Heaven is a Biscuit
I love biscuits. Love them. I could eat a whole batch at one sitting, even without butter or jam or gravy. I say I could, because believe it or not I do possess the restraint not to.
And I should probably clarify, I love good buttermilk biscuits. Sure, I have been known to eat a fast food sausage biscuit or a chain restaurant puck covered with gravy. If a menu has a biscuit on it, I find it hard to resist. But my true passion is for good, down home, fresh made buttermilk biscuits. Some people have grandmothers who make these, or live near a mom-and-pop country restaurant that produce hundreds of from-scratch, by-hand biscuits. Someone forwarded a newspaper article to me recently about the wide variety of frozen biscuits available that are good enough that many Southern cooks have given up biscuit making altogether. And I’ll admit, they are not all bad.
Here’s the thing though. I make biscuits. And I love doing it. I think it may be because I have an image of myself as some one who can do things. The truth is – not so much. I can’t make fluffy white bread, or my own puff pastry, or good old-fashioned dinner rolls. But I can make biscuits. I like being someone who can do something that most people don’t bother with anymore.
Learning to make a good biscuit takes practice, and trial and error. Even the most experienced biscuit cook has a batch that just doesn’t work. Maybe the weather was wrong, or the flour just wasn’t in the mood, or the cook didn’t have the right love to put into that batch. So today I made a big batch of biscuits and carefully made notes about every step. The recipe below may look long, but don’t be intimidated. I have tried to put in as much detail as I can to get the dough rolling.
So here are some starting tips: I do truly recommend using soft Southern wheat flour, like White Lily (my choice) or Martha White. I am sure you can order it online if you can’t track it down. I use White Lily as my flour always, so I don’t have two types of all-purpose flour in the pantry. If you use regular all-purpose, you’ll still get biscuits, but if they don’t taste exactly right, that’s why. I used to be a little afraid of shortening and made biscuits with all butter, but now I know that the shortening is really a must. I use a combination because the boost in flavor the butter adds. Both must be cold – right out of the fridge before you use it. Same with the buttermilk. I prefer cold whole buttermilk, but low-fat works as well. Make sure you shake the bottle very well before measuring.
4 cups flour (all-purpose White Lily)
2 Tablespoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
¼ cup cold vegetable shortening
¼ cup cold unsalted butter
1 to 1 ½ cups cold well-shaken buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Line a baking pan (about 13” by 9” with 1-inch sides) with parchment paper or grease it well with shortening.
Measure out the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a large bowl that gives you lots of room to work. Mix gently with a fork to combine and aerate the flour.
Cut the shortening and the butter into small cubes. I cut the butter from the stick three times down the length, turn it over once, cut it three times down the length again, then across the short way. I buy Crisco shortening in sticks as well and do the same.
Separate the shortening and butter into cubes and sprinkle over the top of the flour mixture. Use the fork to toss the cubes lightly in the flour to coat. Then dip your clean fingers into some flour and mix everything together, squishing and rubbing the mixture together to combine the fats and the flour. Don’t spend too long doing this, gentle handling is the key to a tender biscuit. It’s okay if there are some lumps of butter or shortening left. Many recipes describe the result of this process as looking like breadcrumbs or fine meal, and that’s okay. I think it looks like lumpy flour. When you pinch a bit of flour between your fingers, from anywhere in the bowl, it should stick together.
Measure out the shaken buttermilk, then pour about ¾ cup of it over the mixture. Use the fork to fold the buttermilk into the dough, carefully incorporating the liquid. Keep adding the buttermilk a bit at a time until you have a cohesive dough. You may not need all the buttermilk. Again, you don’t want to work the dough too much, but don’t leave much loose, dry flour in the bottom of the bowl. You can use your hands to get that last bit of dry flour into the dough.
Lightly flour a work surface. I find the counter top to be best; a board tends to slip around. You do want to use a light hand to flour the surface, because too much will leave an unpleasant floury coating on the biscuits. Sprinkling flour through a wire sieve is a great way to do this.
Turn the dough out onto the surface, and turn it over on itself once or twice to bring the dough together. I do not say knead, because you don’t want to work the dough that hard. Press the dough into a rectangle about ½ inch thick. Just press it out lightly with your hands to an even thickness. This method makes the top of the biscuits slightly textured, which looks very homemade, but if it bothers you, roll a lightly floured rolling pin lightly over the top.
Cut the biscuits with a round cutter or a thin rimmed glass, always cutting as close to the edge of the dough and as close together as possible to get as many biscuits as possible. I get a good dozen in the first batch using a 2 ½ inch cutter from this recipe. Just press the cutter down and pull back up; don’t twist or the sides won’t rise up as nice.
Place the biscuits very close together on the prepared pan, just touching each other. This helps them rise while cooking.
Now the big debate: to re-roll or not re-roll. There will be some leftover dough. Some people say that this dough is not worth using again, but I disagree. Gently press the remaining dough together and press out into a ½ inch thickness and cut – you’ll get maybe three more. Place them on the pan with the rest of the biscuits. The first-roll dozen are the company biscuits, the last ones just for you, so remember which are which. Any leftover scraps can be cooked separately, or rolled in cinnamon-sugar and baked off, or frankly just eaten raw.
Bake the biscuits in the hot oven for 8 – 9 minutes, rotating the pan about 6 minutes through. Watch the biscuits carefully so they do not over-brown. These may not get too brown on top, but will be nice and soft inside. If you want a brown top, turn the broiler on a few minutes, watching all the time with the door open until lightly golden. Take the biscuits out of the oven, then brush the tops with melted butter (about 2 Tablespoons should do it).
Leave the biscuits to cool slightly and then eat ‘em up. They will keep a day or so tightly wrapped, but are better toasted when not eaten fresh.
Makes 12 – 15 biscuits
Serve your fresh, hot biscuits with Tomato Gravy or Sausage Gravy.