What’s The Secret to a Perfect Biscuit?
I’ve been asked quite a bit about biscuits these past few months.
Folks pull me aside at book-signings. As I am spending the summer in New England, random folks hear my accent and ask about Southern biscuits. People reach out on Twitter and Facebook. I also get at least a couple emails a week asking about how to make biscuits.
This week it was a plea for a lost recipe, ” They were very light and fluffy, think she used lard and cut the biscuits out and let the dough rest while we went to church. The bread and biscuits were better than any bread or biscuits I have ever tasted.”
I love biscuits and I am not alone.
I have a fantasy of opening a street-front, window only walk-up restaurant in NYC and sell nothing but biscuits and grits. It’s not that I think that there are that many displaced Southerners in NYC. No, not at all. It’s that everyone loves biscuits. Those folks may think they like bagels, but in my opinion, they just haven’t met the right biscuit.
There’s no doubt in my mind that nothing says comfort like a fluffy, buttery biscuit.
No, I am not talking about those obscenely large and layered monstrosities that the fast food places sell. Or those bizarrely soft and spongy cans of biscuit dough that have a shelf life of 6 months!? Those kind of biscuits only exist because of chemical manipulation and ingredients that end in letters like “-ceride” and “-pylene.”
I am talking about flour, fat, liquid, leavener, and salt.
A few weeks ago I gave an impromptu biscuit making class. We made biscuits side by side with two kinds of flours. In the photograph below, Gold Medal All Purpose flour is on the left, and White Lily All Purpose flour on the right. See the difference?
Secrets of Southern Flour
Wheat flour contains two proteins, glutenin and gliadin. When you combine flour with water, the proteins create a strong and elastic sheet called gluten. Flours vary in their protein levels, which affects the texture of baked goods. Gluten gives structure to yeast breads, but is not recommended for tender cakes, biscuits, and quick breads. Southern all-purpose flour is milled from soft red winter wheat that has less gluten-forming protein. It is typically bleached, which makes it whiter, but this does not affect the protein. My family has always used White Lily flour, a staple across the South; another dependable Southern brand is Martha White.
Most national brands of all-purpose flour are a combination of soft winter wheat and higher-protein hard summer wheat. White Lily contains approximately nine grams of protein per cup of flour, whereas national brands can contain eleven or twelve grams of protein per cup of flour. If you live outside the South, White Lily is available online or in some specialty shops in other parts of the country.
For results similar to those of Southern flour, substitute one part all-purpose flour and one part cake flour for the amount of Southern flour in a recipe. Finally, high-protein flour absorbs more liquid than does low-protein flour; if you attempt to make biscuits with a high-protein flour, you will need to add more liquid.
Want to know more?
Want to know just how easy it is to make mouth-watering, buttery biscuits?
Want to know how to have hot, fresh, homemade bread on the table in minutes?
Want to perhaps find your lost recipe?
Well, I’ve got the book for you.
It’s The Book on How to Make a Biscuit. Period.
It’s the definitive biscuit book with recipes and secrets to creating every style of biscuit imaginable.
It’s filled with amazing photographs including dozens of how-to photos showing how to mix, stir, fold, roll, and knead.
It also explains what ingredients to use and how the type of flour, fat, and liquid affects the end result; how to cut, hand-shape, or scoop the dough; time and temperature.
Like I said, it’s How to Make Biscuits. Period.
Before you get your copy of the book, I’ll leave you with a few recipes and tips on making biscuits. (And, after all, remember, after Meme and Mama, Nathalie first taught me, too.)
Tips and Techniques on Making Biscuits
- Chill the bowl used to mix the dough as well as the pastry blender to prevent the butter or shortening from warming up.
- Cut the butter into flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Cold bits of butter or fat will melt during baking, creating pockets of steam that give biscuits their flakiness.
- When working with butter, cut it into small pieces, and chill again before adding to dry ingredients.
- Dip the cutter in flour. Cut the biscuits smoothly and cleanly straight down without twisting. Twisting can seal the dough and prevent the rise.
- As Nathalie used to tell me, “Get your hot little hands off that dough.” Handle the dough as little as possible. You don’t want to make the biscuits tough by overworking, and you want the fat to stay cold until the biscuits bake.
- A very hot oven is essential. The steam interacts with the baking powder to create the biscuit’s ideal textures inside and out.
- The perfect biscuit should be golden brown and slightly crisp on the outside, with a light, airy interior. For a flaky, tender biscuit, don’t overwork the dough: gently combine the ingredients until just blended.
I hope you enjoy this collection of recipes. Keep me posted on what you’re doing – both success and failure stories. Shoot me a comment or email. I’m happy to try to help.
Lastly, a couple of things to share since I am marrying my newsletter and blog. I’ve decided I should call this “Mama’s Reading List!” This week I was interviewed for USA Today about Georgia peaches and Roberta and Lois from Kosher Eye called to chat about Southern Food. And, please check out Lisa is Cooking to see what’s on my bedside table.
