flour (You can use whole-wheat if you like; but why would you want to?)

1 tbsp. baking powder (Be sure not to use baking soda. Otherwise, your biscuits will taste like soap.)

1 tsp. salt (I generally use kosher.)

1 tsp. sugar (I just use white.)

1/3 c. shortening, cut into small pieces (You can also use lard.  I will confess to using butter-flavored shortening occasionally.)

1/2 c. milk, more if needed (Whole milk, please. I’ve also used buttermilk.)

1/4 c. unsalted butter, melted (Yes, this is necessary.)

 

The recipe instructions from Texas Monthly begin with:

“Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.  Then walk out into the backyard and take slow, deep breaths for 15 minutes, cleansing your mind of all distracting thoughts.  Remember that you are merely the instrument through which the biscuits will find expression.”

Excellent advice.

 

Before I get to the nuts and bolts of the recipe, a tip: be sure to have your ingredients, especially the flour, shortening or lard, and milk, cold. If you can, chill the bowl, too.  This will help keep the shortening or lard from getting too soft as you mix.

Also, I don’t find it necessary to sift the flour.  I do what is called a scoop & sweep method: Take a large spoon, aerate the flour in the container, scoop the flour into your DRY cup measure (the one that looks like a scoop) and sweep off any extra.  Do not shake or  tap the cup to pack the flour; otherwise, you’ll end up with too much flour and a heavier biscuit.  You really don’t want that.

 

1.  Line a heavy baking sheet with foil.  Brush the bottom of the sheet with some of the melted butter.  Set aside.

2.   In a medium bowl, mix together the dry ingredients.  (I like to use my hands for this step.  But, you can use a fork.) Add in the shortening or lard.

Ready to incorporate the shortening

3.  With either your hands, a pastry cutter, or a fork, mix the shortening into the dry ingredients.   Do not make it a homogenous mixture.  You want to have pieces of shortening in the dough.  (The pieces of shortening will melt in the oven and create the layers.)  The mixture should look shaggy.

Pastry Cutter

 

mixing with the pastry cutter

 

Mixing with a fork

 

Mixing with hands

4.  Add in the milk (measured in a wet measure; the one that looks like a glass with a handle).  Again, with either your hands or a fork, toss the flour and milk together until just mixed.  The dry ingredients should be moistened, but not soggy.  Add in milk, if necessary, 1 tablespoon at a time, if there are still dry ingredients in the bowl.  Try not to over mix.  Again, the dough should look slightly shaggy.  Press the dough together in a slightly flattened ball shape.

lovely, slightly shaggy, biscuit dough

5.  At this point, let the dough rest in the fridge for about 15 minutes.  Have a lightly floured surface ready.  Take the dough and either press or roll it out to a ½” – ¾” thickness.

3/4" thickness.

6.  With a biscuit cutter, cookie cutter, or anything that comes to mind, cut out your biscuits.  Carefully press the remaining dough together and cut more biscuits.  You’ll inevitably end up with an oddball biscuit.  Embrace that.  You should have 6-8 biscuits depending on the size and thickness.

7.  Place the biscuits on the baking sheet at least 1” apart and brush the tops with butter.  You don’t want the sides touching; that’s just not right.  The slightly crispy outside is necessary.

 

 

Lovely old biscuit cutters from my great-grandmother.

 

Biscuits before baking. Already buttered up.

8.  Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes.  If you oven is anything like mine, you’ll have a hot spot.  Go ahead and halfway through the baking, turn the baking sheet.  You want the biscuits to be a light golden brown.

9.  Enjoy!

Lovely finished biscuits

 

Flaky, soft, slightly crispy biscuits. You want a slightly creamy colored inside.

 

A final word about ovens.  They all cook differently, so when you see an oven temperature in a recipe, it is based on the oven where the recipe was tested & developed.  You know whether your oven cooks hot, cool, or is perfectly calibrated.  So, adjust the temperature if needed to achieve biscuit success.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 to “Building the Perfect Biscuit”

  1. Great and very thorough tutorial!

  2. Cecilia says:

    You know, I have never made biscuits before and I’m really not sure why, unless it has to do with all the truly terrible ones I have eaten over the years. I didn’t want to add to the world of bad biscuits. But now that I have seen your tutorial, I’ll give them a try. Thanks!

  3. Margaret says:

    When I was a high school freshman many, many years ago, girls were required to take home economics. Our first cooking lesson was biscuits. Theose who paid attention to Mrs. Betty Miller had gorgeous towers of air. Happily, I was one so I made them that night to go with Mother’s stew. The results were mixed: according to Dad, they were far better than her flat, hockey-puck version, and Mother never made another one.
    My current version is a buttermilk biscuit I found several years ago in “Texas Monthly.” Who would think TM would be such a good cooking resource?
    Love the photos, honey.

  4. R Matthew Songer says:

    Nice tutorial. It is always good to see the difference in interpreting the humble biscuit. I’ve got a half dozen ways myself, developed over the years, from white flour sweetmilk to yellow masa / bread flour buttermilk recipes. Looking forward to trying this recipe from you.

    Nice blog, bet your classes are great as well.



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