Sunday, May 20, 2012

Buttermilk Biscuits

Do you swear by butter? Shortening? Butter and shortening? Lard? Roll? Pat? Beaten biscuits? Should you add baking soda? Flour from hard winter wheat (Northern - higher protein) or soft summer wheat (Southern - lower protein)? For a simple recipe that home cooks have been making in a recognizable-even-today form since the late 18th and early 19th century, there are a myriad of variations based on location, availability of ingredients and the state of your household economy.

Countless women (and men, I'm sure) have made batches of biscuits every morning - and some every night. They are 'quick' (non-yeast) breads that in their best form have a great rise, are sturdy enough to hold up to a sausage patty and egg or gravy or, sweetened with a little sugar, a load of fresh strawberries and cream. ...or just a smear of butter and some honey or jam.
If you don't already have a buttermilk biscuit recipe that you think is perfect, give this one a try.

For me, I don't stock shortening or lard and I never remember to buy White Lily (or  King Arthur) soft, summer flour. I don't even have buttermilk in my refrigerator on a regular basis, but I have discovered powdered buttermilk - a righteous and more than acceptable substitution in baking applications. I've included three other buttermilk substitutions in the recipe.

I cut in the butter (refrigerator cold) with my fingers so that the pieces are not entirely uniform - some little pea-size pieces and others that I've rubbed between my fingers into thin flakes. After I've cut in the butter, I stick the flour and butter mixture in the freezer for about 15 minutes before I mix-in ice-cold water (or buttermilk, if you're using it). There are some other tips and all are in the recipe after the jump.

Baking powder. Must. Be. Fresh. If you don't bake too often, buy the little can and throw out what you haven't used once a year. Just do it. Don't make this recipe or any quick bread or biscuit recipe until you: (a) check the expiration date on your baking powder; and if it has passed (b) buy a new can. The small cans are pretty cheap. I also use 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda. Too much of either and there's a noticeable 'off' flavor, but 1 1/4 tablespoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda passed my "Super Taster's" (my cooking compadre, Lynn - her palate is more sensitive than mine) taste test.

Biscuit cutters. If you don't have one, don't use a glass - use your knife. The sharp edge of a biscuit cutter or a sharp knife won't drag down the sides of the biscuit. Using a knife to cut your biscuits eliminates the need for re-forming the dough from scraps. Second generation biscuits are never as good as those cut the first time through. Place the biscuits close together on the pan for higher risers and an inch or more apart for crispier tops and bottoms.


Makes 9 large biscuits (3 inch) or 12 smaller biscuits (2 inch)
Approximate baking time: 14 minutes for 3" biscuits. Turn the pan 180 degrees half-way through the baking time.

 - These cook at a higher temperature (475F) than I've seen before in a recipe (generally 425F) but the results were great. Keeping the butter and liquids well-chilled before using and placing the flour mixture and cut-in butter into the freezer for 15 minutes balances out the higher heat.

 - If you have neither buttermilk powder nor buttermilk here are three other substitutions:
  • Into 1 tablespoon of lemon juice mix 1 cup of milk. Let stand for a couple of minutes until the milk has curdled.
  • Using 1 cup of milk, mix 1 3/4 teaspoons of cream of tartar with 2 tablespoons of milk until thoroughly combined. Add the remainder of the milk and combine. 
  • Mix 3/4 cup plain yogurt with 1/4 cup milk.
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the board
  • 1 1/4 tablespoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 - 3/4 teaspoon table salt or 1 - 1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (depends on your taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (optional)
  • 3 tablespoons buttermilk powder (omit if using buttermilk)
  • 6 tablespoons refrigerator-cold, salted butter, cut into 1/3 inch cubes
  • 3/4 cup ice-cold water (or buttermilk)
  • 1 additional tablespoon melted butter to lightly brush onto the tops of the biscuits before baking (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 475, rack in the upper third of the oven.
  • Don't take the butter out of the refrigerator until you're ready to cut it into the flour mixture.
  • If using buttermilk powder, fill a 2-cup measure with 1 cup of ice and fill the rest of the way with water. If using buttermilk, keep it in the refrigerator until you're ready to add it to the flour mixture.
In a large bowl place 2 cups all-purpose flour, the baking powder, baking soda, salt, (optional) freshly ground black pepper and (if using) buttermilk powder. Using a whisk, thoroughly combine all of the dry ingredients.

Add the cubed butter to the bowl and toss it with the flour mixture until all of the little cubes are coated. Using your fingers, rub the cubed butter into the flour mixture. Some pieces should be the size of baby peas and some should be little thin sheets that are formed when you rub the butter between your fingers. Stick the bowl into the freezer and set your kitchen timer for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes, remove the bowl with flour mixture and cut-in butter. Add the ice-cold water, if you used buttermilk powder, or buttermilk if you did not, and stir with a large spoon or stiff spatula to combine. This makes a raggedy, somewhat sticky dough. Turn it in the bowl with your hands 2 or 3 times and then turn the dough out onto a well-floured board or counter.

Pat or gently roll the dough into an (approximately) 9 square inch, 1/2 inch high piece of dough. Using your hands, or a pastry (bench) scraper, pick up 1/3 of the dough on one side and fold it over the top of the dough. From the opposite site, pick up 1/3 and fold it over the top - it's the same way that you would fold a letter into thirds to fit inside an envelope. Flour the top of your folded dough then turn it over and flour the bottom. Press out or gently roll the dough into another 9 inch wide by 1/2 inch high square. Repeat the folding process two more times ending up with an 9 inch wide by 1/2 inch high square of dough

Use a sharp chef's knife, cut the dough into 3 equal strips and then crosswise into 9 squares. Transfer each square to a baking sheet and, if desired, brush the tops very lightly with the 1 tablespoon of melted butter.

Place the baking sheet into the pre-heated oven. After 6 minutes, turn the sheet 180 degrees. Approximate baking time is 14 minutes for 9, 3" biscuits. Your time may vary depending on your oven. The biscuits should be golden to brown on the top and bottom and thoroughly cooked-through.

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