My mother loves the American, Southern-style, soft, leavened quick bread known as biscuits. On the occasion that she eats fast food (chicken and chips) from her preferred eating establishment, which incidentally does not sell biscuits, she would insist that we go elsewhere to buy buttermilk biscuits. Personally, as alluring as they are, I find buttermilk biscuits to be too salty, but the lightness and tenderness of the biscuits are incomparable.
Over the years I’ve tried many recipes and followed instructions written as if to be taken seriously like sacred text. Each recipe promising to get me to a place where the biscuits would be as light as clouds, and raised high. I’ve never really gotten there; at least not to my satisfaction. While I am not the type of person to give up easily, there comes a time when you need to step back, let go, and maybe, have a go at it sometime later.
Each week I buy fresh cow’s milk. Once the milk comes to a boil, the froth rapidly ascending to the rim of the pot, I reduce the heat to low and let it simmer for about 10 – 15 minutes so that when it cools the cream formed at the top would be a little thicker than usual. Every week I collect the cream in a sterilized jar and eventually turn it into buttermilk. Buttermilk as we know it today is cultured buttermilk. It is whole milk and cream that has been deliberately soured by the addition of some form of acidity. Real buttermilk is the white liquid that remains after cream has been churned into butter. The original buttermilk is generally sweet and mild tasting.
Armed with more than a cup full of cream that I had stocked up on, I decided to turn it into buttermilk. I topped the cream with some milk to make it 2 full cups and then stirred in 2 tablespoons of white vinegar and left the mixture at room temperature for an hour to ferment and become buttermilk. Once it became buttermilk, into the refrigerator it went. A couple of days later I contemplated what to make with the buttermilk – pancakes, muffins, cornbread, salad dressing, puree with fruits to make popsicles… all sounded interesting but not appealing. It had been more than a year since I last tried making buttermilk biscuits so I thought that I’d give it a shot again. I am so glad I did. Employing a couple of the gospel-like instructions from previous recipes I had tried, along with my own little know-how I set about making the biscuits.
Southerners and biscuit aficionados would probably ban me from calling my biscuits buttermilk biscuits. Traditional biscuits call for only 3 ingredients – self-rising flour, butter and buttermilk. I prefer to add the leavening agents directly to my flour and I prefer my biscuits to have a slight hint of sweetness rather than the saltiness of the self-rising flour, so I add some sugar.
There are two main things to keep in mind when making biscuits – all the ingredients must be very cold. And secondly, do not overwork the dough.
A few tips:
Put the butter in the freezer for 15 – 20 minutes to harden even more; this makes it really easy to work with.
Grate the butter into the flour using the large side of a box grater. It is the fastest and easiest way to get the butter into the flour and helps it to distribute evenly in the flour.
When the dough comes together, it will not be smooth, it will be a little loose but tacky enough to hold together as you work with it – so do not add more liquid than is necessary.
Folding the dough, patting and rolling it and then folding it onto itself a few times will guarantee a good, layered rise of the biscuits. Think puff pastry.
Flour the cutter glass, knife, dough scraper or whatever you are going to use to cut the dough. When you cut the dough, if using a cutter glass, do not twist it when removing it as that will seal the edges of the dough and prevent the biscuits from rising. Cut it guillotine style – sharp, straight down.
Refrigerate the dough while the oven is preheating (for at least 20 minutes).
The dough can be brushed with milk or cream just before baking or with melted butter as soon as it comes out of the oven; your choice.
For all the talk, I feel like I have just created my own set of biscuit-making commandments.
One of the great things about doughs like this is that they freeze well so you can make a large batch, cut into portions, freeze and then pop them into the oven directly from the freezer!
I can’t wait for mommy to try these the next time she visits.
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons sugar
4 ounces very cold butter (unsalted)
¾ – 1 cup buttermilk
Whole milk, cold
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
Mix together flour, baking power, baking soda, and sugar.
Grate butter and add to flour mixture. Toss gently to distribute.
Add buttermilk and gently bring dough together. Transfer to floured work surface and pat dough into 2-inch thickness, fold the dough into thirds – bring one end to the middle and the other end to cover the folded dough. Press gently into 2-inch thickness and fold again, this time in the opposite direction – from top to bottom using the same 3-fold method. Do this for 3 – 4 times only working from different directions. Pat the dough into 1-inch thickness and cut into pieces.
Arrange on parchment-lined baking sheet and refrigerate while the oven is preheating, for at least 20 minutes.
When ready to bake, brush the biscuits with milk and transfer to oven; cook for 10 – 12 minutes or until raised with a golden crust.
Cool on wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature with softened butter, jam, jelly, honey, cheese or just as is.
Instead of brushing the biscuits with milk before baking, you can bake them as is and then brush with melted butter as soon as they come out of the oven.
If you want the biscuits to have soft edges, then place them almost touching each other on the baking sheet. However, if you prefer the biscuits to have a slight crust around the edges, place them 2 to 3 inches apart.