Biscuits are the stuff of legend. The mere mention of them conjures images of hearth and home, kindly grandmothers and good-smelling kitchens. A particularly well-made biscuit has been known to inspire proposals of marriage.
People love eating biscuits. They love talking about biscuits.
But when it comes to making them, the sad truth is that many people, even Southerners, are often too afraid to try.
Why is this? Why are so many otherwise stalwart souls intimidated by a little piece of bread? I decided to consult an expert: my mother, a former biscuit-phobe herself.
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While bad biscuits didn't singlehandedly end my parents' marriage, they surely didn't help.
My father, a true biscuit lover —"they just have a taste that fits me," he says — was raised by a mother who, twice daily and without measuring, produced exceptionally fine biscuits from a wood-burning stove. As a young boy, I remember that he was less than complimentary of my mother's fledgling efforts to duplicate those skills. "These look and taste just like the Himalayan Mountains. Hard as them, too!" he used to say.
My mother hasn' t forgotten this, either. "He made so much fun of my biscuits, "she told me, "that I finally got too embarrassed to keep trying and I just quit." She added, a little sheepishly: "I must admit they were pretty bad. Inedible, really. And heavy as lead. You could've put one in a slingshot and killed a bird with it. Maybe a squirrel."
So the biscuit maker in our family was a little doughy man in a white chef's hat named Pop N. Fresh.
Talk about a sad state of affairs, especially since making an infinitely superior biscuit from scratch takes little more time than rapping that refrigerated can against the counter (though I admit I did get a certain thrill out of those exploding tubes of dough).
Lacking a role model at home, it wasn't until I was in my early 20s, working as the chef at a small hunting plantation in South Georgia, that I was able to cobble together enough know-how to make a decent batch of biscuits. Under the gun, through reading and experimentation, I overcame the tendencies of overkneading and underbaking that so often stand in the way of success.
At the Governor's Mansion, I refined my biscuit skills and built confidence. But it wasn't until I met and began cooking with the late, great Southern writer and chef Edna Lewis — an exquisite maker of biscuits if ever there was one —that I really learned to love biscuit making and discovered some of the finer points of the craft. Together, we mixed, kneaded, rolled and baked thousands of biscuits.
Experience has taught me that, in the end, a good biscuit really boils down to a few basics: mainly a hot oven, cold fat and a gentle but knowing hand.
But it's the details that make a great biscuit, and simple as they are, they are important and should be followed closely.
The golden ideal
To my taste, a biscuit should be crusty and golden brown on the top — and even lightly browned on the bottom — with an interior that is soft, light and tender but not too fluffy. It should be slightly moist, but not so moist that it becomes gummy when you eat it, and dry enough to absorb a pat of good butter as it melts. It should be flavorful and well-seasoned, with a slight buttermilk tang, pleasing on its own but an excellent vehicle for other flavors as well.
Ratio of crusty exterior to soft interior is important, and I'm no fan of those big, Hollywood-pumped-up-on-steroids-looking biscuits. I prefer a biscuit no larger than three inches or so in diameter and not much more than an inch in height.
My favorite way to enjoy a biscuit is split, warm from the oven, slathered with excellent, room temperature butter and a drizzle of honey or spread with homemade blackberry or strawberry preserves.
But I would have just as hard a time turning down one with sweet butter and a few shards of country ham tucked inside. Or lightly sweetened and baked into a shortcake filled with berries and softly whipped cream. Or topped with sautéed asparagus and mushrooms and a runny poached egg. Or dipped into a pool of sorghum or cane syrup.
Here are the steps that will take you to your own biscuit nirvana:
First: Use the good stuff
Biscuits are a simple affair made with just a few humble ingredients, so each one counts.
Biscuits are traditionally made with a soft-wheat Southern flour such as White Lily, which is lower in protein than most all-purpose flours and therefore makes an exceptionally light and tender biscuit. However, a very fine biscuit can be made by using any good quality all-purpose flour. ( In fact, Miss Lewis preferred unbleached flour — King Arthur — for making biscuits, and hers were some of the best I've ever tasted.) Unbleached flour contains more protein than bleached varieties, so it is stronger and yields a slightly more sturdier product. If using unbleached flour, you will need to use slightly more fat than with regular flour and possibly a bit more liquid — more about that later.
