There are times when nothing but a biscuit will do. Drop biscuits are okay, they can fill in the gaps when you are desperate and short on time, but most of the time, what I’m really and truly hankering for is a lofty, perfect, flaky, layered-from-top-to-bottom, golden brown, moist, golden brown, and delicious biscuit. I’m talking about the kind where you can split it in half with your fingers and slather with cold butter and strawberry jam or cover with sausage gravy.
My biscuits were always really good… My grandma’s from Arkansas, folks, and she’s an amazing cook and it was her recipe I always made. Then I learned a few techniques after attending a King Arthur Flour traveling baking demo (and later their Blog & Bake event), that turned my biscuits into the ultimate buttermilk biscuits. My biscuits are now the One Biscuit to Rule Them All.
What are these magical techniques? I’ll summarize first. If these sound fussy, I’ll explain why they make a difference further up and further in! (Name that reference!)
How to Make Perfect Lofty, Flaky, Layered, Buttermilk Biscuits
- Use COLD butter. Do not soften it at room temperature at all.
- Cut your butter into both pats and cubes before working them into the flour.
- Use your hands to work in the butter. Don’t use knives, forks, a pastry cutter, or a food processor.
- Don’t add too much buttermilk. It’s easier to add more later than it is to take excess out.
- Be gentle!!! Don’t overwork or manhandle the dough. Stay relaxed. Biscuits are happy food!
- Use a sharp biscuit cutter. Don’t use a jar, juice glass, or tea cup unless the edge is sharp enough to hurt your lip.
- Push straight down when cutting biscuits. Don’t spin or twist the cutter. Straight down and straight back up!
- Get as many biscuits out of the first cutting as you can. Each subsequent re-rolling and cutting of the dough yields tougher and tougher biscuits.
- Don’t crowd the pan. Make sure each biscuit has room to grow!
Those are the rules. Now, let’s break this down a little more…
I am not kidding you when I tell you one of the main keys to perfect biscuits is cutting your butter two different ways. When you read through the recipe, it will be obvious that I’m making a double batch here. Because BISCUITS!
Notice that I cut half of the SUPER COLD butter into super thin pats and half into long quarters (or batons) and then crosswise into cubes. There is a scientific reason to this*; You don’t want homogenous pockets or ‘chunks’ of butter in your biscuit dough. Smaller pieces yield tender dough, larger, flatter pieces yield flakiness. Both of those traits are prized in biscuits. Starting with the butter in two different shapes and sizes helps yield that desired final product. Using cold butter is crucial, too. Cold butter melts when it’s in the hot oven rather than when it’s being worked into the flour. The longer it takes to melt, the better… That helps create the layers, too.
*I learned this from my beloved King Arthur Flour’s Traveling Baking Demo (and seriously… if they is one of these anywhere near you or even semi-near you, GO TO IT! They’re free and they’re fabulous!)
Because this recipe uses self-rising flour, you don’t have to worry about anything other than measuring said flour into a nice, large mixing bowl. Into the flour goes the butter. Now, drop your finger tips into the flour and butter and pull apart the butter pieces while tossing them into the flour. Don’t use the palms of your hands because those radiate heat and that melts butter which makes tough biscuits. TOUGH BISCUITS. It sounds like an insult, doesn’t it? Here’s a little video my 13 year old helped me make to show you what I mean. Please enjoy the squawking in the background. This is a real home with real children who eat the real food I share.
This brings me to an important point.
Why should I use my hands to work the butter into biscuit dough?
There’s a simple reason for this; it’s because you literally get a feel for how the dough is behaving. When your hands are in the dough, you know when there are pieces that are too big, you know when it will or won’t hold together, and you know you’re not beating the tar out of it which would yield TOUGH BISCUITS.
My 13 year old was Mr. Video while I was making these, so I have a handy, dandy little clip here to show you how to mix in the buttermilk and what the dough should look like.
Such a helpful child he is! Yes, I did say you can add extra buttermilk if you need to do so. Just add it little by little (and upon reflection, it looks more like I ended up adding two extra tablespoons to that batch vs. the one I mentioned in the video) and ONLY add it until things clump. The goal is not a wet, smooth dough. I’m not kidding!
And I’m also not kidding when I tell you that your dough may look a little shaggy -okay, a lot shaggy- when you turn it out of the bowl. In fact, if you’ve not had success with biscuits before, you’re quite likely to think you’ve gone dreadfully wrong and that I’m crazy. You’re going to be tempted to add a lot more buttermilk, but resist! Don’t do it! Trust me! It’s time to pat out and fold the dough. That’s how we get all the lovely layers.
Here’s the method:
Slide both hands under one side of the dough (at about 9 o’clock if you think of the dough as a clock face), lift it up, and fold it over the other side at 3 o’clock like you’re closing a book. Again, pat the dough round out into a 2-inch thick rectangle. This time, slide your hands under the bottom of the dough at 6 o’clock and fold it up toward 12 o’clock. Repeat the patting into a 2-inch rectangle, folding from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock, patting, then folding from 6 o’clock to 12 o’clock. Each time you do this, the dough should hold together just a little better. Onto rolling the dough!
Just like every other step, use a light hand when rolling the dough. It shouldn’t take much effort to roll it out.
