How to make your best batch of biscuits
March 22, 2019 –
If there were a personality test for biscuits, it would look something like this: A map of the United States filled with pins, dusted with flour and streaked with butter, with a big honking question mark superimposed over the whole thing.
Because there is no one perfect biscuit: There’s just the biscuit that’s perfect for you.
Unlike, say, a macaron or even a bagel — the last carbohydrate I spent weeks investigating — biscuits lend themselves particularly well to tweaks to suit your taste. Sure, there’s chemistry and intertwining cause-and-effects at work, and we’ll get to all that, but a little well-thought-out experimentation is welcome.
“When you go to make biscuits, I think you need to know what you want,” says Martin Philip, head baker at King Arthur Flour. His history is so intertwined with the baked good that the first recipe in his cookbook, “Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes,” is for biscuits.
So what do you want? The biscuit matrix covers fluffy and tender to flaky and sturdy enough for a sandwich. You might want them tall, maybe a little tangy or decadently buttery. You could go the drop-biscuit route, bust out the rolling pin or practice your folding skills.
Here’s everything you need to consider.
Cookbook author and Southern food ambassador Nathalie Dupree swears by White Lily Flour so much that she brought her own bag to our Food Lab.
Cooks like Dupree treasure self-rising White Lily (it has salt and leavening in it already) for its fine-milled texture and low-protein content (8 to 10 percent), which leads to especially tender biscuits. Flour with lower protein forms less gluten when it comes into contact with the liquid in the form of the water in butter or your dairy of choice. More protein means more gluten, which means a chewier texture.
Ayeshah Abuelhiga advocates a middle-of-the-road approach with all-purpose flour (10 to 12 percent protein). The founder and chief executive of Washington’s Mason Dixie Biscuit Co. say her team started testing recipes with pastry and cake flour, which have even less protein than White Lily but found the results too inconsistent and caky, and too weak for a sandwich.
Bread flour’s high protein content makes it a no-go for biscuits.
This is where the other part of the gluten equation comes into play; just like flour, liquid will help determine tenderness.
Up to a certain extent, more water means more gluten. If you’re working with all-purpose flour then use less liquid. (A wetter dough is more suited to fluffy drop biscuits, which we’ll get to later.)
When selecting and working with your liquid, keep these tips in mind:
Rise. Buttermilk’s tangy flavor and thick texture are enough to recommend it, but its acidity also gives the baking soda and/or powder something to react with, Philip says. A more vigorous reaction means a higher rise. (Remember those vinegar-and-baking-soda volcanoes in school?) If you’re using milk, lemon juice can help create a similar reaction.
Richness. While developing a scone recipe, Philip says he had a “light bulb” moment. Using buttermilk gave him the flavor he wanted but not the texture. He swapped the buttermilk for half-and-half, and the additional fat resulted in an especially tender scone. You’ll get similar results in a biscuit, especially if you step up to cream.
The right mix. For tender results, use a wide bowl and stir the liquid in until it’s just incorporated. You may need to dial back the liquid if you’re in a warm, humid environment or add a bit when it’s cool or dry. In making Philip’s recipe, below, in our Food Lab, I consistently found the dough too crumbly to handle. I adjusted the amount of buttermilk. Too much and the dough was sticky and gluey, but just a tablespoon more allowed me to get the dough from the bowl to the counter as a shaggy yet relatively dry mass instead of as a pile of crumbs. Dry bits will be incorporated as you shape the dough.
A buttery biscuit owes its melt-in-your-mouth texture to fat, which tenderizes the dough by interfering with the formation of gluten.
“What I hate is a doughy biscuit that doesn’t have enough butter in it,” says Tom Douglas, the chef-restaurateur behind Seattle’s Serious Biscuits. (The biscuit recipe in “The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook,” which Douglas co-wrote with his company’s quality-control manager, Shelley Lance, calls for three sticks of butter for a 20-biscuit batch.)
Philip also prefers the flavor and texture that butter imparts. Shortening has no water, which is key for producing the steam that helps lift the biscuits. Butter, by contrast, has almost 20 percent water. Shortening “also really has no flavor,” he says.
