Sunday Reader: Buttermilk Biscuits

I remember my Granny making biscuits every morning at her house. I don’t recall the recipe, but I remember helping her when I was a kid. Actually, there probably wasn’t a “recipe” because she just knew how much was enough. A couple of scoops of flour, some buttermilk, some bacon grease, some Crisco, mix it up in the bowl, roll them out and cut out biscuits to place in a round metal pan that was dedicated to the task.

The details of the process have gotten lost over time, but I remember the taste–its a taste I haven’t been able to replicate. The closest I’ve found is Alton Brown’s Southern Biscuit recipe. His is based around weights and measures of ingredients unlike my Granny’s way of just knowing–which was common among family cooks who came of age through the Depression and World War II and began families in post-war America.

Light, fluffy biscuits are magical, but the process of making them isn’t–with one exception: the flour.

You may be tempted to believe that all purpose flour is all purpose flour is all purpose flour. And you’re right….kinda. The secret lies in the type of wheat that is milled to produce the flour. Proper biscuits require a flour that is milled from soft winter wheat. The soft winter wheat has less protein and yields a lighter, softer biscuit. The gold standard, in my humble opinion, is White Lily flour, but Martha White is a good substitute. In this session, I have Martha White self-rising flour.

Since I am using self-rising flour, I’m not including the baking soda and the baking powder, and I’m reducing the salt down to a half teaspoon as the flour already has some salt and enough baking soda and powder.

So, with that preamble, let’s get to baking.

(A quick note: I’m following the ingredients, measurements, and procedures in Alton Brown’s recipe linked to above–the main deviation is a cast iron skillet with the oven @ 425 and the substitution of self-rising flour using 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt instead of 3/4 of a teaspoon. The remaining ingredients and procedures are the same.)

I am using my 9″ cast iron skillet so preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Be sure to put your skillet in the oven while preheating. Cast iron is a heat sink, so it needs a head start in order to bake your biscuits properly. Skipping this step can lead to undercooked biscuits and longer cook times.

As I said, this is a weight and measures recipe. Flour can be variable when measured volumetrically since it can settle and compact. Weighing the flour gives you consistency, but you can convert the ounces by weight to cups and tablespoons if you don’t have a kitchen scale (if you don’t, you really should get one–they’re quite handy).

As I said earlier, the flour I have in my pantry is self-rising flour, so the only thing I’m going to be adding to the flour is a 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt. I whisk even though I’m just mixing in the salt because I want to make sure the flour is an even consistency.

Toss in the chilled fats and “cut” them into the flour. You can use forks to help with that, but the best tools are your fingers. I use my fingertips to break up the butter and shortening until it looks like “rough breadcrumbs”.

Now you’re ready to make a well in the center and pour in your buttermilk. Buttermilk is key. You can’t substitute regular milk. The buttermilk gives the acidity that’s needed to react with the baking soda to give your biscuits an additional lift. Not to mention, it gives a unique flavor to your biscuits.

Next comes the mixing. I’m partial to a large metal spoon.

Stir it up until the liquid soaks up all of the dry. Once you get your dough incorporated, turn it out onto your flour-covered counter or a piece of parchment paper (I prefer parchment). Pour out a couple of tablespoons of flour to coat your hands and turn the dough out.

One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t need to work this dough like you would with yeast bread. You want to work it just enough to flatten it out to about an inch or so. Once you get it flattened out, take your cutter (I use a rocks glass) and cut your biscuits. You’ll want to push all the way down and twist so you get a clean cut. Run the cutter rim around the the flour so it doesn’t stick to the dough.

I press my dough out to get about two or three biscuits at a time. I have to reset the dough so I can get more cut out of the “scrap”.

Repeat until you have enough to fill a ring around the skillet plus one in the center. You should get seven biscuits in a 9″ skillet. You’ll need to fetch said skillet from the oven.

You’ll have some scrap leftover. Don’t toss it! Take the scrap and divide it to fill the holes around the edge of the biscuits–think of them as mini biscuits for quality assurance. Or something. I like putting a dimple in the middle of the biscuits so that the tops come out even after baking.

Stick your skillet with your biscuits into the oven baking for about 20-25 minutes. I set my timer for half the time and rotate the pan halfway to ensure consistent, even baking. After time has expired, take a toothpick and stick it into the center biscuit to check doneness. It should come out dry with maybe a couple of crumbs.

If the toothpick test yields a good result but the tops aren’t brown enough, you can stick it under the broiler for about a minute. Just keep an eye on them so they don’t burn.

Once they are finished, turn them out on a plate and serve to a grateful people.

This past weekend being Easter, I couldn’t resist pairing freshly baked buttermilk biscuits with some country ham.

Biscuits may not be an everyday food item as they used to be, but they’re a source of comfort. I hope that y’all take the opportunity and make a batch of biscuits to share.


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