Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Baking Powder Biscuits

Baking Powder Biscuits on plate with butter, jam, and grapes

Great Weekend Fare, Wonderful for Thanksgiving

Biscuits are quick to make and supremely satisfying to eat, particularly when gobbled hot from the oven. 

They are also part of American history.  In the early colonial days, homes often lacked ovens suitable for bread making, so “quick breads” like biscuits were popular, and would sometimes be baked fresh for each meal.  In many households today, they’re a Thanksgiving tradition.

This recipe calls for just a few pantry staples:  flour, baking powder, butter or shortening, and sweet milk.  No buttermilk needed (it makes great biscuits, but most of us don’t have it in the refrigerator).

And the best thing about this recipe?  You can be eating biscuits in under 30 minutes from now!


Baking Powder Biscuits on plate with butter, jam, and grapes

Recipe:  Baking Powder Biscuits

For most of us these days, biscuit making is a fairly rare event, so we may have little practice with them.  When we do get around to making a batch, they often turn out flat and dense (as in hardtack).

Achieving light and airy biscuits is more about technique and “touch” than following a recipe.  The tricky part of biscuit making is to incorporate the fat and liquid into the flour so it just forms a dough that holds together enough to be shaped and cut into biscuits.  You don’t want to work it more than that.  The less you handle the dough, the softer the texture and the higher the rise of the baked biscuit.

Fat in the form of lard, shortening, or butter is a necessity in biscuits.  Fat helps tenderize the dough (by preventing gluten formation in the flour).  It also adds flavor (particularly if you use butter).  And because the fat is “cut into” the dough, it retains a distinct texture (sort of a granularity).  This texture allows spaces to form between dough layers and promotes “flakiness.” 

You can cut the fat into the flour with a food processor, by hand, or using a mixer.  Most of us will probably get the best results using a food processor, so I detail that method below.  In the Notes, I also discuss how to make biscuits by hand or with a mixer.

Most biscuit recipes are fairly similar, and every good general cookbook has one.  My recipe is adapted from the one on the back of the Clabber Girl Baking Powder can.  Don’t laugh — it’s a good recipe.  It yields about 12 biscuits (depending on how big you cut them). 

Containers of Clabber Girl and Argo Baking Powder
Two Common Baking Powders
Ingredients
  • 2 cups unbleached white all-purpose flour (you’ll get better results if you chill your flour in the refrigerator for half an hour or so; see Notes)
  • 2½ teaspoons baking powder (make sure it hasn’t expired; see Notes)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ~1/3 cup chilled or frozen butter or shortening or a combination of the two (1/3 cup is 5 tablespoons plus about 1 teaspoon – you can use 5 or 6 tablespoons if you prefer; see Notes for more information on combining butter and shortening)
  • ~¾ cup milk (whole is great but skim works; may need a bit more or less; see step 5 in Procedure)
Cutting butter into small chunks for biscuit dough
Cutting Butter into Small Pieces
Procedure
  1. Preheat oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt to the bowl of a food processor, and pulse several times to mix.  Baking powder is most effective if it is thoroughly mixed with flour, so take time to do this step.
  3. Remove butter and/or shortening from the refrigerator or freezer, and cut it into small pieces about the size of marbles.  When using sticks of butter, I usually slice lengthwise, then cut the strips into pieces of a bit less than ½-inch each.
  4. Add butter and/or shortening to food processor and pulse until the butter and/or shortening has become granular (the mixture will look somewhat like cornmeal).  It’s OK if a few pieces of butter or shortening have not broken down (see picture below for dough with some largish lumps of butter in the dough).
  5. Dump the mixture into a bowl.  Add most of the ¾ cup of milk all at once into the center of the flour mixture, and stir with a spoon until the dough forms a mass and pulls away from the side of the bowl and just holds together.  (I often use my impeccably washed hands to combine the dough rather than bother with a spoon.)  Add a bit more milk if necessary until you have a dough that just holds together.
  6. Dump the dough onto a countertop or work board.  You can lightly flour the work surface if you wish to prevent sticking, but usually I don’t find this necessary.  Using your hands, gently knead the dough – no more than 30 seconds! – in order to shape it into a square or rectangle about ½-inch thick (if you like “taller” biscuits, you can form the dough a bit thicker).  Your goal is to handle the dough only as much as it takes to get it to stick together so that you can cut biscuits from it.
  7. Cut biscuits into squares using a sharp knife (if you want to use a circular biscuit cutter, you can do so; see Notes).  Place biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet, or a baking sheet covered with a silicone baking mat.  Biscuits spaced closely together tend to be a little softer than those with more space between them.  Experiment and see which you prefer. 
  8. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until done. 
  9. While still warm, enjoy with butter, jam, or preserves.
Biscuit dough rolled out and ready to cut into biscuits
Dough ready to be cut into biscuits.

