It takes some moxie to move to the South and then a couple of years later start telling people how to make southern biscuits. But then who’s going to come over and blog this for me, Paula Deen? I’m going for it.
Recipes for buttermilk biscuits, the archetypal chemically-leavened foodstuff, can be found everywhere. There are a million of ‘em. I have my own personal favorites for various purposes (for dinner, for breakfast, in strawberry shortcake, you get me), but below is a very solid, standard recipe. This post, however, is more about technique, since it’s my opinion that technique (more than any combination of ingredients) is what is responsible for producing the lightest, best-textured biscuit. What follows can be applied to just about any buttermilk or cream biscuit recipe.
Fundamentally, the process is about preventing the formation of gluten. Thus you want to handle the dough as little as humanly possible, and come hell or high water, avoid anything that resembles kneading. “Patting” is the order of the day where biscuits are concerned. Personally I find that a 50-50 mix of all-purpose flour and cake flour (essentially pastry flour) produces the best combination of light texture and crispy exterior, but that may just be me.
Leaving all your dairy ingredients in the fridge (biscuits are one of the few baking preparations where that’s preferable), start by sifting all your dry ingredients (flours, salt, baking powder, and sugar if you’re a northern nancy like me) into a bowl:
Dump in your chilled butter and/or lard pieces, already cut into small bits…
…and using only the tips of your fingers, “pinch” the butter into the flour until it’s mostly even with a few lumps.
Now the delicate part. Pour in your buttermilk (which should be cold so as to prevent the butter from softening or melting), and with a spatula start incorporating it.
After about 30 seconds of turning the bowl while you flip (this is essentially folding), the flour should be completely moistened, about like so.
Now, using your hand — but without kneading — collect the dough together in a rough ball.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and pat it down into a layer about half an inch thick.
Next: cut. Here you want to be careful to push straight down and through the dough without twisting. Biscuits, though they are chemically leavened, nevertheless rely on butter layers for a good deal of their lift. You don’t want to mess those up. If the dough is a little crumbly that’s no big deal.
Lay them out on a sheet pan and bake on a high shelf in the oven at 500. The whole process including baking should take you about twenty minutes. Budda-bing, budda-bang, budda-boom, that’s biscuits the way God intended them (if by God you mean a little old southern lady named Minnie). Serve hot with red pepper jelly.
UPDATE: A terrific tip from Sue in Texas
I am enjoying your blog immensely! I am from Texas and was curious about your method for biscuits…you have it down perfectly. The last thing I do before they go into the oven (and no self-respecting true southern biscuit baker would leave this out…) melt 1-2 tablespoons of (salted) butter (fresher, the better) in your pan (in the oven, of course) while you finish cutting out your biscuits. As soon as the butter has melted and warmed–not hot–take your pan out of the oven, set each biscuit in the melted butter, then turn over and put it in its appointed place. The butter creates a nice, golden and crispy crust on both sides….YUMMMM! uumm…I have to go make biscuits now…