No matter which type of flour, you should avoid self-rising varieties. They are loaded with commercial baking powder and salt and to me have a very unpleasant taste.
I strongly advocate making your own baking powder, a much simpler task than it sounds. Commercial baking powder contains chemicals and aluminum salts that impart an unpleasant metallic flavor and burning sensation on the tongue. Make your own baking powder by measuring and sifting together, three times, two parts cream of tartar and one part baking soda. Put in a clean, dry container with a tight-fitting lid and store in a cool place away from sunlight. Because it is additive-free, homemade baking powder can settle and clump over time, so you might need to sift again before using. Trust me, the little bit of extra effort is worth it.
Homemade baking powder lasts for about four weeks. So make in small batches and use while fresh.
I prefer kosher or fine sea salt for baking. Both are pure and free of anti-caking agents or other additives. Because of its fineness, sea salt measures differently than kosher, so if using sea salt where a measurement for kosher is given, reduce the amount by nearly half.
All I am saying is give lard a chance!
Lard is my preferred fat for making biscuits. It has a very high melting point, so it stays solid longer in the oven, which promotes flakiness and tenderness — much better than tasteless, additive-ridden vegetable shortening, a passable substitute at best. Good lard has a clean, subtle flavor. Lard is usually found in the meat section of your market, or possibly on the shortening aisle. Try to find brands that aren't loaded with preservatives and give it a quick sniff before buying to make sure it hasn't gone rancid.
Unsalted butter is another option and it makes a richly flavored biscuit. Whichever you choose, just be sure it is of the best quality and very cold before using. Also, butter and lard absorb flavors and odors easily, so be sure to store well wrapped in the refrigerator.
Buttermilk biscuits are my favorite, but you can also make biscuits using regular milk, clabbered milk, heavy cream or half-and-half. Sadly, true buttermilk, the natural byproduct of churning cultured butter, is very rarely found these days. The vast majority of what you will find in your market is either skim or whole milk that has had a culture added to it. Either is fine, though obviously, whole buttermilk will make for a slightly richer biscuit. Try different brands and find one with a taste you like, and avoid those that have been artificially flavored or thickened. Buttermilk is typically seasoned with salt, and some are saltier than others. If you find yourself using an especially briny brand, you might want to cut back a little on the salt in the recipe.
If you're hankering for some biscuits but don't have any buttermilk on hand, despair not. You can clabber regular milk with a tablespoon of cider vinegar or lemon juice (I like a blend of the two) for every cup. Just stir it in and let it sit for 10 minutes or so to curdle. Because it is thinner than buttermilk, you might need to use a little bit less since it will be absorbed more easily into the flour.
Baking pans should be of a good weight that will conduct heat well and bake evenly.
Biscuit cutters should be straight-sided and open on both ends. Size is a matter of preference, but for biscuits to be served as part of a meal, I recommend a cutter that is 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Many recipes suggest a juice glass as an option for stamping out biscuits, but I advise against this. The vacuum created by the glass can compress the biscuit and make it less light.
The type of rolling pin you use is up to you, but I prefer the handle-free variety, also known as a "french" rolling pin. If your rolling pin is made of wood, do not wash it. Water will cause the wood grain to swell and open, which will make your pin more likely to stick to your dough.
To clean, use your biscuit cutter to scrape off any bits of dough that might be stuck to the pin and wipe well with a clean dry cloth.
Handle with care
It's true that you need a light hand when making biscuits, but underworking can cause almost as many problems as overworking. While overworking can lead to tough, dry and heavy biscuits, underworking can result in ones that are crumbly and leaden. To get it just right, consider:
• When mixing the dough, stir with a purpose and mix just until the batter is well-moistened and begins to come together.
• When kneading, knead gently but quickly, just until the dough forms a cohesive ball. Avoid pressing the dough too firmly and you will be rewarded with lighter biscuits.
• Gently flatten the kneaded dough and use a rolling pin to roll from the center out to the edges. Avoid rolling back and forth as this can overwork the dough.
