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Basic Buttermilk Biscuits -- Theory and Technique

post #1 of 9
Thread Starter 
There are a lot of recipes for modern American style biscuits, and most of them revolve around a very basic recipe with a few ingredients in a relatively stable proportion to one another. You can vary any of the ingredients to change the character or taste of the biscuits; and you can certainly add all sorts of things to give them a twist.

When I say "modern American" I'm referring to biscuits made with double acting baking powder (DA). Wonderful biscuits can certainly be made with baking soda (BP) or single acting powder (SA), but the process is a bit more complicated, more time sensitive and less forgiving.

I've written about these compounds in other threads, but I'll repeat so you don't have to pluck it out of some other context. Baking soda (BS) mixed with an acidic liquid makes carbon dioxide gas. The gas supplies the leavening for biscuits by making little cells in the dough. When the biscuits are baked, the air in the cells expands and lifts the biscuits. From colonial times in America, the acid of choice was buttermilk.

Single acting baking powder was developed because buttermilk wasn't always available or suitable for all purposes. SA is simply BS mixed with a dry acid, such as cream of tartar. When SA is mixed into liquid, the acid reacts with the BP and makes carbon dioxide gas. And there you go.

Double acting baking powder is like SA with an additional component -- two leavening agents and a dry acid. One agent reacts the acid as soon as liquid is added, but the other agent won't react until it's hot. This means a dough that's made with DA doesn't need to be handled as quickly or as gently as a dough made with SA or BS.

Double acting flour is ideal for making biscuits, but you have to be careful not to use too much or too little. Too little means too little rise. But you can't play it safe by using too much because most DA has a rather unpleasant taste if used with too heavy a hand. DA is somewhat fragile. It ages and loses potency if it gets at all wet. Check the date on your DA before using. If there are clumps in it, you might as well just throw it out.

As a side note, some people worry because most DA contains aluminum compounds and they associate aluminum with certain diseases, notably Alzheimer's. However, be at ease. The association with dietary aluminum and disease has been extensively tested and all of the evidence is that these compounds are not harmful.

Self rising flour is simply flour with DA. Some flours famous for biscuits like Bis-Quick and White Lily Self Rising are actually dedicated biscuit flours. Biscuit flour is self rising, but the special biscuit twist is that it's all or partly "soft flour," also known as cake flour. Soft flour is "soft" in that it doesn't have as high a gluten protein content as "all purpose," or "bread" flour. "Southern-style" biscuits are more likely to be made with some percentage of soft flour than biscuits endemic to other parts of the country; and will be a bit more bread-like in texture, while those made with all purpose flour (AP) will be more crumbly.

Compared to most other breads, biscuits contain a fair amount of fat -- usually in the form of shortening. Boost the fat content too high and you get scones. Ever wonder what scones were? Biscuits with extra shortening is all. Back in the day, most biscuits were made with lard, or with a mix of lard and butter. Despite the fact that lard made a better biscuit, solid vegetable shortenings like Crisco nearly destroyed lard's popularity, because it was thought to be healthier and cleaner. However, new "zero trans-fat" shortenings do not bake nearly as well as the old ones. Ironically, it turns out that lard, zero trans-fat and low in LDLs its own bad self, was actually better for you. "New Crisco" bites. I'm going to recommend lard or lard and butter. The higher the percentage of lard, the flakier. Since butter is a common condiment with biscuits, I suggest using all lard -- but whatever makes you happy makes me happy.

Even DA biscuit dough is fragile. Handle it too much and the cells made by the first carbon dioxide reaction will be crushed and you'll lose their leavening. So it's important not to over-handle the dough. It's also important to make a moist, soft dough that DA can lift.

Biscuits are baked on an ungreased pan. There's enough fat in them already, so the pan won't need lubrication; and extra fat will spoil the bottom's texture. They are baked packed as closely together as possible, so all of the expansion goes UP, instead of OUT. You want tall biscuits, not wide.