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
PS The recipe for Sweet Potato Biscuits is a sneak peek at Basic to Brilliant, Y’all .(Shh, don’t tell!)
Makes about 9 biscuits
Meme most often made rolled biscuits. For large biscuits, she had a special aluminum cutter with a small wooden handle that fit in the palm of her hand. She cut out small biscuits with an empty apple juice can open at both ends. Some purists use lard instead of butter. Although I like biscuits made with lard and understand the tradition and history, Meme and Mama had started using butter by the time I was born.
2 cups White Lily or other Southern all-purpose flour, or cake flour (not self-rising), more for rolling out
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits and chilled
3/4 to 1 cup buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 500°F. In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal. Pour in the buttermilk, and gently mix until just combined.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead lightly, using the heel of your hand to compress and push the dough away from you, then fold it back over itself. Give the dough a small turn and repeat 8 or so times. (It’s not yeast bread; you want to just barely activate the gluten, not overwork it.) Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough out 1/2 inch thick. Cut out rounds of dough with a 21/4-inch round cutter dipped in flour; press the cutter straight down without twisting so the biscuits will rise evenly when baked.
Place the biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet or in an 8- by 2-inch round cake pan. If the biscuits are baked close together the sides will be moist. If the biscuits are baked further apart, the sides will be crisp.
Bake until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool just slightly. Serve warm.
variation: If I don’t feel like rolling out biscuits, or just want a different texture, I tweak the recipe by adding more buttermilk to the dough and make drop biscuits: use 3 cups of flour—2 for the dough and 1 cup placed in a bowl to shape the dough into biscuits. Increase the buttermilk to 2 cups. The dough will be very wet and resemble cottage cheese. To form the biscuits into balls, scoop up some dough with a large ice cream scoop; place the dough balls in the bowl with the 1 cup of flour. Working one at a time, roll the balls to coat in flour, then set in an ungreased 8- by 2-inch round cake pan. The baking time will be the same as for cut biscuits.
Sneak Peek Sweet Potato Biscuits
Makes about 16
2 medium sweet potatoes
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/3 cup low-fat or whole milk
Preheat the oven to 400°F.Bake or microwave the sweet potatoes until soft and tender, about 45 minutes in the oven or about 10 minutes in the microwave. Set aside to cool.
When the sweet potatoes are cool enough to touch, peel and mash until smooth in a food processor fitted with a metal blade or with an old-fashioned potato masher. Measure out 1 cup and reserve the rest for another use.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking liner or parchment paper. Set aside. In the same bowl of the food processor, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Pulse in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Combine the sweet potato and milk in a small bowl and whisk until smooth. Add the potato mixture to the flour mixture, pulsing just until moist.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface; knead lightly four or five times. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the dough 3/4 inch thick. Cut out 10 biscuits with a 2-inch biscuit cutter, pressing the cutter straight down without twisting so the biscuits will rise evenly when baked. Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet. Gather together the scraps (by placing the pieces on top of one another in layers instead of bunching it up). Roll out 3/4 inch thick. Cut with the biscuit cutter into 5 or 6 more biscuits. Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet. Discard any remaining scraps.
Bake until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Transfer the biscuits to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Nathalie’s Yogurt Biscuits
Makes 12 (2-inch) biscuits
Yogurt makes a very light, tangy biscuit. With homemade or commercial self-rising flour, it is a simple matter. Yogurt varies in consistency, from the thick cream-topped to the thinner generic brands, so it is always a judgment call as to how much to use to make a wet dough. Do not be tempted to use nonfat or light yogurt as they have additives that will change the nature of the biscuit. But if the yogurt is so thick you can’t incorporate it, feel free to add a bit of milk or buttermilk. These crisp biscuits triple in size and cut easily.
2 1⁄4 cups self-rising flour, divided
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup plain yogurt, divided
Softened butter, for brushing
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Select the baking pan by determining if a soft or crisp exterior is desired. For a soft exterior, select an 8- or 9-inch cake pan, pizza pan, or oven-proof skillet where the biscuits will nestle together snugly, creating the soft exterior while baking. For a crisp exterior, select a baking sheet or other baking pan where the biscuits can be placed wider apart, allowing air to circulate and creating a crisper exterior, and brush the pan with butter.
Fork-sift or whisk 2 cups of flour and the salt in a large bowl, preferably wider than it is deep, and set aside the remaining 1⁄4 cup of flour. Make a deep hollow in the center of the flour with the back of your hand. Pour 2⁄3 cup of yogurt into the hollow, reserving the 1⁄3 cup yogurt, and stir with a rubber spatula or large metal spoon, using broad circular strokes to quickly pull the flour into the yogurt. Mix just until the dry ingredients are moistened and the sticky dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If there is some flour remaining on the bottom and sides of the bowl, stir in 1 to 4 tablespoons of reserved yogurt, just enough to incorporate the remaining flour into the shaggy wettish dough If the dough is too wet, use more flour when shaping.
