Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Southern Biscuits

There's some notion that biscuit making is some sort of magic.  I'm here to state that it very much is NOT.  I have no hard and fast biscuit recipe.  It is more a series of rules to follow.  Most southern cookbooks do not include biscuit recipes that will result in a classic 'southern' biscuit.  Those who bake them well were usually taught at the knee of someone else and learn to do it by feel.  This is the version of the 'recipe' that helped me to get started, along with the 'secrets' of making a perfect biscuit.

Like anything else that you do, you need to make a few batches of them for practice sake, and at a certain point, it will both feel right and the biscuits will be amazing... then, you'll have it.

You always start with soft winter wheat flour.
Now, I know that sounds picky, but this is the biggest secret, according to my 'little old ladies'.  Locally, it is  sold as Southern Biscuit (duh!) brand flour, manufactured in North Carolina.  Adluh brand is manufactured in South Carolina.  The bag doesn't say that it is soft winter wheat, I guess that is one of the things that gets passed down.  A small amount of query (send an email to the company that manufactures wheat flour in your area) will tell you what companies sell the soft winter wheat.  It's worth the extra effort to find out.
Under extreme conditions, I have, indeed, baked biscuits with other types of flour, with edible, but less than stellar results.

I use self rising flour, always.  You get to skip the step of adding salt, soda and powder.  Southern Biscuit self rising is perfect... why mess with perfect?

I use whole fat buttermilk... not skim milk buttermilk.  You're not going to bake biscuits everyday, nor are you going to use them as health food... they're comfort food, plain and simple.  I use whatever brand buttermilk that I can get the full fat version of.  At most stores, when you search around among the fat free versions, you're only gonna find one full fat type... just buy that one.

Crisco - all vegetable shortening... don't try any other type... just don't do it.  This produces a light, flaky, perfect biscuit.  I have tried a butter version (yummy, but heavy) and knock off brands of shortening (ugh!).
Just buy the Crisco.

The single most important factor in biscuit making is speed, speed, speed!  Biscuit making should take less than 5 minutes, 3 minutes is even better.  When the milk hits the leavening in the flour, things start to work.  You do not want the working going on out on your table, you want it happening in the oven.  Friends and family who have their lessons, hands on, around my table, sometimes sit with their mouths open.  I have had to repeat the process.  It should be very, very, fast.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Totally preheated... no waiting once the milk is in the dough.

Get everything ready on the table:

Flour, Crisco (all vegetable shortening), buttermilk, rolling, cutting surface (I use a large washable cutting board), pan, biscuit cutter.

Warning - Another thing that drives some folks wild is the amount of mess I make,,, biscuit making is NOT neat.  I fling flour everywhere!  I use a large, plastic 1/2 inch thick cutting board and when I'm done, flour extends three feet in each direction.  Perhaps there is a neat version of this, but I simply can't do it that way.  With the speed required and the need to keep things from sticking, you end up with flour everywhere.
When all is done, I get out the little hand vacuum.  Noone in my family has died of excess flour in all of my years of baking biscuits.  If a little flying flour is more than you can handle, simply do NOT attempt biscuit baking.  Don't do it!

Now, you've preheated the stove.  Seriously, make sure it's up to temperature before you do anything else.  I normally turn the stove on, gather supplies and do some other small chore while waiting for the oven to heat.
I use a double layer (insulated) cookie sheet, ungreased.  It should be sitting there, within a hands reach of the rolling surface.  Do not use a pan with sides on it.  The biscuits will fail to brown evenly and will not cook well.

The following amounts should only be a guide to get you started.  I NEVER measure the amounts, but pour flour from the bag, spoon Crisco from the can and pour the milk from the carton till things look right.
After two or three batches using the following 'suggestions', that is what you'll do too.  You'll simply feel and know when it is right.

Into a large bowl, put:
2 to 2 1/2 cups of self-rising flour
1/2 cup of Crisco

Cut the shortening into the self rising flour, either with a pastry cutter, or with two knives, or forks, until you have an even texture, all nice and crumbly.  This take a  little practice... you don't want chunks of Crisco, you want small even sized pieces, no larger than a small pea.

Now, get ready....  Put a handful of flour on the cutting board.

Stir 3/4 to 1 cup of buttermilk into the flour mixture QUICKLY!  Act as though the house is on fire...
Start with the 3/4 cup of milk.  Your mixture will be sticky... very, very sticky.  If it isn't sticky, add more buttermilk.  Do not stir this mixture more than a few times, just get it quickly mixed together.

