I lived in the South (Florida actually, if that can be called The South!) from 1972 until 1997 – and during that time I learned quite a bit about southern cuisine, and developed some deep memories of those foods and dishes that rise to their zenith in that region. Were I to make claims for their national preeminence, far too many would be subject to fierce argument, but at least one – the biscuit – would, I believe, raise no objection as having no equal anywhere else in the U.S.
Now, I will admit one thing right up front – although I have loved and made biscuits for as long as I can remember, it was not until recently that I actually could make a biscuit worthy of its southern heritage. Why? Well, simply because I have not concentrated on developing baking skills until recently – the last 5 years or so – and because I came to realize that making a near perfect biscuit is simply a matter of following several rigid rules (and rules are difficult for my artistic nature).
Now there’s nothing secret about making good biscuits, in fact, you’ll find literally thousands of biscuit recipes on the net or in cookbooks, and frankly, they are all similar. So, what’s the deal here? Well, the deal is that each time you apply one of the basic rules, you’ll improve your biscuits. Apply them all, and you’ll have something close to perfection! (I’m sorry, but my definition of perfection must always allow for improvement.) So now, allow me to discuss those rules, and then we’ll get to making the biscuits themselves.
Rule One is the flour. Biscuits demand a soft flour, which is flour with a low protein content. All Purpose flour has a lower protein content than Bread flour, but not as low as Cake or Pastry flour. But Cake flour is too low for biscuits, and AP flour might be too high, so what flour to use? Ideally, you could use a southern soft flour like Martha White, or White Lily, but it’s unlikely you’ll find them outside of the South. But, if you do find a self-rising AP flour, it’s likely a soft flour and perfect for biscuits – just remember to not add baking powder, and cut back on baking soda to 1/2 tsp. Otherwise, here’s my suggestion – if you have an AP flour that reveals its protein content, and if that number is less than 10%, you can get OK results, but make this one adjustment – for every cup of AP flour called for in your recipe, replace 2 Tbs of that flour with 2 Tbs of cornstarch. That will lower the protein even further.
Want even better results? Get some Cake or Pastry flour, and use half AP flour and half Cake or Pastry flour in your recipe. The idea here is to lower the protein content closer to the 7.5 or 8% ideal. This way will work even if you have no idea what percentage of protein your AP flour has.
Rule Two is the shortening. Now, here we get into taste – I am a butter lover, but I swear that the best biscuits are not those made with 100% butter, but those made with a mix of butter and lard. Yup, lard. And folks, let me tell you, this is a strong southern tradition. In fact, many would tell you that southern biscuits ain’t real unless they’re made with 100% lard! I’m not quite ready to go that far, but for my taste, the butter/lard mix is the way to go. Now, there’s lard and there’s lard. Try to avoid lard that is hydrogenated, since that’s what makes it unacceptable – look for refrigerated lards that have been naturally rendered, or ask the butcher to sell you enough pork fat for you to do your own – even Safeway will do this. Rule 2 ½ is to get the butter and the lard real cold, even keeping them in the freezer if necessary – that’s where I keep mine until the last minute when I pop them into the food processor (see my recipe).
Rule Three is to use buttermilk. I use buttermilk in almost everything I bake – I use soooo much damn buttermilk, folks, that I even make my own buttermilk. How? One of nature’s easiest products. As you find yourself running out of buttermilk, pull the container out of your fridge and add 3 parts skim or whole milk to 1 part buttermilk, and leave it out, opened, on your counter at room temp for the next 18 – 24 hours (No, it won’t go bad – it will culture.). It’s done when it has thickened and has that tart, buttermilk smell (Now put it back in the fridge). Often, I’ll use powdered dry skim milk in this process (at a cost of 35 cents a qt.), and I’d dare you to tell any difference in any of them after the culturing has done its magic. Buttermilk is essential for good biscuits!
Rule Four is to use a food processor. OK, if you’re a purist, you’ll differ with me here, perhaps, but I swear that my best biscuits – and certainly my easiest – have come via the food processor. So my question is, Why do it the hard way? There are a few qualifiers here, however: be very careful about how long you pulse that baby – just a little too long, and you’ve got tough biscuits; and be sure that the lumps of butter and lard are about pea sized, not smaller. Your shortening will create those wonderful layers that characterize a great biscuit, but only if the lumps are large enough to melt and spread. So, go easy here – and don’t use the food processor to incorporate any liquids – that task is best done in a big bowl with the aid of a fork (see recipe).
OK, that’s enough for rules, let’s get to the recipe. Here’s what you’ll need for a good sized pan of biscuits:
3 cups of your flour (try to use a soft, low protein flour)
1 &1/4 Tbs. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 &1/2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
3 ozs. butter and 2 ozs. lard, chopped into smaller pieces (or just 5 ozs. butter, Yes, this is a lot of shortening, and Yes, it does make it better!)
1 & 1/4 to 1 & 1/2+ cups buttermilk (Sorry, but the character of your flour will dictate just how much liquid is necessary)
Turn your oven on, and heat it to 475 degrees – let it heat for 30+ minutes once it hits 475. If you have convection, use it and drop your temp to 450.
Put the first four ingredients into a food processor, and mix them well for about 5 pulses.
Add the cold butter/lard to the food processor, and pulse for 4 or 5 times – remove the lid and feel for the size of the shortening lumps – you want them pea sized. If they’re bigger than that, pulse another once or twice.
Move the dry ingredients to a large bowl, and add about 1 &1/4 cup of buttermilk, and stir with a fork until you don’t see any dry ingredients anymore – you may need to add more buttermilk – stir until no dry ingredients are left at the bottom of the bowl. Better to have a wet dough than a dry – adjust as needed.
Dust a board well with flour and move your dough to the board – pull your dough together and fold it over itself a few times, pushing the edges of the dough into the ball. Don’t “knead” the dough, you just want it to hold together well.
Work the edges of your dough into a rectangle or square (or whatever shape your pan is) and flatten the dough to about an inch thick.
Cut the dough into whatever sizes you wish, and put them in a greased pan – place them ½ inch apart – my best rises occur with this spacing – this creates a fluffy, soft-sided biscuit. I usually make square biscuits in a 1/4 size sheet pan – they fit perfectly! You can also make a round dough shape, and cut it into pie slices.
Paint the tops of your biscuits with either melted butter or milk – either will assist in browning and create a nice look – I like the milk effect better than the butter.
Slip the pan into your well heated oven, and let them bake for 18–20+ minutes – Yes, this is longer than other biscuits, but it’s needed because this is a larger recipe, and a tighter pan placement – go by the look of the nice, brown tops, or by internal temp, which should be 205+.
Let them rest for 5 minutes once out of the oven – actually, they’ll continue cooking for most of that time, and their texture will improve as they sit. Eat!
Wow – this was longer than I intended. However, I would surely be remiss if I didn’t tell you that never will you be offered a biscuit in the South without the absolutely necessary accompaniment of honey! So, to do a good biscuit justice, and to honor its heritage, one must/should find an appropriately fine honey to bring out the best in your biscuit. And the biscuit will bring out the best in the honey!
Our sincere wishes to all for a magnificent Thanksgiving – why not kick off the day properly with a batch of wonderful southern buttermilk biscuits? That’ll put you in the right frame of mind for the rest of the day.