Maybe your grandma swears by buttermilk, your pappy insists on shortening, and Auntie Lucille says you’ve got to use White Lily flour—everyone’s got a secret ingredient for their biscuits. But really, the secret to great biscuits isn’t in the recipe; it’s knowing the technique. Changing the way you mix the dough, the temperature of the ingredients or even the spacing on a baking sheet will change the end result, so you can decide to make them tender and cakey, fluffy and light, or rich and flaky.
When I was a cook at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, it was on me to make biscuits on Sunday mornings for staff meal (see the recipe I used below). The pressure of making biscuits for some of the best cooks in the country turned me into an expert in a hurry, and I’m happy to share what I learned. I’ll walk you through what happens when you use, say, milk versus buttermilk or butter versus lard, but you’ll be amazed at the differences that are all in the hands. Just remember, it’s all or nothing with these babies…no shortcuts!
How to Make Killer Biscuits
1. Get everything cold (except the oven)
Start by chilling the mixing bowl. About an hour in the fridge, or a shorter trip to the freezer, will keep the fat cold. Cold fat is imperative in upping the flake-factor: When fat is cold, it won’t be absorbed by flour. That means you’ll have tiny, alternating layers of fat and flour in your biscuits, which turn into flakes in the oven.
Cut the fat into ½” cubes. Then put it back into the refrigerator to let it get cold again.
Preheat the oven. Biscuits rise because of the baking powder, but also because the rush of heat turns the water in the dough to steam, which pushes outwards. So you’ll want the oven good and hot to get that “oven spring.”
2. Quickly incorporate the fat
Combine the dry ingredients in the cold bowl. Then, all at once, dump the cold cubes of fat into the dry ingredients. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, quickly cut the fat into the flour—keep cutting at the fat as it gets smaller and picks up more flour. Or use your hands; scoop up some of the mixture, put your hands together over the bowl like you’re praying, and quickly rub back and forth. It should take less than three minutes to incorporate all the fat. You’re done when you’ve got a bowl of coarse crumbs, pea-size or smaller. Lots of small crumbs will make fluffier biscuits while more pea-sized crumbs will make flakier biscuits.
3. Mix—just a little bit
Make a well in the center of your bowl and pour in the cold liquid. Stir the mixture twelve times with a rubber spatula, keeping the spatula touching the sides and bottom of the bowl so the flour on the outside of the well and bottom of the bowl is pushed towards the liquid. When liquid comes into contact with the flour, gluten begins to develop. The more you mix, the more gluten develops and the tougher the biscuits, so stick to twelve stirs (or fewer). When you’re done stirring, you should have a lumpy looking batter with some dry, floury patches here and there.
4. Dump and make clean cuts
Flour your counter and dump the mixture onto the surface. It will be pretty wet, but that’s okay. If you’re really into biscuits with flake, give the dough a few kneads to flatten the pea-sized crumbs. (If you like more cake-like biscuits, skip this step.)
Flour your hands and pat down the dough until it’s about 1½” thick. If it’s too sticky to work with, sprinkle a little flour on the top surface of the dough.
Whatever you’re using to cut—a glass, a biscuit cutter, or a knife—flour it between each cut. Make quick cuts that go straight up and down; don’t twist the cutter or saw with the knife or you’ll fuse together the layers of butter and flour and the biscuits won’t rise properly. (For that reason, a biscuit cutter’s thinner edge is more effective than a glass, but let’s face it: Using a glass is way cute.)
5. Bake until golden
Space the biscuits on a parchment lined baking sheet. The further apart they are, the fatter they’ll become, or if you keep them close together, the higher they’ll rise. It’s your call. Bake immediately, until golden brown on top—for most recipes, that’s around 20 minutes. For a soft crust, put the biscuits in a towel-lined basket and cover with a towel to cool. For a crunchier crust, cool them on a wire rack, uncovered.
Whitney’s Per Se Sunday Staff Biscuits
It was intense making super-refined food at Per Se, but making these simple biscuits every Sunday for the staff was one of the most satisfying things about the job. There’s something therapeutic about working dough with your hands—you feel like you’re really making something. It’s a great way to start a Sunday morning.
2 cups All Purpose Flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1½ teaspoons salt
1 stick butter
1 cup buttermilk
Follow the technique above and bake in a pre-heated 400°F oven until golden brown—about 20 minutes. If you use a 2½” cutter, you’ll get 8-10 biscuits.
What happens when…
You use different flours?
Different flours have different percentages of protein. Cake flour, which has anywhere from 6-8 percent protein will result in a softer, bouncier biscuit with a cakier crumb. All-purpose flour, at 10-12 percent protein, will give biscuits a denser, more layered texture. Some all-purpose flour brands—usually Southern brands like White Lily—are as low as eight percent because they’re milled from a softer, winter wheat. Never use bread flour for a biscuit, which makes them puck-like.
If you’re looking for a biscuit that will hold up to hearty sides like sausage gravy, go with all-purpose flour. Biscuits made from cake flour will be light and airy—perfect for shortcake, or a schmear of preserves or dollop of whipped cream. Whole-wheat flour has nearly as much protein as bread flour, so if you want to use it, use half whole-wheat, half all-purpose. If you use self rising flour, skip the leavener in your recipe.
You use different fats?
Lard and shortening have a higher fat content than butter, so your biscuits will, in a good way, be a little greasier than biscuits made with butter. Think biscuit meets piecrust. (Because they have no water to turn to steam, lard or shortening biscuits are also a little less puffy.) Both lard and butter add flavor; butter is best for biscuits with sweet things (maple syrup, shortcake, fruit) and lard is lovely with savory things (cheddar, fresh herbs, ham).
You use different liquids?
The higher the fat content in the liquid—just like with the fat—the flakier your biscuit. Water makes tender biscuits that really take on the flavor of the fat you use. Water and butter biscuits are perfect for shortcake. Milk and buttermilk biscuits are similar in texture, but buttermilk biscuits have a very slight sourness, which is a great complement to fatty things like egg yolks, gravy or stew. The acid in buttermilk also tenderizes the proteins somewhat. Buttermilk is my go-to biscuit liquid.
Incorporate any of these additions into a recipe for 8-10 biscuits.
Cheese Biscuits – Save bits of cheese from last night’s cheese tray and dice or grate. Add up to 1 cup of cheese at the same time you’re cutting in the fat.
Sesame Scallion Biscuits – Add 1 tablespoon of toasted sesame oil when you’re cutting in the fat. Add 1 tablespoon of sesame seeds and ¼ cup of chopped scallion or chives before you add the liquid.
Olive and Rosemary Biscuits – Add ¼ cup of finely chopped nicoise olives and ½ tablespoon of finely chopped rosemary before adding the liquid.
Date, Bacon and Blue Cheese Biscuits – Add ¼ cup each of blue cheese crumbles, chopped dates and bacon bits before you incorporate the liquid.
Greek Yogurt and Lemon Biscuits – Add zest from a whole lemon before adding the liquid. Use half of the liquid in the recipe and mix it with ¼ cup of low-fat or fat-free Greek yogurt.
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