Pour this mixture out, quickly!!! onto the flour that is waiting on the cutting board.  Toss another handful (2 to three tablespoons) of flour on top of the sticky dough mixture.  Very, very quickly!

This is when you use your nice clean hands.  ONLY hands will work, do not try to do this with any kitchen implements.  You'll be facing a round blob of dough.  Kneading consists of grabbing the top side of the dough, farther from you, and lifting and folding it back onto it self.  I do this with my fingers.  Then you take the  back part of your hand, nearest your wrist, and applying gentle pressure, you press forward on the dough, thus making a 'layer'.

Knead this mixture about 5 or 6 times.  You do NOT want to knead like you are making yeast bread, as this will make flat, hard biscutis.  Just make sure that stuff is mixed together.  5 or 6 good folds onto itself will result in nice, flaky, high rising biscuits.  Done properly, you'll see the layers in the finished product. You may have to fling some flour onto this at every other turn or so.

Do not answer the phone or the door.
Do not allow your spouse to hug on you at this point!
If children or animals get in the way, flour them quickly... they'll be aggravated and leave!

Pat this dough flat, or if you can't pat things evenly, use a rolling pin or a large drinking glass, well floured and turned on it's side.  Use plenty of flour to keep things from sticking. I, personally, employ the pat method, less compacting of the dough,makes for pretty flaky layers and is simply one less thing to wash. (You have been reading about all this flour flinging , right?)  You want an even layer of dough, about as thick as the first knuckle on your thumb! I'm not kidding.... Roughly 3/4 to 1 inch thick.

Use a cutter to quickly cut out the biscuits.  If you don't have a biscuit cutter, use a drinking glass.  Flour the cutter or glass, a LOT.  Dip the cutter into flour before the first cut, and every other cut after that.  I use a biscuit cutter about 2 1/2 inches round.  I have several, as they like to hide from me.  After purchasing about three cutters, I can usually find one when I'm setting up to do biscuits.  I actually have a hook, over the sink, where I attempt to keep the cutters.  Cut the biscuits straight up and down... no sideways entry into the dough and NO twisting the cutter... these actions will result in sideways, crooked and flat biscuits.  Up and down, quickly!

From the first cutting, put the biscuits on the pan.  Quickly.

Quickly, re roll the scraps and cut more biscuits.  These 'second string' biscuits will be a little 'height deprived.
Teenagers and hungry men will not notice.  "Second string biscuits' are also nice the next morning, split, buttered and toasted brown...


Put the sheet pan with the biscuits int he mdidle of the oven, and bake 14 to 18 minutes.  The first time, you'll have to keep an eye on them, thereafter you will know how many minutes it takes your oven.  They should be lightly browned and nicely risen.  I brush mine with melted butter when they come out of the oven.

While the biscuits are in the oven, clean up the flour!

Now for a bit of 'old wives superstition concerning biscuit making.  You must fling the last small amount of dough (leftovers after the second rolling) out the back door!  It harkens to the days of having chickens wandering about the back yard (oh, wait... we still do).  I must admit that my dogs also eagerly await the biscuit UFO flying from the door.  The superstition is that the biscuits (in the oven) will not rise properly if you don't do this.  I do either put the leftover scraps in the chicken bucket, or fling it to the dog (especially any tail waging, grinning creature).  I do NOT do this when I make biscuits at the beach, as the neighbors would probably object.

Also, note,,, that if there are small children in the house, they will LOVE to play with the leftover dough. In addition to making further delightful mess, they will be LEARNING what biscuit dough should feel like.
They will also be certain that you love them, as you're letting them make this mess and you're smiling at the same time.  We have many, many mornings cooked a second pan of 'snakes, snails and bugs' or hearts and butterflies.  These will be crunchy brown 'biscuit' bites and produce happy children who will later be confidant, enthusiastic cooks.

Take the time... you're cleaning up flour anyway...

Go ahead... give it a try... and let me know how it goes.


  1. tThey look delicious!

  2. Wow! I am tired just reading. I think the key is quickly! B does not do it quickly, I will suggest this to him. :)

  3. LOL! I wish I'd read this before I made biscuits this morning. They turn out great, but next time, I'll use your tips and see how much better they can be.

    Your "DO NOT answer the phone or the door!" made me laugh out loud.

    I hope you have a great weekend. :)