• Stamp out biscuits as close together as possible to get the maximum yield. Resist the urge to twist the cutter when cutting out the dough. Twisting seals the sides and inhibits rising, a biscuit's most important duty.
• To re-roll or not to re-roll the scraps: That's a personal decision, but I opt not to. In fact, I very much like the odd bits and pieces of leftover dough baked right alongside the biscuits.
Before you bake
• Pricking the dough with a fork before baking allows steam to be released during cooking and helps the biscuits rise more evenly. It's also traditional, and tradition counts with me.
• Arrange biscuits on the baking sheet so they almost touch. This will keep the sides from setting too quickly in the hot, hot oven and, as a result, the biscuits are able to rise higher and lighter.
• Bake biscuits in the top third of the oven —the hottest part. They'll bake faster and lighter and develop a better crust.
Serve them hot
One of the first stories Miss Lewis told me was of a gentleman from the North who came south to experience Southern cooking — biscuits in particular. When he returned home and was asked how the biscuits were, he sadly replied: "I don't know, I never got to eat one. Every time someone started to bring them to the table, they'd check them and say, "Oops, sorry, they're not hot enough"— and disappear back into the kitchen."
While it's true that biscuits are best eaten warm, don't worry if you can't always time them to come straight from the oven. Biscuits can be baked up to a few hours in advance and reheated, uncovered, in a 375-degree oven for three to five minutes until hot.
Like a dog, biscuit dough can smell fear. But as far as I know, there are no documented cases of a biscuit ever attacking someone. So what if your first batch or two don't turn out like your father's memory of his grandmother's biscuits, or there aren't angels singing when you take your first bite? Practice makes progress, and that's really what it's all about — the satisfaction and enjoyment of learning as you go.
Just ask my mother, who, after 30 years and a little encouragement from her loving son and second and third husbands, now turns out biscuits anyone would be proud to serve.
And even if she should have a bad biscuit day, she can always save the duds for slingshot season.
Seven easy steps
* 1: Rub lard into dry ingredients with fingertips. Half of mixture should remain in 1/2-inch pieces.
* 2: Make a well in flour mixture and pour in buttermilk.
* 3: Stir quickly, just until the dough is blended and begins to mass.
* 4: Turn sticky dough onto a generously floured surface.
* 5: Gently flatten dough with hands and roll it out.
* 6: With a dinner fork dipped in flour, pierce the dough completely through at 1/2-inch intervals.
* 7: Cut the biscuits from the dough as close together as you can for a maximum yield. Arrange cut biscuits on a heavy, ungreased or parchment-lined baking sheet so that they almost touch.
• To make biscuits using unbleached all-purpose flour: Increase lard by 2 tablespoons and, if needed, a little extra buttermilk to make a moist and sticky dough.
• To make Cream Biscuits: Increase salt by 1/2 teaspoon. Instead of lard, substitute an equal amount (1/2 cup) of cold butter cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Work in the butter just as you would the lard. Substitute 1 cup heavy cream and 1 cup half-and-half for the buttermilk. Reduce oven heat to 450 degrees. Because they are richer, cream biscuits brown more quickly but also take a little longer to cook through. To be sure they are fully cooked, test one of the biscuits from the center of the tray by gently pulling apart.
• To make Sweet Cream Biscuits: A sweet version of cream biscuits — delicious with tea or as a base for shortcake — can be made by adding 2 to 3 tablespoons granulated or turbinado sugar to the dry ingredients. If desired, a little additional sugar or coarsely crushed sugar cubes can be sprinkled on top of the biscuits before baking. The crushed sugar cubes add an especially interesting appearance and crunch.
(Note: Because they are so rich, cream biscuits, whether savory or sweet, should always be warmed briefly in the oven before eating.)
• For a perfect brunch splurge: Split and butter a warm biscuit. Top with sliced mushrooms sautéed in butter with a little garlic, a few spears of steamed or blanched asparagus and a soft poached egg. A thin slice of ham can make a nice addition. And if you really want to get fancy, spoon on some hollandaise sauce.