Lightly sprinkle a board or other clean surface using some of the reserved flour. Turn the dough out onto the board and sprinkle the top of the dough lightly with flour. With floured hands, fold the dough in half, and pat dough out into a 1⁄3- to 1⁄2-inch-thick round, using a little additional flour only if needed. Flour again if necessary and fold the dough in half a second time. If the dough is still clumpy, pat and fold a third time. Pat dough out into a 1⁄2-inch thick round for a normal biscuit, 3⁄4-inch-thick for a tall
biscuit, and 1-inch-thick for a giant biscuit. Brush off any visible flour from the top. For each biscuit, dip a 2-inch biscuit cutter into the reserved flour and cut out the biscuits, starting at the outside edge and cutting very close together, being careful not to twist the cutter.
The scraps may be combined to make additional biscuits, although these scraps make tougher biscuits. Using a metal spatula if necessary, move the biscuits to the pan or baking sheet. Bake the biscuits on the top rack of the oven for a total of 10 to 14 minutes until light golden brown. After 6 minutes, rotate the pan in the oven so that the front of the pan is now turned to the back, and check to see if the bottoms are browning too quickly. If so, slide another baking pan underneath to add insulation and retard browning. Continue baking another 4 to 8 minutes until the biscuits are light golden brown. When the biscuits are done, remove from the oven and lightly brush the tops with softened or melted butter. Turn the biscuits out upside down on a plate to cool slightly. Serve hot, right side up.
Senator Holling’s Carolina Biscuits
Makes 20 (1-inch) biscuits
According to Nathalie, U.S. Senator “Fritz” Hollings, one of the truly great raconteurs of the twentieth century, posted this recipe on his website. Also called Carolina Biscuits by some, they are the kind of Southern hors d’oeuvre greedily eaten as opposed to nibbling while standing around drinking and telling stories. Without a doubt the flakiest and richest of all the biscuits we’ve made, these tiny
bites melt in the mouth, need no embellishment, and can be served unadorned, warm out of the oven or at room temperature. As someone said, “I can’t believe how good these are.”
There is no sense doing this by hand when a food processor is available, making it easy and stress-free.
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
2⁄3 cup butter, softened
1 cup self-rising flour, divided
Softened butter, for brushing
Pulse together the cream cheese, 2⁄3 cup of butter, and 1 cup of the flour two or three times in a food processor fitted with the knife or dough blade. Turn the dough out onto waxed paper and divide into two rounds. Wrap in waxed paper, plastic wrap, or a resealable plastic bag, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Lightly sprinkle a board or other clean surface using some of the reserved flour. Sprinkle the top lightly with flour. With floured hands and a floured rolling pin, roll out one portion of the dough at a time to approximately 1⁄2 inch thick. For each biscuit, dip a 1- to 1 1⁄4-inch biscuit cutter into the reserved flour and cut out the biscuits, starting at the outside edge and cutting very close together, being careful not to twist the cutter. The scraps may be combined to make additional biscuits, although these scraps make tougher biscuits.
Using a metal spatula if necessary, move the biscuits to an ungreased baking sheet, placing the biscuits 1 inch apart. Bake the biscuits on the top rack of the oven for a total of 10 to 12 minutes until light golden brown. After 6 minutes, rotate the pan in the oven so that the front of the pan is now turned to the back, and check to see if the bottoms are browning too quickly. If so, slide another baking pan underneath to add insulation and retard browning.
Continue baking another 4 to 6 minutes until the biscuits are light golden brown. When the biscuits are done, lightly brush the tops with melted butter. Turn the biscuits out upside down on a plate to cool slightly. Serve hot, right side up. These biscuits may be frozen, unbaked or baked, and reheated.
Nathalie’s Overnight Biscuit, Sausage, and Apple Casserole
Sausage and apple is one of my favorite food combinations, and I find ways to cook it into everything from quiches to this soufflé-like casserole, great for a brunch or long weekend.
2 pounds bulk sausage
2 tart apples, cored and sliced
6 cups torn or cut biscuits in 1⁄2-inch pieces
9 large eggs, beaten
3⁄4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 1⁄2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
3 cups milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fry the sausage in a skillet, breaking it up as it cooks, and drain on a paper towel. Reserve the fat and let the sausage cool. Sauté the apples in the reserved fat, remove from pan, and let cool.
Move the biscuit pieces to a large resealable plastic bag. Whisk together the eggs, mustard, cheese, and milk in a large bowl. Stir in the sausage and apples. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer the mixture to the plastic bag. Place the bag inside another resealable plastic bag with the zipper facing another direction in order to prevent leaks. Refrigerate at least 2 hours, preferably overnight or up to 2 days.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Pour mixture into a buttered 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking dish or divide between two 1 1⁄2-quart casseroles. Bake covered 30 minutes. Uncover and bake another 30 minutes until eggs are set and the center measures 200 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer.
Southern Biscuit © 2011 Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Stevens Graubart. Photographs © 2011 Rick McKee
Sneak Peak Sweet Potato Biscuits – Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company (Ten Speed Press 2011)
photos for Meme’s Biscuits and Sweet Potato Biscuits are by me.
Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.