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How to Make Perfect Biscuits

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

These flaky biscuits are perfect for the whole family!

These flaky biscuits are perfect for the whole family!

Cooking [Koo k-ing]

The art or practice of preparing food; to prepare (food) by the use of heat, as by boiling or roasting.

perfect-biscuits

Baking [Beyk-ing]

The use of sorcery or alchemy to transform ordinary ingredients into a totally new substance.

Or at least, that is what many people think.

Let’s be honest—cook meat and potatoes in the oven or simmer them on the stove. When they are done, they still resemble meat and potatoes.

But what happens when one mixes together baking powder, butter, sugar, and flour and then heats that concoction in the oven? Those ingredients could produce shortbread cookies, a pie, or perhaps even some flaky, buttery baking powder biscuits. (Yes, real honest-to-goodness biscuits without the help of baking mix or the Pillsbury Dough Boy.)

Is it magic?

What Makes Baking Different?

Think again about that meat and potatoes dish. You don't really need to measure; a pinch of this, a dash of that, and in the end, it tastes pretty good.

However, baking is a bit trickier. Measurements need to be precise and attention to detail is important. But don't worry, it's not rocket science, just a bit of your time and attention. We can do this—YOU can do this!

Shall we begin?

A typical "meat and potatoes" meal

A typical "meat and potatoes" meal

How the Ingredients Work

The basic ingredients to make your perfect biscuits are baking powder, baking soda, flour, and butter. Simple (but important) ingredients. Here is how they work together:

Baking Powder and Baking Soda

Similar, but not the same. Both are important but not interchangeable.

Do you remember your first science project in grade school? I'm guessing that many of you created the model of a volcano, and demonstrated an "eruption" by filling the mountain with baking soda and then pouring in vinegar.

Science project "volcano"

Science project "volcano"

What Happened Next?

The reaction was instantaneous! A bubbling, spewing flow of liquid from the bowels of the mountain (By the way, I was working for the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington State when Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, so I know about mountains exploding!).

Baking Soda

So what are baking soda and baking powder, and what do they do? Simply put baking soda is one ingredient—sodium bicarbonate. When combined with an acid (vinegar, lemon juice, sour cream, yogurt, or perhaps buttermilk) an immediate chemical reaction occurs—that is what prompted your volcano to begin spewing in that grade school science experiment, and that is what gives the initial jump start in your biscuits' to rise to stardom.

Baking Powder

On the other hand, baking powder is a bit more complex—a combination of one part baking soda and two parts of acidic compound. With baking powder, the chemical reaction is triggered with moisture and with heat.

So why do we need both of them?

  • Baking soda gets the process going--it's the kick-start to having biscuits that rise to lofty heights. However, the action (or reaction) of baking soda is rather short-lived. That's where the baking powder comes in.
  • Baking powder begins to work when it encounters both the moisture of the dough and the heat of the oven. It takes over the process of "rising" when the chemical reaction of the baking soda has completed.
  • Why not use just baking soda? Not enough lift
  • Why not forget about the soda and just use baking powder? The "other" acidic ingredients would impart a bitter taste.
  • Using both baking soda and baking powder in tandem provides continued "elevation" of your biscuits until they are golden brown and thoroughly cooked through.
Flour

Flour

Flour

Have you noticed the "gluten-free" trend? As many as 20 million Americans think gluten-free diets are healthier; around 13 million are giving up gluten to lose weight. However, it is estimated that only about 1 percent of people have celiac disease; even fewer (0.4 percent) suffer an allergic reaction to wheat or flour dust. A third group (about 0.6 percent) is “gluten-sensitive”—they experience symptoms when they consume foods that contain gluten.

Without the aid of a calculator, I am pretty certain that the total percentage of people who thus must avoid gluten is 2%, yet consumer data indicate that around 22% of adults are trying to remove gluten from their diets. This has created an $8.8 million market that exploded by 63% between 2012 and 2014.

Jimmy Kimmel even joked about the trend on his late-night show, asking people on the street who espoused gluten-free if they actually knew what gluten is. None of them could answer the question.

Don’t misunderstand and don’t start the hate mail; I have a very dear friend who is gluten sensitive, and another who has celiac disease. I recognize that gluten intolerance is a real thing, a serious thing. But most Americans who shun gluten have absolutely no medical reason to do so. It won't remove their aches and pains or lessen their "brain fog." For them, gluten is not a poison, it’s merely a protein.