This is a large recipe, and should make 6 to 12 servings depending on the usual factors. Biscuits taste one way when they're fresh, and another after they've been held a day or two. Each as its charms. Surprisingly, these biscuits reheat quite well in the microwave. I suggest wrapping them in cling-wrap, and nuking them at high power, just until they're hot through.

Enough with the theory already. Let's get baking.

3 cups AP flour; or, 1-1/2 cake flour + 1-1/2 AP flour
1 tbs double acting baking powder
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp table salt
3/4 cup lard; or 1/4 cup plus 2 tbs lard + 1/4 cup plus 2 tbs butter -- chilled or cool room temperature
1-1/3 cups buttermilk; or 1-1/4 cup milk
Bench flour
1/4 cup cold buttermilk for brushing, or 2 tbs honey and 2 tbs butter, melted together and held warm

Additional ingredients for cheesy onion biscuits (Linda's favorite):
2/3 cup shredded medium, sharp, or extra sharp cheddar cheese; or 1/3 cup shredded sharp cheddar + 1/3 cup shredded pepper jack
1/3 cup finely chopped scallions -- tops and bottoms

Additional ingredients for herb biscuits
1-1/2 tsp herbes de porvence; or 1/2 tsp crumbled, dried, rubbed sage leaves + 1/2 tsp finely chopped fesh rosemary; or 1/4 cup minced, fresh garlic chives + 1/2 tsp dried dill, or 1 tsp crumbled dried tarragon, or ...

Biscuit cutter or large knife
(optional) Straight rolling pin
(optional)Large spatula

Measure and mix the dry ingredients with a fork, or for slightly lighter biscuits, you may sift them together. In my opinion, they're light enough without sifting.

Measure the lard and/or butter. To keep your cutter from clogging, break it into several pieces, and cover with flour before cutting it in. Most recipes specify an even texture, like "cornmeal." An even texture is nice, but less important than seeing that all of the flour is incorporated. Do not stop cutting in until there is no more fine flour at the bottom of the bowl. Your biscuits will tolerate some unevenness better than overworking. Stop cutting in, unless the texture is very uneven. Only continue until the pieces are pea size and smaller.

Add the cheese, onions, herbs or any other flavoring ingredients you may be using. If you're not using them, don't add them or will you be using them. Herbs can be tricky. Keep your eyes open and don't let any sage and rosemary sneak up on you. Just watch it. It's dangerous out there, okay.?

Make sure your board is clean, dry and ready to go. Flour it generously, reserving additional bench flour along side.

Preheat the oven to 400F. Look at the rest of the instructions. That's a lot to accomplish in the time an oven preheats, no? You don't have to get it all done in ten minutes, but once you get the liquid in the dough you really shouldn't dawdle. Cool?

Pour the buttermilk (or milk) over the dry ingredients, and mix with a spoon or your hand until the dough just comes together. The dough will be very moist and soft. Why such a wet dough for biscuit making? So it's flexible enough for the DA to lift, and sticky enough to stay together during the process..

Even though you're using DA, bear in mind that it's important to handle the dough gently and quickly. Like everything else though, this can be overdone. It's dough, not an infant. You don't have to restrict yourself to "feathery touches with your fingertips." Not my phrase, by the way. Someone wrote it in a letter asking for advice, and I assume she's not the only one who bought too deeply into the whole "gentle" thing. The idea is keep the little cells made by the first release "acting" of the baking powder from being completely crushed, not to seduce the dough.

Work quickly, yes. But don't rush the fun out. It's enough to turn the phone off and pay attention until the biscuits are in the oven.

Turn the dough onto the board. If the dough is breaking up (it will be), and/or there is unincorporated flour from the bowl (probably) bring it together on the board and knead it gently four or five times until it is one lump of dough. You can "pull it down" a few times if you know how. If not, biscuit dough isn't the right place to learn. Now is a good time to get a feel for how light and airy the dough is.

