Sunday, May 16, 2010

Almost Perfect Biscuits

I’m still making biscuits and still trying for that elusive perfect biscuit recipe. I want a recipe that will make a fluffy, flakey, high-rising biscuit with a perfect “biscuit” taste every time. I’m getting pretty close, but I’m not there yet. Let me talk about what I’ve learned, and then I’ll offer my current best recipe.

First, you’ve got a trade off. The more baking powder that you use (within reason), the higher your biscuits will rise. There is a penalty. Too much baking powder will affect the taste of your biscuits—I found that out early on ( But this trade off is different for every person. It depends on your taste buds. If I use more than two teaspoons of baking powder, then I can taste it in the biscuits. Some people can’t taste the baking powder if you use twice that amount. So a recipe might be perfect for you—and I won’t like it.

Second, even small variations in the ingredients make a big difference. I find that using pastry (cake) flour helps the biscuits rise. I also find that I get a better biscuit, flakier and more flavorful if I use lard as the fat. Lard is, after all, a southern tradition.

Third, if you want high biscuits, then it’s best to roll out the dough as thick as an inch, or even more. The biscuits only rise so much, but if they are bigger to begin with, then they will be taller when you are done.

Finally, you can’t get away from measuring. I love to cook by eye, but when I try to bake by approximating the quantities, the results are uneven at best. So here is my current recipe:

2 cups white pastry (cake) flour
1/3 cup lard
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Either sift the dry ingredients together or do what lazy people like me do: Pour all the dry ingredients together in a bowl and use a whisk to stir them together. Add the lard (if you insist on using butter or another fat, then you’ll need ½ cup rather than 1/3 cup). You need to mix the lard with the dry ingredients until they are thoroughly incorporated and the biscuit dough looks like pea gravel or large grains of sand. The only way to do that is with your fingers—don’t believe anyone that tells you a pastry cutter works as well.

But if you put the lard in the center of the bowl and toss some of the flour over it before you start squeezing then you won’t get as much lard stuck to your fingers. After you are done mixing the lard with the dry ingredients, pour the buttermilk in all at once. Use a wooden spoon to mix the buttermilk in until you get a dough that barely sticks together (if it won’t stick, then use a little more buttermilk—but only as a last resort). Put the dough on a floured board and knead it a couple of times before flatting it out so you can cut the biscuits.

Real experts use a biscuit cutter, but I don’t have one so I just use a glass.

Cut out as many biscuits as possible and put them on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Take the leftovers and gently form them together, either to cut out more biscuits or just sort of form them by hand. The less you work the dough, the more tender your biscuits will be.

Place the biscuits in the oven and bake for twenty minutes. Then eat them with butter, jam, honey, slivers of ham or whatever you like.

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