Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Journey to Perfect Biscuits

I have eaten a lot of biscuits in my travels. Good, bad, delectable, and downright gross all come to mind when I think about it. I have a biscuit recipe of my own that I have been tinkering with for about 10 years now, and I am still not completely satisfied with it. I have done much research, thrown many batches out (or used them for hockey pucks), and smothered even more with sausage gravy (for that lovely tidbit, search the archives). So what is it that drives me to adapt and change my biscuit recipe? The fact that a perfect biscuit is one of the most pure, simple, and delicious breads known. It has a long history and a lot more variations than I care to count.

Almost every component of biscuits, as well as the method they are made, can drastically effect the taste and texture of biscuits. So let me break it down the best I can. First off, the flour. Regular, unbleached all-purpose flour seems to work the best because of its fine consistency. I have found that sifting it works the best. Bread flour contains a lot of protein, which can make the biscuits dead weights.

Next is the baking powder/baking soda and buttermilk mix. This is quite possibly the most important part of the biscuit recipe (that and the butter). Let us go off on a tangent for a moment and talk some science. Buttermilk is an acid, baking soda is a base, and baking powder is a combination of cream of tartar and baking soda, the tarter making it a bit of an acid. The rising of your biscuits completely depends on the acid/base balance in your dough. Too much acid and the baking soda is neutralized. Too much soda can make the biscuits too basic, again causing a bad rise. Normally the amount of baking powder is kept constant in the recipe. If using regular milk (which lacks the large amount of acid and the tang of buttermilk) you can use about 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda and get a good balance (the rest of the dough contains enough base to counter it). But for every cup of buttermilk you add, you need to add about 1/2 teaspoon of soda to bring the balance back. And for anyone out there who does not use buttermilk in their biscuits, you might as well buy the prepackaged ones. Buttermilk adds a lot of flavor and should never be skimped on. Don't have any? Not an excuse. You can make a substitute by adding 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice to enough milk to make a cup. Let sit for 5 minutes. Tasty.

Ok, now that we have the acid/base stuff out of the way, lets move on to seasoning and the butter. I like a little bit of sugar in my biscuits in addition to salt, but its completely optional. But the butter, not so much. Some recipes call for 1/2 butter and 1/2 lard or shortening. Butter brings flavor and shortening brings flakiness. I have switched from all butter to this.

So that brings us to the recipe. It's not complete, as I seem to love to change it about once every few months. Don't worry, I will update it. But suffice it to say that even picky Boston eaters and Hawaiians love them.

Buttermilk Biscuits
2 C all-purpose flour
4 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 t sugar
2 T cold butter, cut into pieces
2 T shortening
1 C buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425. Sift dry ingredients into bowl. Add the butter to the dry ingredients and using a fork or fingers mash the butter up until it is in small pieces and pretty much evenly distributed among the flour. The pieces do not need to be uniform (over mixing here can make tough and leaden biscuits). Slowly add the buttermilk and mix as little as possible. You might need to add a bit more, in fact, I do not even measure it, I just know there is enough when the dough is nice and sticky. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, sprinkle with a little flour, and knead them lightly about 3 or 4 times. The less you knead, the lighter the biscuits. Flatten the dough gently to about 1/2 inch and using a biscuit cutter or down turned glass cut out the dough. When you run out of room reshape the dough and cut again. You should get about 12-15 for a batch. Place on an ungreased sheet pan so the biscuits are all slightly touching (its ok if they are all on one side of the pan). Letting them touch prevents them from spreading (like cookies do) and helps give a better rise. Place in oven and cook for 12-15 minutes or until the tops are golden brown. If your oven has a tendency to rapidly heat from the bottom (which will burn the bottom of your biscuits), place another sheet pan on the rack below to prevent this. Neat!

So thats it. I am certain I will continue playing with my recipe over the years and incorporate other ratios to make the perfect one. But until then......biscuits. Tasty.

EDIT: See, already changed it! I have been converted to the shortening/butter combo instead of all butter. Flaky and tasty!


Tuesday, March 18, 2008


After getting any kind of response via word of mouth or in person, I figured something a bit easier might work. I set up an email account at boilermakerkitchen(at) for people to send me ideas for posts, recipes, and feedback. Hopefully anyone who reads this blog will pass on the link and expand the demographic of readers. Always like to hear what people think and the food they love.

Posts coming soon including biscuits, my argument for seasoning salt, and the beginning of the pasta extravaganza.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

The IFB- Indian Fry Bread

Many of you know it as elephant ears, or as fried dough, depending on your location in the country. Being from the southwest, I know it as Indian Fry Bread, a delectable dough that has both sweet and savory applications. At fairs and events you can forget the pizza and bratwurst, the long line is the one extending from the small booth where dough is being rolled out and dropped gently into a shallow pan of hot oil. What emerges is both crisp and chewy, only to be topped with wonderful ingredients and devoured.

Now that I have myself salivating, I guess I should expand more on the cooking application of this bread, as it has become a staple in my household. I make this on average once every two weeks, either planning it or when I have nothing else to make for dinner. Yes, it's that easy.

Fry bread is remarkably healthy (don't scoff, I mean it). Yes, its fried in shallow oil, but it has no fat in the dough and is patted free of oil after cooking. Oily fry bread is NOT good stuff. It might take some getting used to, as the dough cooks quickly and the thickness can mess with your head. But enough talking, Skylar, give me the recipe!