Protein Content of Flours

  • Bread flour: 14 to 16%
  • All-purpose (AP) flour: 10 to 12%
  • Pastry flour: 9%
  • Cake flour: 7 to 8%

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein. It’s the ‘glue’ that makes dough stretch. According to Fine Cooking magazine:

Gluten—the strong, sticky, stretchy protein that forms when wheat flour and water mix—is remarkable stuff. It gives structure to baked goods and helps wheat flour morph into many different foods: al dente pasta, fluffy waffles, crisp pastries, chewy artisan bread. But not every baked good requires the same amount of gluten.

For the lightest, fluffiest biscuits, you need to use cake flour.

Butter

Butter

Butter

What is butter other than the substance that arises when one churns cream and separates the fat from the whey?

Even in this simple process, life is complicated. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Salted vs. unsalted always use unsalted butter. Salt is added to butter as a preservative, and the amount varies with the manufacturer. Use unsalted butter and you will be in complete control of the amount of salt going into your finished product.
  • Consider the fat ratio of your butter. Most butter mass-produced in the United States has a fat ratio of 80 percent. Local artisanal butter and imported butter might have a higher fat ratio—82 to 85 percent. If at all possible, for baking biscuits you should opt for the butter with the higher fat ratio (more fat means less water).

This is what Royal Icing Diaries has to say about using quality butter in baking:

"Ok, so you know unsalted is the best butter to use for baking. Now how do you decide which brand of butter to buy?

"These should be your determining factors:

  • What you plan on baking
  • What brands are available to you (which is determined, in large part, by where you live and where you shop)
  • What you can reasonably afford

"Butter is a solid fat made from cow’s milk and it’s made up of butterfat, water, and milk solids, otherwise known as curds. The higher the butterfat content, the richer and more flavorful your dough will be. In some baked goods the butter is the shining star so a higher butterfat content will make a significant difference.

"Additionally, butterfat produces tenderness whereas water is actually a binding agent which can toughen up your dough if used in excess.

"Here in the United States, the USDA regulates the amount of butterfat that’s required in butter and the minimum amount is 80%. European butters, on the other hand, contain anywhere from 83% – 86% butterfat so they contain less water.

"Less water=more butterfat=more flavor

"If I bake banana bread, cookies, or brownies, although the butter is an important ingredient, it’s not the predominant flavor. In this case it’s perfectly OK to use a good-quality national or store brand butter.

"However, when I make shortbread cookies, a pie crust, or a brioche, I want the butter to be the most celebrated flavor. This is the time to splurge. I would definitely use a butter with a high butterfat content, whether it be an expensive European butter or an organic artisan butter from a good creamery."

And Then!

Ta-da!! So there are the basic ingredients for perfect biscuits. Let's get started!

Equipment You Will Need

  • Large-rimmed baking sheet
  • Parchment paper
  • Box grater
  • Medium mixing bowl
  • Large mixing bowl
  • Fork for mixing dough
  • Sharp knife for cutting the dough into squares
  • Spatula
  • Cooling rack
  • Dry measuring cups and spoons
  • Liquid measuring cup

Recipe for Perfect Biscuits

Ingredients

  • 1 and 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) frozen butter (see important note below)
  • 1 1/2 cups cake flour
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450°F.
  2. Line the baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  3. Shred the frozen butter on the largest holes of a box grater.

    Important Note—One stick of butter is the equivalent of 1/2 cup or 8 tablespoons. You will grate 7 tablespoons from the whole stick of butter. One tablespoon will remain. Set it aside for use in another recipe.

    Next, shred 3 tablespoons from the 1/2 stick of butter. Again, you will be left with 1 tablespoon, which you will also set aside for another purpose. You should now have 10 tablespoons of shredded butter. Place the shredded butter in a bowl and place it in the refrigerator to keep chilled.

