Sunday, October 7, 2012

A pretty good biscuit

My friend Nancy complained not too long ago that she feels like a failure as a Southern woman because she can't make a proper biscuit. When she said that, I thought, "Well, golly, I'm not sure I can either, having never tried."

I remember proper Southern biscuits, though, since my grandmother would make them when she came for her yearly visits. I have a vague memory of my mother making them, too, before she discovered the Pillsbury Doughboy. In fact, somehow I wound up with her biscuit cutter when she passed away, and I found it the other day while moving things back into the now-completed kitchen.

Seeing the cutter reminded me of those childhood biscuits, and remembering Nancy's comment, I decided that it was high time I tried my hand at making some.

For a recipe, I turned to the Joy of Cooking and used the "basic rolled biscuit," but found the results less than satisfactory. For one thing, I used my mother's cutter, and though you can't tell in the photo, it is pretty small. Also, the recipe called for rolling out the dough to half an inch thick.

I ended up with a biscuit that tasted fine, if not exciting, but the texture seemed more disc-like than airy and light. Here they are slathered in honey and butter, both of which will hide nearly any baking sin:

I figured a little research was in order. I turned first to Michael Ruhlman's book Ratio. As Ruhlman points out, the ingredients for quick breads are not complicated: flour, water, butter, salt, and a chemical leavening, such as baking powder. When I compared his ingredients for biscuits to JoC's, there didn't seem to be much difference. Ruhlman's technique, however, differed radically. Where JoC simply recommended rolling the dough out and cutting it, Ruhlman treats his biscuits more like a puff pastry, with multiple steps before baking.

The idea in a puff pastry (or any dough in which the final product is supposed to have light, flaky layers) is that very cold butter, trapped in layers of dough, will steam while baking and, well, puff up. In true puff pastry, the dough is rolled out, folded on itself, refrigerated for a while, then rolled and folded again, then refrigerated again--and so on up to seven or eight times, creating exceptionally thin layers of dough and butter. (I remember watching Julia Child make puff pastry on her television show years ago and thought it a very fancy thing indeed--little did I imagine the relationship it had to plain old biscuits.) I could suppose that a biscuit made this way would indeed be pretty close to the iconic Southern biscuit we all know and love. Ruhlman rolls and folds his dough twice, then refrigerates it for an hour and repeats the process. Once I tallied up the amount of time that it would take to make a batch using this technique, I found myself considering the possiblity that icons are generally overrated.

Plus, it just isn't what I remember my grandmother or mother doing. They simply didn't have the time to make something that required that much fussing. They mixed the dough, rolled it out, cut the biscuits, and the batch went into the oven. That's what I remember, and since the biscuit I'm looking for is as much about memory as it is about flakiness, I wanted something with a technique I could recognize.

So I did a little more research and found Alton Brown's recipe online. Again, the ingredients were more or less the same, but Brown's technique was something between JoC's bare bones and Ruhlman's time-consuming version. Brown does recommend folding the dough, though only three or four times, and without refrigeration between the folds.

It took me two or three more tries to get a biscuit I liked, but I finally did. It isn't as light and fluffy as one you might get in a restaurant, but then again I'm not rising at 3 in the morning to start them either. (Does the extra step of refrigeration between folding make that much difference? I'll have to try it sometime to find out.)

I used JoC's ingredients for buttermilk biscuits, but divided in half (Walu doesn't eat anything but cereal for breakfast). I made the dough in a food processor, mixing just until the dough holds together (this holds true for all quick breads, since over-beating or kneading them yields a biscuit/pancake/cornbread/scone/etc. that is tough and chewy). Then I turned it out onto a lightly floured surface, rolled it out to 3/4" thickness, gently folded it on itself, and repeated three more times.

I also put away my mother's biscuit cutter and used one that was 2.5" in diameter. Finally, for a little extra "flavor zing," I brushed the tops with buttermilk and sprinkled them with a little Kosher salt before baking. The result was a reasonably flaky, very serviceable, no-fuss biscuit that took no time at all to make. So I'll say to my friend Nancy: This biscuit probably isn't an icon, but it's a pretty good one, easy to make, and perfect for a Saturday morning and a favorite jar of blackberry jam.

And if there are any of you out there who have secrets for biscuit-making that you'd like to pass along, please do! I'm still a relative neophyte at this baking business, and I could use all the help I can get.

A Pretty Good Biscuit for One
(Makes four 2.5" biscuits)

Preheat the oven to 450F

1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

3 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter (cut into small cubes)

Pulse in a food processor until the butter is mixed in and has the consistency of peas or smaller.

3 ounces of buttermilk

MIX until the dough just comes together.

Roll out the dough onto a lightly floured surface until it is about 3/4" thick, then fold it gently in half. Repeat three to four times, taking care not to "work" the dough. (Also, don't let the dough sit around and get warm; cold temperatures are key to the flakiness.) Cut it with any size biscuit cutter you like, but I prefer 2.5-3" biscuits. Place on baking sheet and brush with buttermilk and sprinkle lightly with kosher salt. Bake 10-12 minutes until browned on top.


  1. These look fantastic to me! I haven't made a biscuit in forever but remember my grandmother pushing the biscuits together to force them to rise up in baking. That is probably personal preference, tho, because I'm a fan of a crisp outside and moist inside. The Contessa dices her ice-cold butter which seems like a good idea too. Speaking of butter and honey, we like to mix the two together in the processor with a little cinnamon and keep a tub in the fridge. No honey drips and one step process in loading the biscuit so you get to eating quicker!

    1. I've read that some people even freeze their butter--or maybe I heard Ina Garten say that on the Barefoot Contessa? I just can't see my grandmother doing that, though; she was a pretty no-nonsense woman.

    2. I tried Alton Brown's recipe and the biscuits were very light and fluffy! The Aussies call our biscuits 'scones' and their biscuits are our 'cookies'! They love American biscuit/scones. Can't wait to try your version!

  2. Well, they look delicious. A friend who makes the worlds best flaky pie crust uses very cold butter; so maybe there is something to the butter being iced! gail

  3. Haha, I have my grandmother's biscuit cutter too, though mine is wooden. The serving size of those long ago biscuits is a lot smaller. I wonder if your biscuits would be flakier if you used shortening? I am not a fan of Crisco, but it has its place.
    Reading what you have written above, I know my daughter freezes her butter (after she cuts it into tiny pieces). I love a good biscuit. At our Skunk Festival this past weekend the Irish group was housed by a local family. They were given a typical Southern breakfast-- biscuits and gravy. They thought it was pretty funny, in Ireland it would mean you get a cookie and some beef juice. :-)

    1. Aha! Now that makes sense. Freeze the cubes *after* you cut them! I like it. It seemed dangerous to me to try to cut a frozen stick of butter, but freezing after makes much more sense. I'll try it. Also, I'll try the shortening. Some of my pie crust recipes sub it for butter; there must be a reason.

      Too funny about the Irish. :-)

    2. Even easier than freezing little pieces of butter: put the butter in the freezer half an hour before you want to mix it in the flour, and use a cheese grater to break up the butter into small pieces. I do it right over the bowl of flour, and just mix it in with a fork before adding the cold liquid.

      Also, when making biscuits, I don't bother with folding the dough at all, and it still puffs up just fine.


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