How to Make Better Buttermilk BiscuitsWednesday, January 13, 2016
I'm excited to share the long awaited update to my original buttermilk biscuits recipe (still one of my most popular posts today!) It's been almost exactly two years since I first documented my adventures in biscuit making. I've not ashamed to say that I've been putting in tons more practice since then, although my thighs might disagree. Biscuits are up there with pie crusts as far as baking fears for most people. There's something elusive about mixing flour, butter and milk and hoping to end up with light, flaky towering rounds of tender bread. What I've learned is that the biscuit making process is more intuitive than it is precise. The ingredients matter but it's more important to feel your way through each step of the recipe. A good biscuit dough will feel soft and light in your hands. You might not get it the first time, or even the third, but the more often you bake biscuits, it gets easier to know what to expect. That said, I'm proud to report that plenty of my readers have nailed the buttermilk biscuit recipe on their first attempt!
I won't be repeating most of the nitty gritty details here, so if you've never made biscuits the original tutorial is the best place to start. Instead, I'd like to zero in on what I've learned makes a better buttermilk biscuit:
- Soft Winter Wheat Flour. This type of flour has a low protein content and is ideal for tender biscuits. White Lily is still my #1 choice for biscuits. You can buy it on Amazon if it's not available in your local store. My new discovery is Italian type "00" pasta flour which is now my official recommendation as a substitute; just read the label to make sure it's soft winter wheat. It's a little more expensive but might save you the wait on shipping. In a pinch, my old recommendation to sub a 50/50 blend of cake flour and regular all purpose flour will still work. (Feel free to read that in the shadiest of Ina Garten voices.) Whatever you use, make sure it's not self-rising since this recipe calls for baking powder and baking soda separately.
- Fresh baking powder and baking soda. I'm super diligent about tossing cans/boxes after the expiration date. This is typically six months for baking powder and one month for baking soda, unless otherwise indicated. Even if that box of baking soda is still full, it's lost a lot of its leavening power after sitting open in your pantry for a couple months. If your biscuits are a little flat, that's the first place to look.
- Salted butter. This one's not a deal breaker, but I usually get salted butter for my biscuits and pie crusts nowadays. It gives the biscuit a slight edge on seasoning. If all I have is unsalted, I'll just add an extra pinch of salt. One thing you shouldn't compromise is buying good quality, European style butter which has a higher fat content and is way more flavorful. Buy a few blocks when they're on sale and store them in your freezer.
- A blend of buttermilk and heavy cream. When I first started making biscuits, the buttermilk available to me had a pretty high fat content. It wasn't until I moved that I realized most commercial buttermilks are low in fat. I started adding heavy cream to my liquid mix to make up for the difference, and the result was a richer, more flavorful biscuit.
- Add an egg. This revelation came after I worked on my pie dough recipe, which has an egg added for tenderness and flavor. It does the same for biscuits, and they rise a little higher too. I also adopted an egg wash to brush the tops of my biscuits for a pretty, golden crust.
- Make a bigger batch. Most traditional recipes are based on two cups of flour. I found that starting with three cups of flour as my base made it easier to cut out a full batch of decent sized biscuits before resorting to scraps (which are never the "perfect" biscuits.) With an egg and heavy cream added to the liquid mix, it also just made more sense to increase the flour rather than reduce the buttermilk.
- Rest the dough. Again, a lesson learned from pie crust making. A twenty to thirty minute rest in the fridge gives the dough time to develop. The butter firms up again, the flour has a chance to fully hydrate, and any gluten formed from working the dough has time to relax.
- Bake at a higher temperature. 500°F is the magic number for the tallest biscuits. You really want that initial burst of heat to do its work before the butter starts to melt, so the high oven temperature is pretty critical. The only time I bake at a lower temp is when I'm making flavored biscuits with sugar, cheese or other add-ins that might burn too fast.
- Freeze and bake. Biscuits are best served freshly baked, but you can prep them ahead of time if necessary. After cutting the biscuits out and brushing with egg wash, freeze them on your lined baking sheet until they're solid (a couple hours, usually.) You can then transfer the biscuits to a freezer safe bag. When you're ready to bake, don't thaw the frozen biscuits. Simply arrange them back on a baking sheet and pop them into a preheated oven.
Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
Yield: 8 to 10 (2 1/2" biscuits)
Special Equipment: Heavy baking sheet, parchment paper or silicone pan liner, biscuit cutter, dough scraper, hand or box grater, pastry brush
Meanwhile, whisk together the buttermilk, heavy cream and egg. (Reserve the additional yolk for the egg wash.)
Pour the buttermilk mixture over the dry ingredients and fold gently to combine. You're looking for a shaggy dough. You might still see a lot of flour - that can be adjusted in the next step.
Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. I used a lined baking sheet since it makes for easy clean up, and can be transferred in and out of the fridge easily. Knead the dough just a few times until it comes together, adding an extra splash of buttermilk or cream if it's still crumbly. Pack it together and cover with plastic. Chill for twenty to thirty minutes.
I have forgotten about my biscuit dough for a good portion of the day and it was still fine when I got around to finishing.
This step is best illustrated by the video tutorial above - I didn't get great pictures. It's the same folding of the dough detailed in my original post though.
With floured hands, press the dough out flat and then fold it onto itself a few times. This creates layers in the baked biscuit. Press the dough back down and form into a wedge about 1" thick. Use a floured biscuit cutter to cut out the biscuits. Press down and straight up when using biscuit cutters; never twist it as this seals the layers and prevents them from rising as high. Transfer the biscuits to a lined baking sheet. You can gather the scraps back up to get an extra couple biscuits; they often won't be as pretty or tender as the first batch but still fine to serve.
Whisk the egg yolk with a couple teaspoons of water or cream to make an egg wash. Brush the tops of the biscuit. Bake on the center rack of your oven at 500° F for 12 to 15 minutes, until biscuits have risen and are crusty and golden brown.
As soon as they come out of the oven, brush the baked biscuits with melted butter before serving! My favorite way to enjoy a biscuit is for an egg sandwich. Gotta have the runny yolk for dipping!
If you're not tied to having round biscuits, you can just cut the dough into squares and then you won't need to mess with scraps. The picture below is a version I did with goat's milk, thyme and black pepper for Thanksgiving dinner! Have fun experimenting with variations. It's pretty easy to mix herbs or shredded cheese into the flour after cutting in the butter. Sweetening the dough and adding dried fruit or chocolate chips will make some damn good scones. You can also play around with different milks and creams, especially if you can't find buttermilk - sour cream and creme fraiche both work well. Just remember, practice makes perfect biscuits. Let me know how yours turn out!
Final note. These biscuits are known to result in pregnancy shortly after consumption. Don't say my own Biscuit didn't warn you!