    Why do it this way? Simply because you cannot grate the entire stick (or one-half stick) of butter without also grating your fingertips.
  4. Sift together the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl.
  5. Add the chilled grated butter and toss gently to coat all of the butter shreds with flour.
  6. Pour in the buttermilk and stir quickly and gently until buttermilk is incorporated.
  7. Turn out onto floured work surface and pat into a 7x7-inch square.
  8. Roll out to a 12x9-inch rectangle, with the short (9-inch side) parallel to the bottom edge of the counter (near your tummy). Use the bench scraper to help release the dough from the work surface and fold it like a business letter—the bottom third will fold up to the middle, and the top third will be folded down.
  9. Turn the dough 90 degrees and then roll again into a 12x9-inch rectangle. Fold again as above. Repeat this process until the dough has been rolled and folded 5 times. Each time you should find that the dough is becoming more smooth and cohesive.
  10. When the final roll and fold is completed, roll the dough into an 8-inch square. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes (or in the freezer for 10 minutes).
  11. Next slice the dough into 9 equal squares. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven and bake for 12 minutes.

"Homemade" Cake Flour

This isn't perfect but will do in a pinch if you can't find cake flour at your store.

For each cup of cake flour needed:

  • Measure out 1 cup of all-purpose flour.
  • Remove 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour and place it back in your flour canister.
  • Replace the removed all-purpose flour with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch.
  • Sift flour 5 times. Yes, 5 times. Sifting the flour and cornstarch together will help thoroughly combine the mixture and help to lighten and aerate the flour.

By replacing a bit of the all-purpose flour with cornstarch, you are removing some of the gluten and replacing it with a neutral, tenderizing element.

Final Tips for Perfect Biscuits

  • Make sure your baking powder and baking soda are fresh. Check the expiration date on the package. If near or past the expiration date, buy new. If you can't find the expiration date, also buy new. In the grand scheme of things, baking powder and baking soda are relatively inexpensive. Your flour, sugar, and quality butter are not. Don't risk wasting them on inferior leavening.
  • The first thing you should do is preheat your oven. It should be completely preheated (every little nook and corner) when you pop those biscuits in the oven.
  • Prepare your ingredients and tools in advance so that once you get started, you can work quickly and efficiently: shred the butter and put it back in the fridge, measure out the buttermilk, flour the counter, and get out the biscuit cutter and baking sheet.
  • Use very cold/frozen butter and keep it in the fridge until you’re ready for it. Work the butter quickly into the flour so that it doesn’t have a chance to even think about melting!
  • When you add the buttermilk, stir lightly! Use a fork--it will be clumpy. You don't want a smooth dough!
  • Use all-purpose flour to dust the work surface.
  • Don’t pat the dough out too thin. If you want high biscuits, don’t roll the dough any thinner than 3/4 to 1 inch.
  • When cutting biscuits, use a sharp cutter and press straight down and up. Don’t twist!
  • Place cut biscuits together on the baking sheet so that they are touching. Like trees in a forest, they support each other.

Questions & Answers

Question: Why don't you recommend soft wheat flour such as White Lily or Martha White?

Answer: That is a very good question; my answer is that those are flours that are available in the South. I'm a Northern girl and they simply aren't available (or well known) where I live. I must confess that my not using them is not an indictment of them. It is due solely to a lack of experience. I did a little reading before answering this and found, lo and behold, that the two that you mentioned are recommended for biscuits. Thank you for your question; it's a good contribution to this article.

Question: Are there variables to time & temperature if using an electric oven and which oven rack position is best? Also after 12 minutes of baking how should the biscuits look and know they're done?

Answer: Honestly, I have an electric oven (not gas, not convection), so the instructions that I provided should work for you. I place my oven rack on the 2nd row from the bottom (my oven has 4 positions).

My oven is new-ish (purchased 2 years ago) and the heating in it seems to be consistent (no hot spots). If you have an older oven or have noticed that (for example) that food in the back of the oven gets darker, rotate your pan at the half-way point (6 minutes into baking).

Watch your biscuits carefully. Twelve minutes isn’t etched in stone. Your biscuits might be done at 10 or 11 minutes. They should be golden but not dark brown. If uncertain if they are “done” inside stick a wooden toothpick into the center of one. If it comes out clean or almost clean, you can remove them from the oven. It’s best to let them rest on the baking sheet for a few minutes before placing on in your bread basket (they will continue to cook a tiny bit there).

If any of the readers have a convection (fan-assisted) oven, reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees, don’t rotate the pan, and reduce baking time by 10 percent.

Question: Can you use this recipe for drop biscuits?

Answer: No, as written this recipe will not produce dough suitable for drop biscuits. Rolled biscuit dough is quite firm and sturdy; dropped biscuits result from dough that is much looser and sticky. You could try adding 2 additional tablespoons of buttermilk to the dough, but I haven’t tested that theory.

© 2016 Linda Lum