First, read the article on biscuits posted on Chef Talk. It wasn't actually written as an article. It was just a post in a thread which got "drafted" by the CT folks. It's more about baking powder than anything else -- still it should give you some insight in biscuits generally as well as into the leavening process.
Good biscuits are less about any specific recipe than the techniques and "touch" used to mix, cut-in, knead, shape and bake. In fact, if you read a lot of biscuit recipes you'll see that basic American white biscuits all use very similar recipes. The principle differences are regular or self-rising flour, regular or buttermilk, and types of shortening. However, the proportions are pretty much constant. For every cup of flour, a bit less than 1/2 cup of liquid, 2 tbs shortening or less, and about a tsp of baking powder.
I prefer lard to any other shortening because it makes a very flaky biscuit. It has less flavor than butter -- but butter can be added when eating, and is better that way. The trend to Crisco and other solid vegetable shortenings began as a way of getting away from the hassle of storing lard and in the mistaken belief that vegetable shortenings were healthier. Of course they were more "modern," too. Crisco did a good job, until recently. The new "Zero Transfat" Crisco does not, unfortunately. You'll make better biscuits with lard, butter, a mix, or old fashioned shortening if you can find it.
"Southern" biscuits are traditionally more tender than their counterparts in the rest of the country because the flour in the south is "softer," i.e., has less protein. Most of the self rising flours like Bisquick are designed around soft flour as well -- and will give an excellent traditional Southern biscuit. In fact, for a very good recipe, you don't have to look farther than a box of Bisquick. The "scratch" version is to mix some proportion of soft cake flour into ordinary AP flour to make your own Southern style flour.
Buttermilk adds a certain traditional tang. Traditional in that until the advent of baking powder it was necessary to add some acid in order to get baking soda to work. It's no longer necessary because baking powder brings its own dry acid with it. Necessary, traditional, whatever. I like it and use it.
Anyway, here's a very basic recipe -- that's right down the middle of the road with proportions and ingredients. Feel free to substitute butter and/or shortening for some of the lard, and to substitute regular milk if you prefer it to buttermilk.
OLD-FASHIONED SOUTHERN BISCUITS
(At least 1 dozen biscuits)
1-1/2 cups AP flour, plus 1/2 cup bench flour
1-1/2 cups cake flour
1 tbs baking powder
1 pinch baking soda
1 pinch salt
3/4 cup (chilled) lard. Cut into at least six pieces.
1 to 1-1/2 cup cold buttermilk or milk
1/2 cup bench flour (AP or cake)
1/3 cup buttermilk or milk for a wash
Preheat oven to 425*F
In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients with a fork.
Add the chilled pieces of lard and gently toss or stir them into the flour with the fork. This will help keep the flour in the bowl and prevent the lard from clogging your cutter. Set the fork aside and cut the lard into the flour with a pastry flour. Alternatively, the lard may be cut in with a fork, two knives, or by first grating and then "rubbing in." The lard should be fully cut in without allowing it to get too warm.Note: How do you know when the lard, shortening and/or butter is cut in? You often hear phrases like "coarse meal," or "small peas." It's more helpful to look into the bowl to make sure that all the flour has been picked up. You can accept some variation in the texture, but nothing too bit -- and (repeating myself) no virgin flour.
Note: Once you add liquid, you'll have to work quickly. So have everything ready to go before you do.
Add a cup and a quarter of buttermilk (or 1 cup of milk). Try and bring the mass of dough together with the fork (or a spoon), using as few strokes as possible. If there's still quite a bit of dry flour on the bottom of the bowl, add more liquid. If all the flour has incorporated or even a little remains, don't add more. Sometimes, even with the extra liquid, the dough will not immediately come completely together, don't try and make it do so.
Flour your board generously with about 1/3 of the bench flour.
Reach into the bowl with your hands and mix the dough together quickly, incorporating as much of the flour as possible. Dump the dough, loose flour and all onto the floured board. Knead the dough a few times until it's completely together, and gently pat the dough into a small, fat disk.Note: You've probably heard that biscuit dough needs to be treated very gently. Yes and no. Gently, but not too gently. The idea is to get the dough well mixed, without smashing too many of the bubbles the baking powder, baking soda and liquid are making. The more and bigger the bubbles, the lighter the biscuits. On the other hand, if the dough is insufficiently kneaded the biscuits will be too crumbly.
Generously flour the top of the disk. Turn it over, floured side down; and flour the new top. Pat the dough out into a circle (to cut with a biscuit cutter) or rectangle (to cut with a knife). You want the dough around 3/4" thick. Anywhere between 1/2" and 1" will do.
If you cut the biscuits with a knife, trim the outside of the rectangle so all of the edges are trimmed. Untrimmed edges won't rise evenly.
Cut the dough into whatever size biscuit you like. Gently transfer the biscuits to an ungreased baking sheet. Note: I use a big spatula (practically a small peel) to transfer a large number of biscuits at one time
. Arrange the biscuits on the sheet so they are as close together as possible and touching one another -- they'll rise better.
After cutting, there will be a significant amount of scrap dough left. Form it into a ball, pat it into a disk and cut into biscuits as before. Keep at it until all of the dough is used.
Note: Also, keep track of the biscuits which have received significantly more handling than the first batch to compare the texture. This will teach you how much handling before getting into trouble (probably more or less than you think).Note: No rolling pins were used in the making of these biscuits.
Brush the tops of the biscuits with the buttermilk (or milk) reserved as a wash. You may use enough pressure with the brush to heal any cracks in the top of the dough.
Bake the biscuits between 15 and 23 minutes -- let their color dictate the time. I can't give you an exact time because it depends on the thickness of the biscuits, how close they're set together, etc. No matter. They're done when lightly browned, and they are not done one second before. If the biscuits brown unevenly, rotate the pan during the bake.
Try this recipe and technique a few times, and once you've got a feel for it we can get into some fun alternatives.
PS. This recipe is original with me. If you choose to share it, please attribute it to Boar D. Laze. I would consider it a kindness if you would also mention my (eventually) forthcoming book, COOK FOOD GOOD: American Cooking and Technique for Beginners and Intermediates