Notes
  • It’s easier to get good results in mixing and forming your biscuits if all your ingredients are cold.  I suggest you freeze your butter and/or shortening, and even considering chilling your flour in the refrigerator for half an hour before you begin making biscuits.
  • I like the taste of butter in my biscuits, so I usually use all butter, with no other shortening.  I do lose some flakiness and tenderness, however.  Most people like to use some shortening in their biscuits because the texture is better.  If that’s you, I suggest using half butter and half shortening when you mix your biscuits.
  • Although good lard makes great biscuits, good lard is hard to find.  Unless you have a source of quality lard, I’d stick to butter or shortening.
  • For shortening, I really like Crisco sticks, which make measuring much easier.
  • I’ve just begun experimenting with Crisco’s butter-flavored shortening, and thus far I’m impressed with its flavor.  But more research is needed.  In the future, I may try omitting the butter and just use all butter-flavored shortening in my biscuits.
  • Shortening is all fat.  Butter is only 80% fat (or a bit more if you use European-style butter); the rest is water, which vaporizes when the biscuits are baked.  This vaporization helps produce a higher, fluffier biscuit.
  • But most of rise you get in biscuits comes from the baking powder.  Baking powder does become weaker over time (and most baking powder tins have an expiration date).  So replace your baking powder when necessary.  I usually replace mine once a year, when daylight savings time ends (so I remember to do it).
  • It’s a good idea to shake your baking powder before using it to make sure all its components are well mixed.  Baking powder consists of baking soda, an acidic ingredient (which reacts with the baking soda to produce leavening), and a neutral substance (usually corn starch) to provide bulk. 
  • Common brands of baking powder include Clabber Girl, Calumet, Rumford, and Argo.  They all work, though in the past I’ve tended to favor Clabber Girl. At the moment I’m using Argo. Debra Wink has a post on The Fresh Loaf that convinced me Argo is worth trying. Thus far I’ve been pleased with it.
  • The whole science of how/why baking powder works is rather interesting and probably worth a post of its own, but I won’t inflict that on you now. Shirley Corriher has a terrific discussion on baking powder (and all things baking-related) in BakeWise. Well worth reading. 
  • By the way, many biscuit recipes call for 2 teaspoons of baking powder for each cup of flour.  Corriher convincingly argues that the proper amount is 1 to 1¼ teaspoon per cup of flour.  It turns out that too much baking powder doesn’t actually make the biscuits rise any higher — and in fact many prevent them from rising as high as they would with a lesser quantity of baking powder.
  • If you bake a lot of biscuits, you might want to consider using self-rising flour.  Self-rising flour has the leavening ingredients and salt added, so if you use it you can start at step 3 in Procedure.  Manufacturers can tailor their leavening ingredients (baking soda and acidic activator) to the quality of their flour, so you’ll get a better rise with self-rising flour.  And it’s easier to use.  You can also use it for dumplings and pancakes.
  • My recipe calls for all-purpose flour because I want the list of ingredients to include only pantry staples.  A softer flour (one with less protein, thus one that forms less gluten) actually produces a superior biscuit.  In the South (where biscuits are eaten more frequently than in other parts of the country), the flour almost universally used for biscuits is White Lily.  I’ve used White Lily, and it’s terrific.  Unfortunately, its distribution is somewhat regional, so your grocery store may not carry it.  If you can find it, you might want to try it (but don’t use it for bread; it doesn’t have enough protein).
  • White Lily’s Self-Rising Flour has a biscuit recipe on the back of the package that’s good and that works well.
  • I recommend using a food processor for cutting the fat into the flour because it does the job quickly and thoroughly, and the fat doesn’t have time to start softening or melting.  If you prefer to cut the fat in by hand, then use refrigerated (not frozen) fat for step 4 (it’s easier to work with by hand).  Use a fork (or pastry blender) and work the fat into the flour until it’s granular and resembles corn meal.  Then proceed with the rest of the recipe.
  • Some people prefer to make their biscuit dough in a stand mixer (Mrs. Kitchen Riffs does).  If you elect to use a mixer, add frozen fat to the flour in step 4.  Mix on “stir” speed for 30 seconds or so until the fat is just cut in.  Be careful not to over mix!
  • I like square biscuits, so I use a knife to cut them.  Easy, fast, effective.  Plus with a sharp knife (press straight down, and firmly) you don’t worry about crimping the edges of the biscuits, which could impede their rise in the oven. 
  • If you prefer to use a circular biscuit cutter, dip the cutter into flour each time before you plunge the cutter into the dough.  Make a clean cut, twist the cutter slightly, then pull straight up to remove it.  You can piece the extra bits of dough together to make more biscuits.
  • If the fussy handling of the dough and cutting out of biscuits is more than you want to tackle, consider drop biscuits. You could make the drop biscuit recipe from the post about Easy Peach Cobbler. Instead of dropping the biscuits onto cobbler, drop them onto baking sheets (ungreased, or with a silicone baking liner) and bake for 12 – 15 minutes at 475 degrees. Drop biscuits have great flavor and are the easiest biscuit you can make. 
Baking Powder Biscuits on plate with butter, jam, and grapes