Flour the board again, so it's well floured under the dough. Sprinkle the top of the dough with a couple of tablespoons of bench flour. Pat the dough out into a circle if you'll be using a biscuit cutter, or a rectangle if you'll be using a knife. Tip: Use your fingers and palms to make the initial shape as even and nicely shaped as possible. Keep reshaping it until your happy.

The biscuit dough should be patted or rolled out to about 3/4" thick before cutting. One way is as good as another. If you're rolling out, make sure to flour your pin. The dough is very sticky.

The next step involves judgment and touch which comes with experience. It's part of the reason biscuits are not ever really "no fail." If the dough starts to crack badly as you roll or pat it out, turn it over to see if the other side looks better. When you turn it, feel that light airiness again. The sense of it is important. If the bottom isn't better, try and seal the cracks by working the dough gently with your fingertips on whichever side is better.

If the dough is very cracked and won't heal, the surfaces are too dry as a result of all the bench flour, and you'll have to redistribute the moisture. Bring it together, and knead or turn it down a few times. You'll feel the dough start to lose some of its lightness. That's OK. It had a lot it could afford to lose. Stop as soon as it's a cohesive mass, and pat it out again into a nice circle or rectangle. Then roll or pat out again without worrying about the cracks. Que sera sera, right?

I prefer to cut biscuits with a knife. Square biscuits stay together in the pan, and rise better. If you're using a knife, flour it before cutting. Then cut all four sides of your rectangle so each side of your biscuits will rise evenly, and to perfect the shape as best you can. Because the original rectangle was imperfect, you may have to cut the corners at angles. That's fine. Use your knife to cut the biscuits into squares, rectangles or diamonds to whatever final size you like. If the corner pieces are irregular polygons, fine. They'll taste as good. If the knife starts to stick as you work, sprinkle it with more flour. If you have a large spatula, lift the biscuits by the largest groups you can handle and set them in the pan together as closely as you can. The easiest way is to rebuild the rectangle from the board in the pan.

Some people, most even, prefer round biscuits. You can use a dedicated biscuit cutter or a jelly glass. In either case, flour it before cutting. Cut as many biscuits as possible from your round, and transfer them to the sheet. As already written, it's important to set them as close together as possible in the pan.

No matter how you've cut your biscuits, there will be substantial remaining scraps of dough. Reform the scraps into a ball, and pat it out so you can cut some more biscuits. If you hadn't yet, you will (finally) start to feel a difference in the texture of the dough as it gets denser. Repeat the patting, rolling, cutting, reforming, patting process until you're out of dough. As you work, keep trying to get a sense of how the dough becomes progressively heavier feeling in your hands. Keep track of where you put that last biscuit. After baking, you're going to compare the texture of the last biscuit to one of the biscuits from the first cutting.

Brush the tops with buttermilk or butter and honey. While you're at it, use the wet brush to try and heal any surface cracks.

Put the biscuit pan in the hot oven and bake for 22 minutes -- until the tops are brown.

Serve as soon as possible. "Too hot" is for other people. Don't forget to compare that last biscuit.

As always, the price of the recipe is your honest comments,
post #2 of 9
There's a number of non-aluminum DA baking powders out there now. Off-hand, I can think of RUmford and Red Star. The biggest complaint I hear about the aluminum baking powder is that it tastes metallic to some people, me included.

Hain produces a non-sodium SA baking powder that works pretty well that is also non-aluminum. You usually need more of it to give you the right lift. When I was first instructed to lower sodium intake I used this baking powder quite a bit. I've gone back to Red Star as I can get better results more easily. BUt if I ever have to lower my sodium even more, Hain Featherweight is available.
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
post #3 of 9
Thread Starter 
Yes there are a few non-aluminum, pyrophosphate based baking powders on the market. Rumford which calls itself DA, is only kinda sorta DA. As a practic al matter Rumford, like an SA or BS must be used very quickly after wetting -- the information is on their can and their website. Almost all of the action comes with the addition of liquid. Thus, it's not much different from pure BS with buttermilk, or an SA without. Rumford is formulated with a single dry acid which converts most of the baking soda in the mix as soon as it's wet. When heated, the reaction becomes increasingly efficient and the efficiency is the reason for the claim of "double acting." This is true to one extent or another of all phosphate based powders. 'Tis the nature o' the beast. Not saying, "don't use;" just saying "baker beware," is all.

