Biscuits are easy to make and anyone that tells you different is a liar. They're made with six ingredients that you should always have in your house anyway, and the primary rule for making them is to do the least work possible. And, unlike waiting in line at the hip biscuit place in town (I live in Portland, we have hip biscuit places, with lines), making biscuits at home only takes a half hour and you don't even have to wear pants.
A note on weight. As much as I can, I will be giving the measurements based on mass and not volume. I do this because it's easier. I have absolutely no idea why we still rely on measuring cups. They inefficient and messy. At only $30, a digital scale is the cheapest way to make your cooking better. I'm still using volume measurements for the really small proportions because I'm not going so far as to ask you to get a scale that will measure out tenths or hundredths of grams. Yet. And really, it's most critical to get the flour to liquid ratio right here. The other stuff doesn't have to be perfect.
If you don't have a scale, I'll give you a pass this round. A cup of flour weighs 125 grams. A half cup of butter is 120g. And 210g of buttermilk is just shy of a cup.
Makes 4 sizable biscuits.
- 250g all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 120g cultured butter
- 210g buttermilk
Heat your oven to 425F. Mix all the dry ingredients up with a whisk or thoroughly with your fingers if you don't feel like cleaning a whisk later.
A note about flour: The general difference in flour type in the US—bread, all-purpose, cake/pastry—has to do with the protein content in each. More protein = more potential gluten development = more chew/better rise. Bread flours have a higher protein content so that when you knead them they develop extensibility and strength enough can hold onto and be raised by the gas released from yeast. This is also what gives good pizza its chew. Conversely, a lower amount of protein in cake flour allows cake to crumble and, thankfully, not be chewy. Anytime you're baking you want to pick a flour that is going to be most helpful for attaining the desired texture of the final product.
But flour type can only get you so far. The protein in each flour doesn't magically go to work at full strength. It needs to be coaxed to work at full potential.
Or, it kneads to be coaxed. ...Oh god I'm so sorry. Yeah, I understand. I'll just leave.
Anyway, the point being, how you handle the flour is just as, if not more important than the type of flour you use. Yes, cake flour will never make a good pizza, but neither will expensive, imported pizza flour if it's not kneaded properly.
So what kind of texture do we want the biscuits to have? Well, they should definitely not be chewy right? Think of biting into the crust of a pizza and how you have to tear it off. We don't want that. So high protein flour is out. The biscuits should be soft, with tender layers that pull apart easily, they still need to have some structural integrity. Cake flour could work here, but I don't think it's worth making an extra trip to the grocery store to buy it. As long as we're careful, the extra protein in all-purpose flour shouldn't be a problem. See, flour protein starts balled up on itself, and it's only through hydration and kneading that it unravels and attaches to other strands of protein, creating a strong, yeast-fart-catching web. (The gas that makes bread rise is carbon dioxide, which is what yeast farts when it eats sugar. Accept it, move on.) We'll be waking the gluten from its slumber simply by adding liquid (liquid + flour + time = strong gluten, which is how no-knead bread recipes work) so in order to minimize further gluten formation, the goal is to be quick and gentle.
You may be asking, if we're not using yeast in this recipe, how do the biscuits rise? The answer: chemical leaveners and steam.
Chemical leaveners are science's answer to bakers being too lazy to wait for yeast to fart our bread skyward. Also, because we're not waiting for yeast to do its thing, we're minimizing the time the liquid and gluten are hanging out together, thus softening the texture. Baking powder, the primary leavener in this recipe, is simply an equal mixture of an acid and an alkaline. Thus, every chemically leavened bread product basically contains a fourth grade volcano science experiment in it. Double acting baking powder means that it erupts when a liquid comes into play, and then again when heat is added. The baking soda in this recipe is an alkaline ingredient, and it's here to balance out the acid added by the buttermilk. (Which is why cream biscuit recipes don't call for baking soda.)
The second leavener at play here is steam, and that is going to primarily be coming from the butter. In the oven, the moisture from the butter will evaporate and push the biscuit upward. More importantly though, in the space left behind there will be, well, space. It will be empty. That emptiness will create layers in the finished biscuit. Light, flakey, delicious, layers. We want those.
But the only way to get these layers is to keep your butter cold. If your butter melts before you put your biscuits in the oven, say goodbye to an ideal texture.