Indian Fry Bread

2 C flour
4 t baking powder
1 t salt
Warm Water
Extra flour for rolling
Vegetable oil for frying

In a medium pan or cast iron skillet, heat about 1-1 1/2 inches vegetable oil to about 325. This is the optimum temperature for frying this bread, higher can make it too crispy, and lower can make it oily. Make sure to watch your temperature when you add the dough

Combine dry ingredients. Add enough warm water until the dough becomes a nice sticky mess. Lightly flour your work surface and turn the dough out. Knead a few times, not too much, then set the dough aside. Break off about a golf ball size bit of dough (or slightly larger) and roll out until about 1/4 inch thick. With your finger, make a small hole in the middle of the dough about the size of a nickel. This allows for a better shape and prevents the dough from becoming a bubble (we are not making sopapias). Lightly place the dough in oil and fry on each side until it becomes slightly golden brown, about 2-3 minutes each side. You should be able to fry two at a time, and you can roll out all of your dough ahead of time.

A lot of this recipe is eyeballing, from the thickness to the cooking time. As it goes for me, the first fry bread is usually a wash and a great way to see any adjustments you need to make, as well as a nice snack.

When the dough has finished frying, place on a plate lined with paper towels and blot dry. Fry the rest up and get ready to eat. You can hold the already completed ones in an oven set at the lowest setting.

So, now you have dough, what to do with it? Well, I for one like the more Mexican application. So spread some refried beans (recipe found here), mix in a few dollops of sour cream, top with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, guacamole, salsa, or any combination. I have had them with shredded beef as well. If you want sweet, drizzle with honey and sprinkle with powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar. There are endless applications with these (though I do not approve of putting marinara sauce on these, blech) and they are very versatile.

This recipe makes about 5-6 fry bread depending on how thick you roll them. It easily doubles or triples without adjustment. It remains one of my favorite recipes, takes not time to make, and is true crowd pleaser.


Monday, March 3, 2008

The Funky Chicken

Well, I do not claim to be southern nor the original maker of this recipe, but I was asked to put this up on this blog since it is hands down the best fried chicken I have ever made. Crispy on the outside and oh-so-delicious on the inside, this chicken is requested at least once a month by my girlfriend. When she reads this she will probably ask for it again.

Before I spit out a recipe, I need to bring a few things to light that will make this process go easier. Lets take it step by step, shall we?

Chicken- You will need a whole chicken (preferably a frier or broiler) cut into eight pieces. Though you can buy a pre-cut chicken, they tend to taste slightly funky. I recommend cutting it yourself. Well, I did until I found out my butcher does it for free. So go that route unless you love knife work.

Pan- Cast Iron. Yep, I am going right back to that pan. Greatest fifteen bucks I have spent since I paid that much to take a semester long wine tasting class. The cast iron holds in heat, brings flavor to the party, and takes chicken placement very well. If you insist on not listening to the thousands of screaming people who love their cast iron, you can use an electric skillet or a deep pan that is at least 10 inches wide.

Fat- Crisco, or vegetable shortening, is the real winner here. The chicken is not deep fried, it is pan fried, and this fat with neutral flavor and a high smoke point is perfect. Most people do their pan frying in vegetable shortening simply because of ease of use (not to mention disposal)

Thermometer- See previous post.

Ok, now that we have the basics out of the way, lets move on to the recipe. The original is credit to Alton Brown (from the Good Eats episode Fry Hard II: The Chicken)

Fried Chicken

1 broiler/fryer chicken, cut into 8 pieces
2 cups low fat buttermilk
2 tablespoons kosher salt (4 teaspoons table salt)
2 tablespoons paprika
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (more or less depending on your like of spicy foods)
Flour, for dredging
Vegetable shortening, for frying

Place chicken pieces into a plastic container and cover with buttermilk. Cover and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours.

Melt enough shortening (over low heat) to come just 1/8-inch up the side of a 12-inch cast iron skillet or heavy fry pan. Once shortening liquefies raise heat to 325-350 degrees F. Do not allow oil to go over 350 degrees F. (Actually, you can let it go to 400 before it begins to break down, but stay below just to be safe)

Drain chicken in a colander. Combine salt, paprika, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper. Liberally season chicken with this mixture. Dredge chicken in flour and shake off excess.

Place chicken skin side down into the pan. Put thighs in the center, and breast and legs around the edge of the pan. The oil should come half way up the pan. Cook chicken until golden brown on each side, approximately 10 to 12 minutes per side. When the chicken enters the shortening the temperature will drop. Increase the heat slightly, but not enough to scorch the chicken. More importantly, the internal temperature should be right around 165-175 degrees when the chicken is done. (Be careful to monitor shortening temperature every few minutes, I use my probe thermometer since I am using a shallow dish.)

Drain chicken on a rack over a sheet pan. Don't drain by setting chicken directly on paper towels or brown paper bags. If you need to hold the chicken before serving, cover loosely with foil but avoid holding in a warm oven.

If you noticed there was no room for the wings. Well, a lot of chefs do not use the wings in fried chicken. Blasphemy if you ask me. So if you have a big pan that will fit them, use it. If not, fry the wings right after the other pieces, it will only take a few minutes.

Serve and watch it be devoured.


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