Lard, like shortening, is 100 percent fat. Erika Council, a food writer who runs the Bomb Biscuits pop-up in Atlanta, says her best biscuits are made with lard, “hands down.” They’re especially tender in the middle while still managing to hold together. The key, however, is finding good lard, which Council can do since she sources hers from her best friend’s barbecue spot.
If you’re struggling to get a tender biscuit, the answer is almost always more fat and less moisture. And don’t forget that fat can come from your liquid: The cream biscuit recipe below, from Cook’s Illustrated, is one example of how well it can work on its own.
For the last touch of richness and flavor, consider brushing melted butter on your biscuits. Brushing before baking gave me a darker color and crisper texture on top. My tasters and I decided we liked a coating of melted butter as soon as the biscuits came out of the oven. I used salted butter for something one taster deemed “the Popeyes effect.”
As with all baking, the management of temperature is key. Right from the beginning.
Cool ingredients. If the butter starts to melt as you’re mixing the dough, water moves into the flour, forming gluten. The goal is to keep the butter as cold as possible before the dough goes into the oven, so try refrigerating your dry ingredients and butter. When the butter melts in the oven, it gives off steam that creates flake and lifts.
Chill the dough. Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley of Washington tavern St. Anselm has earned a cult following for her tall, flaky biscuits. She refrigerates her dough — which is made with frozen, grated butter — several times, between the folds she executes for guaranteed layers (more on that below). I tried it with 20- to 30-minute rests in the fridge, which gave me dramatic layers.
Hot oven. With a relatively short bake time, a hot oven gives you an initial blast that activates the leavener (double-acting baking powder starts working when exposed to liquid and heat) and quickly melts the butter to create steam. For Philip, a hot oven is 425 degrees. For the Cook’s Illustrated cream biscuit recipe, it’s 450. For Douglas’s uber-buttery version, it’s 475.
Even out the heat. Avoid scorching the bottoms of the biscuits by baking on a lined sheet in the upper third of the oven. Knowing whether your oven has hot or cool spots is helpful, but you can make up for them by rotating the sheet from front to back during baking. And use the convection feature if you have one. The fan circulates hot air, helping you achieve an even bake.
Know when the biscuits are done. Look at the color. Philip wants to see a golden top, and signs of browning on the bottom and sides of the biscuits. Browning means better flavor. “You need to have the kiss of the oven,” he says.
Techniques and tips
How you form and arrange your biscuits has as much impact as what you put in them.
Flaky or fluffy? If your goal is flaky, then folding your dough, as you would in puff pastry, is the way to go. Council starts by cutting her dough square into thirds so she can stack it and create immediate layers before she proceeds with a few rounds of folds. If you prefer a fluffy, craggy biscuit that you can tear apart and treat more like a dinner roll, try a drop biscuit.
Building height. In addition to folded layers and a hot oven, baking the biscuits closer together can make them taller, because as they share heat, it enhances the steam effect. When I tried this with the biscuits a finger-width apart, I got a more dramatic rise and more consistent color on top than with batches with more space between them. The tradeoff: less browning on the edges and a texture that’s more steamed than flaky. (Cathead biscuits, baked so they bump into one another, are the epitome of this method.)
Clean cuts. The sharp edges of your chef’s knife, bench scraper or biscuit cutter and a straight-down (no twisting!) cutting motion contribute to tall biscuits. As you can see above, rotating my cutter caused the layers to lose their definition, leading to a squatter biscuit.
Follow a recipe first. “Make sure that what you’re doing is a solid representation of a solid recipe,” Philip says, and then design your perfect biscuit. People who have been making biscuits for decades, like Dupree, have the knowledge and muscle memory to literally pour out flour and cream without measuring exact amounts and end up with a beautiful result. The rest of us at least need to start with known quantities (preferably measured by weight) and some guidance.
No matter how you get there, everyone agrees: Biscuits are best eaten warm out of the oven.
“Biscuits should be a daily thing,” says Philip. “It’s that thing that should be made at the minute by the person there. You’re capturing a moment with a biscuit.”
Now is the time for you to seize that moment.