From the moment I first tasted homemade biscuits, decades ago at a country restaurant, I set about trying to re-create that light and buttery taste. I mixed and mixed and baked and mixed and baked, testing for about another decade, until finally I pulled the ideal biscuits from my oven.
Along the way, I learned what distinguishes a workable, soft biscuit dough from an impossibly sticky mess, and what makes the difference between biscuits that are light and rise to great heights and biscuits that are squat and dense.
The ingredients are basic: flour, a combination of leaveners, salt, a little sugar, shortening (or a combination of shortening and butter) and buttermilk.
It's the technique that lends room for error. A batch of biscuit dough can be put together in the time that it takes to preheat the oven. But in your haste, do not neglect these other crucial aspects of biscuit making:
* Biscuits are a "quick bread" -- that is, they rely on leaveners other than yeast, which requires more time to rise. In my biscuits, I use both baking powder and baking soda. The combination provides just the right level of rise to the dough as it bakes, as well as neutralizing the acidity of the buttermilk.
* Work the flour mixture and fat together until the fat is reduced to small pieces but not so small that the mixture looks like fine meal. I use solid shortening for texture and volume and butter for flavor (though the tradeoff of butter is a slightly denser biscuit).
* Knead the dough briefly and preferably in the mixing bowl. Knead for just three or four pushes and under 20 seconds total time. A tough, chewy biscuit is usually the result of overworked dough.
* Plop the dough onto a floured work surface and gently roll or pat the surface to an ample but even thickness. Use a plain round cutter to press down on the dough in a single firm stroke and then lift up the cutter without turning it. Press, rather than roll or compress, the scraps of dough together and cut additional biscuits. Do not rework the scraps a second time. (The second cutting of scraps will create more compact, less lofty, biscuits.)
If you prefer a square biscuit or prefer not to waste any dough, use a non-serrated knife to cut the dough into squares.
* Do not dawdle. As soon as the biscuits are cut, use a small spatula to transfer the biscuits to the baking sheet, being careful not to crush or mash the sides. To get maximum rise, bake the biscuits as soon as they are arranged on the sheet. You want the fat in the dough to still be chilled when it is exposed to the heat of the oven. Cold shortening emits steam, which expands and forces the dough to raise; warm shortening emits much less steam.
I recently made a small but important change in my biscuit-baking routine. I preheated the oven to 400 degrees, placed the sheet of biscuits onto the rack, closed the oven door and immediately turned the temperature up to 425 degrees. Biscuits baked in this "rising oven" baked higher and moister than those baked in an oven initially preheated to 425 degrees. But for this newest method, I found that the oven must be preheated to 400 degrees for a full 5 minutes to ensure a consistent oven temperature before the sheet of biscuits is placed on the rack.
About 11 biscuits
These incredibly light, slightly sweet biscuits should be served still warm from the oven.
They could be upgraded to fancy in any of several ways (see variations below). The savory versions go with poultry and shellfish, smoked ham or turkey, stews or chowders. The sweet versions are candidates for breakfast, brunch or a shortcake dessert.
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for the work surface
21/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt, preferably fine sea salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
8 tablespoons solid shortening (or 4 tablespoons shortening and 4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter), cut into pieces
3/4 cup buttermilk
Melted butter or whole milk to glaze the unbaked biscuit tops (optional)
Granulated sugar for sprinkling (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cream of tartar, baking soda, salt and sugar. Add the pieces of shortening (or shortening and butter) and, using a pastry blender or two table knives held crisscross fashion, cut the fat into the flour until it resembles small bits and flakes.
Shake the buttermilk and pour it over the mixture and, using a wooden spoon, stir just until a dough forms. The dough should come together but still be slightly moist. Using your fingertips, lightly knead the dough in the bowl 3 to 4 times.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Roll or pat the dough so it is slightly thicker than 1/2 inch. Using a 2-inch cutter, cut out biscuits. Using a spatula, transfer the biscuits to an ungreased baking sheet, spacing the biscuits about 2 inches apart. Lightly press together the scraps and cut a few more biscuits (do not rework the scraps a second time).
Brush a little melted butter or milk onto the top of each biscuit, taking care not to let it drip down the side (which would prevent the biscuit from rising as high as possible). If desired, sprinkle the top of each biscuit with sugar.
Transfer the biscuits to the oven and immediately increase the temperature to 425 degrees. Bake the biscuits for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden and high. Carefully transfer the biscuits to a cooling rack for a couple of minutes. Serve warm.
Per serving: 179 calories, 3 gm protein, 21 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 1 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 198 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
* Vanilla Whisk 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract into the buttermilk.
* Almond Whisk 1/2 teaspoon almond extract and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract into the buttermilk. Toss 1/3 cup lightly toasted, slivered almonds into the flour and fat mixture before adding the buttermilk.
* Ginger Whisk 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract into the buttermilk. Increase the granulated sugar to 3 tablespoons. Sift 1 teaspoon ground ginger with the flour before whisking in the baking powder, baking soda, cream of tartar, salt and sugar. Stir 5 tablespoons finely chopped, crystallized ginger into the flour and fat mixture before adding the buttermilk.
* Sugar-topped Cherry Whisk 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract into the buttermilk. Increase the granulated sugar to 3 tablespoons. Toss 1/2 cup sweetened dried cherries (coarsely chopped if large) into the flour and fat mixture before adding the buttermilk. Glaze the tops of the biscuits with melted butter and dust with granulated sugar.
* Sugar-topped Currant Whisk 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract into the buttermilk. Toss 1/3 cup dried currants into the flour and fat mixture before adding the buttermilk. Glaze the tops of the biscuits with melted butter and dust with granulated sugar.
* Sugar-topped Golden Raisin Whisk 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract into the buttermilk. Increase the granulated sugar to 3 tablespoons. Toss 1/3 cup golden raisins into the flour and fat mixture before adding the buttermilk. Glaze the tops of the biscuits with melted butter and dust with granulated sugar.
* Cheddar Cheese Reduce the amount of sugar to 1 tablespoon. Whisk 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper into the flour mixture before adding the fat. Add 2/3 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese to the flour and fat mixture before adding the buttermilk. Glaze the tops of the biscuits with milk.
* Herb Reduce the amount of sugar to 1 tablespoon. Toss 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves or 2 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves and 1 tablespoon snipped fresh dill (feathery portions only) or 3 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves and 2 teaspoons chopped fresh marjoram leaves with the flour and fat mixture before adding the buttermilk. Glaze the tops of the biscuits with milk.
Lisa Yockelson is the author of "Baking by Flavor" (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002).