The three rules of biscuits:
- Work fast
- Work gentle
- Work cold
Your cold butter should not be perfectly blended into the final dough. Rather, there should be dispersed chunks of butter which will become vacant space when the moisture evaporates in the oven. So how does one get chunks of butter into flour? Well, you could pulse it in a food processor like how the smart folks over at America's Test Kitchen suggest. That totally works, but it leaves you with a food processor to clean. I don't like cleaning food processors, so I've stopped using this method. Another method is to grate it with a cheese grater. This works too. But, it calls for your warm hand to directly hold onto the butter. That stick of butter pictured above was directly out of my fridge, but you can see how quickly it has softened simply by my holding onto it. I actually had to put that bowl in the freezer after I finished grating the butter, just to firm everything up again. Also, I think I hate cleaning butter from a grater even more than from a processor.
So what method do I recommend? Use a pastry blender.
They're cheap, they keep your body heat from the butter, and they're easy to clean. Plus, they're made exactly for this task and they do it quite well. True, you could use a fork or ever your fingers to cut the butter into the flour, but I really do think having a pastry blender is worth not having $5.
I call for cultured butter here for a very important reason: it tastes better. Because butter is the primary flavor in biscuits, it's worth it here to make sure you have a good quality butter. Cultured butter, often called European style butter, is just that, butter with added cultures. Back in the olden days, if you lived on a farm and milked a cow daily, you would separate the cream from the milk and save it for a few days until enough had accumulated to make butter. Seeing as how the refrigerator didn't exist yet, the cream sitting out for a few days would attract the attention of bacteria. Luckily, it was friendly bacteria, and they went to work eating the sugar in the cream and pissing delicious acid. So by the time you churned your butter, it had soured slightly. This souring actually made it easier to churn the butter, and it added a great depth of flavor. (Other things soured by this method: yogurt, sour cream, and sourdough bread.)
Churning the butter separates the fat solid from most of the liquid. That liquid was called: buttermilk.
So original, old-school buttermilk biscuits are simply a baked reunion of butter and its old liquid companion. Nowadays, buttermilk is some form of pasteurized milk that has had a souring culture added to it. But most butter in the States is sweet cream butter, meaning, the sugar in the cream hasn't been partially eaten by souring bacteria. This common butter isn't bad—it is still butter after all—but I do think that the flavor of biscuits benefits from a cultured butter. It generally costs twice as much, but think of it like how some nights you're feeling classy so you buy that microbrew instead of a PBR. Sometimes it's worth it to spend the extra $4.
Add the buttermilk, making sure it's very cold, and go about just barely stirring the stuff. My recipe here calls for just a bit more buttermilk than most, because I've found that it makes it easier to pull everything together without overworking the flour. Along those lines, the best tool for mixing this all together is your hand. Use it. Mix until the dough just comes together and then dump it on a floured countertop.
I read an article in the New York Times about biscuits wherein the author warned to never ever use a rolling pin. I thought that was dumb advice. I mean, I get where he was coming from. With a rolling pin you risk squishing the dough too forcefully, flattening your biscuit. That's bad. But I don't think that means you throw out the rolling pin. Just change how you use it. To prove this point, I made one biscuit with a rolling pin and one with my hands. Guess what, I liked the rolling pin one better. The shape was less irregular, it rose perfectly, and I think it helped prevent what I like to call flare-ups.
Before I explain flare-ups, I'll go through the rolling and shaping step. Bring your mass of dough together just so, and with a heavily floured rolling pin lightly roll it out to about an inch thick. Then, fold it like a letter. Roll it out again, very lightly. Then, again, fold it like a letter. Finally, roll it out once more and using a biscuit cutter (or a glass, or a whatever) cut straight down. Don't twist. Twisting crimps the edges and makes the biscuit not rise. Along those same lines, make sure you cut every single side of the biscuit. There was a time when I used to eschew the round biscuit cutter and simply roll my dough into a square and use a bench scraper to divide that into four sections. The problem is that the layers of the dough would still be connected on the exterior of my square. My resulting biscuits would rise in the interior sections that had been cut, but not the outsides. So if you want to make square biscuits, which is a great thing to make, you still have to slice them straight down on all four sides.
This brings me to flare-ups. See, the folding method here is basically mimicking croissants, which are made by a much more tedious and intricate system of folding butter and dough to create layers. The butter in each layer melts in the oven, the steam escapes, and it puffs up. Hence, puff pastry. But remember, the dough here isn't mixed all that well. Some parts will be wetter, some parts more dry. If the dry parts are folded onto each other, they may not stick, so that when your biscuit bakes off, it separates too much in that spot. I call this a flare-up. What I like about using a rolling pin is that it helps to stick each layer together just enough to prevent this from happening. Using a light hand, you can roll out a superior biscuit.
You're going to have scraps here. Those scraps can and should be made into biscuits. They won't be perfect, but they're delicious, and the Michelin people aren't coming over for breakfast anyway, so you'll be ok.
Bake for about 15 minutes, or until not doughy or burnt.
Eat immediately, with or without pants on.