Thanksgiving Tradition

Biscuits were never a daily staple when I was growing up.  They only appeared on the table at holidays, especially Thanksgiving.  In fact, I’ve eaten biscuits on Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember. 

When I was younger, we usually consumed biscuits with the rest of the Thanksgiving feast.  In recent years, however, our capacity for gluttony has diminished at the Kitchen Riffs household.  So to cut down on the number of dishes we feel compelled to consume at dinner, we generally forgo a bread course.  Instead, Mrs. Kitchen Riffs bakes biscuits for breakfast on Thanksgiving morning (she’s the primo biscuit baker in our household).  Biscuits are natural breakfast fare, so it works out well.

This year we’re celebrating Thanksgiving at my younger sister’s, though.  The family expects biscuits with dinner, and Mrs. Kitchen Riffs has already announced that she’ll be happy to provide them.

Of course, she’ll probably make them for breakfast too, since that’s now become our household version of the tradition.  So I’ll wind up having double biscuits.

Not that I’m complaining.  Overeating is also a Thanksgiving tradition, after all.

You may also enjoy reading about:

Peach Cobbler with Drop Biscuits
Homemade Pasta and Noodles
Homemade Croutons
Sweet Potato Soup

13 comments:

  1. Ohhhhh-I just love biscuits. And I am still obsessed with your photos. But I will try to give up that obsession for the moment just to go make biscuits. Yum!

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  2. Hi Abbe, thanks for the compliment! And, yes, definitely make some biscuits - they're so good hot and fresh from the oven! Thanks for commenting.

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  3. Hi Russell, thanks! They were wonderful! Thanks for stopping by.

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  4. Great information and so detailed. In our house it's become tradition to make popovers on Thanksgiving. Your biscuits though look like they could become a new tradition in our house if I made them. They look delicious.

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  5. My bowl runneth over -
    biscuits for all!
    Give thanks to the Kitchen!
    Now bring on the chow.

    I lick the platter
    clean.

    Your Friend (for life),
    Beethoven

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  6. @Vicki, popovers sounds great too. We haven't made those for quite awhile; will have to do again, soon. Biggest problem with biscuits, for me, is they're like potato chips - you can't have just one! Thanks for your comment.

    @Beethoven, always amusing when you stop by! "I lick the platter clean" could easily be my motto, too. Hope you enjoyed the biscuits! Thanks.

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  7. Your biscuits look delicious, and I love all the helpful advice you've given!

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  8. Hi Beth, thanks for the compliment! The biscuits are delicious, if I do say so myself. Thanks for taking time to comment.

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  9. I love the history behind these biscuits! This post is so informative, as always. I will have to try these - I have all the ingredients on hand so there's really no excuse! Great recipe, thanks for sharing it!

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  10. Hi Katherine, thanks for your kind words! If you try them let me know how you like them. They're easy to make, but kneading and patting the dough into shape does take "touch". As in, it's easy to over-handle the dough. Less is better with this recipe. But if you do over-handle it, no worries - the biscuits will still taste great, just won't rise as much. Thanks for stopping by.

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  11. Thank you so much for all your helpful hints! I've gotten in the mood for learning how to make good biscuits this week. Made two batches so far and both were very good and light with a good flavor but I was missing the airyness about them. I have realized my mistake. All my ingredients, sans buttermilk, were warm. Luckily White Lilly flour is sold just around the corner from me so I'm lucky there. I'll post back again and let you know how it goes. :)

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  12. Hi Vanessa, thanks for the kind words! Do let us know how White Lily works for you - I really like it a lot. Airy biscuits can be somewhat elusive. The less you handle the biscuit dough, the better. I haven't done it, but when you put your biscuits on the baking sheet you might want to place them so they actually touch. This may make them more airy - worth a try. Thanks for commenting.

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