You have a couple of options for cutting the biscuits. You can either use a nice, sharp, open topped biscuit cutter or a knife. Either way, you will push the cutter or knife straight down toward the counter. Do not twist the cutter or saw the knife back and forth because that will mar the layers you worked so hard to achieve and keep the biscuits from rising high.
Make sure you don’t crowd your biscuits on the pan. They won’t have a chance to rise and have those gorgeous layered sides if you do. With so many do’s and don’ts in this recipe, I’m happy to say I have an optional step for you. If you’d like them to be a pretty, glossy brown on top, you can brush them with more buttermilk (as I always do). If you prefer a rustic, flour dusted look to the top of your biscuits, omit that step. It’s just a matter of personal preference.
Finally, I have to tell you… this makes a lot of biscuits. It does. It even makes more than our Viking horde should eat in one meal. (That’s not to say we haven’t eaten the whole shooting match at once, but I recognize that’s a little excessive.)When I’m feeling virtuous, I freeze half of the unbaked batch for later meals. Sometimes, when I’m really on the ball, I just whip up a batch of dough, cut out the biscuits, and freeze all of them. Are you wondering whether they’re as good when they’re baked after having been frozen? I don’t blame you if you are.
I offer proof. The biscuit on the left was made from fresh biscuit dough. The biscuit on the right was from pre-cut biscuits that were frozen for a week prior to baking. Both are fanastic, moist, flaky, and layered top to bottom with fabulous biscuit goodness. Would you like to know something I’ve discovered? The frozen ones, in my experience, puff up a little higher than the fresh ones. I love having frozen biscuits in the oven for busy nights or unexpected dinner guests.
Now, anyone want a Buttermilk Biscuit?
- 4 cups (1 pound by weight) self-rising flour
- ½ cup (1 stick or 4 ounces by weight) very cold butter
- 1⅓ cups buttermilk plus extra if needed and for brushing
- all purpose flour for dusting the work surface
- Preheat oven to 425°F. Add the self-rising flour to a large mixing bowl.
- Cut the stick of butter in half. Cut one half in 4 batons lengthwise, then cut across the batons to create small cubes. Cut the other half of the butter into pats as thin as you possibly can. Toss the cubes and pats of butter into the flour using just your fingertips so that they are fully coated with flour. Then, one piece at a time, quickly rub each pat and cube of butter between your fingers like you are rubbing dried glue off of your fingers. Continue doing this until all the butter has been rubbed into uneven pieces no larger than peas.
- Pour all but about 2 tablespoons of the buttermilk around the inside edges of the bowl. Reserve the buttermilk in case it's needed. Use a sturdy spoon, silicone or rubber spatula, or flexible dough/bench scraper to toss the buttermilk into the butter and flour mixture until a scrappy dough starts to form. If the mixture is still very dry, toss in the remaining buttermilk. Pick up a small amount of the dough and squeeze it in your hand. If it holds together you're ready to proceed. If most of the mixture is still very dry, you can add buttermilk -1 tablespoon at a time- until the dough holds together when squeezed.
- Dust a clean work surface with all-purpose flour (NOT self-rising here) and scrape the dough out into a pile. Quickly and gently use just enough pressure to pat the pile of dough into a rectangle that is about 2-inches thick. As you're patting it out, gently incorporate any crumbling edges back into the dough mass.
- Slide both hands under one side of the dough (at about 9 o'clock if you think of the dough as a clock face), lift it up, and fold it over the other side at 3 o'clock like you're closing a book. Again, pat the dough round out into a 2-inch thick rectangle. This time, slide your hands under the bottom of the dough at 6 o'clock and fold it up toward 12 o'clock. Repeat the patting into a 2-inch rectangle, folding from 9 o'clock to 3 o'clock, patting, then folding from 6 o'clock to 12 o'clock. Each time you do this, the dough should hold together just a little better.
- Rub a rolling pin with flour and very gently roll out the dough into any shape you'd like, but aim for ¾-inch to 1-inch thickness. Flour a sharp round or square open-topped biscuit or cookie cutter. Cut straight down into the biscuit dough, not turning or spinning the cutter as you cut. Cut the biscuits as closely together as you possibly can, minimizing any excess between them. If you do not have a sharp biscuit cutter, use a sharp knife and cut straight down into the dough forming squares.
- Transfer the biscuits to a greased or parchment lined cookie sheet, brush the tops of the biscuits with buttermilk. Put the tray in the oven and bake for 8-12 minutes, rotating the pan front to back halfway through baking. When they are golden brown, delicious looking, and lofty. Remove them from the oven. Let stand at least 2 minutes before eating or transferring to a towel lined bowl.
- Transfer the unbaked, cut biscuits to a parchment lined cookie sheet. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and stick the cookie sheet in the freezer. When the biscuits are frozen solid, stack them in a resealable freezer bag, label the bag, and keep frozen until needed, or for up to 3 months. If you store them longer than that, they will still be bake-able after that, but not quite as high-rising and tasty!
- Preheat the oven to 475°F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Arrange the frozen biscuits on the sheet leaving at least 2 inches between each biscuit. Brush the biscuit tops with buttermilk and bake the biscuits for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, lower the heat to 425°F and continue cooking for 10 minutes or until the biscuits are golden brown, delicious looking, and lofty! Remove them from the oven and let stand at least 2 minutes before eating or transferring to a towel lined bowl.
This post originally published on October 26th, 2013.