Red Star DA is not made by the Red Star yeast company. I've used it, but not for a long time; and don't remember much about it. My only clear memory was that it's a professional product sold only in commercial sizes -- impractical for a home cook in that DA degrades. At least I've never seen it sold any other way, or in a regular market for that matter. Also I remember Red Star as being aluminum based. Are you sure you're not thinking of Bob's Red Mill? I've got to go by Smart and Final anyway, they sell Red Star so I can take a look.

If you do mean Bob's Red Mill, and even if you don't, Bob's is a slightly different phosphate melange as Rumford. They use two phosphates, one of which is a "pyrophosphate." The increased efficiency is more pronounced than with the single phosphate acid in Rumford. Nevertheless, Bob's is a lot more like an SA than an aluminum based DA like Calumet or Clabber Girl. You just don't get much of a second act with Bob's.

I'm less sensitive than some others to the "metallic" aka bitter aftertaste that one gets when aluminum based powders are overused. My experience with other people is that if the powder is used at its appropriate ratio, about 1 tsp / cup flour, there aren't any complaints; but above 1-1/4 tsp per cup of flour, and it's kvetch galore. Of course, your mileage may vary.

While I think the ingredients and ratios I posted fall within the mainstream of deliciousness and obnoxiously good health -- your palate is your palate, I'm not about to tell you what you taste or don't. On top of that, we've had enough back and forth on this and that for me to know you're honest and knowledgeable. So, if it comes from you ... instant and extra respect.

Hain is an honest outfit. They make good stuff. Not cheap.

post #4 of 9
Living in the south as I do now, when making biscuits, it's got to be cold and fast.

A fan of the buttermilk with Baking Soda for main meals and heavy cream and Baking Pdr for dessert.

Simple, fresh ingredients make the for the best baking fellows.

Something about jelly jar cut homebaked goods, just taste better. :)
bake first, ask questions later.
Oooh food, my favorite!

Professor Pastry Artswww.collin.edu
bake first, ask questions later.
Oooh food, my favorite!

Professor Pastry Artswww.collin.edu
post #5 of 9
I buy Red Star BP at Costco. It's a large jar, but it goes fast enough I haven't had age problems. It's close to size of the LARGE Clabber Girl tins. It says no sodium-aluminum compounds and it's listed ingredients don't indicate aluminum directly. This doesn't preclude some aluminum in one of the other named compounds, but it doesn't seem to have any.

The Red Star yeast website doesn't list it so i couldn't check ingredients there.

Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
post #6 of 9
No BDL i did know you had wrote me back only in a different place. BUT i do now and i copied your recipe and saved it. :) Thank you for the help I can't wait to give it a try!
post #7 of 9
Hi BDL :)

I made the biscuits today. I made the recipe in a timely manner after the liquid was added. I did throughly mix, but using a minimal amount of work to get there. I stretched the dough gently and lightly rolled. I placed the square biscuit on the pan lightly touching, placed in a preheated oven and baked until done.

The bottoms were nice...they were cooked thru but still moist. But they didn't rise hardly one bit. I want to give this recipe another try, but I wonder what happened?

any ideas?
post #8 of 9
Looks like it was my fault. My baking powder shows that it's still within date. But I tested the freshness and it was very weak.

I'll be giving the recipe another try.

post #9 of 9
Thread Starter 

I was going to suggest the baking powder but got distracted (by evil work) and forgot. Oops.

Let me know how it goes,
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