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!


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