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Recipes and Stories

26 November 2014: Mastering Thanksgiving X—The Art of the Biscuit

The secret to perfect biscuits is just like getting to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice, and making them for dressing is the perfect time to do it.

The other key ingredient in my family’s cornbread dressing is actually another kind of bread altogether: biscuits. They give the dressing body and help bind it together without having to add eggs, which can sometimes make dressing a bit heavy.

Unfortunately, few home cooks seem to make biscuits very often, which is too bad. Because once one gets the knack, they’re drop-dead easy, and serving forth a basket of delicate, piping hot biscuits never fails to impress company. They always think you’ve gone to a lot more trouble than you actually have.

A lot of people are afraid of making them, but it’s really a simple bread that requires only a light hand and practice. Nathalie Dupree, the doyenne of Southern cooking and author of Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking, sums it up best:

“I’m giving you permission,” she tells her cooking students, “to spend a few dollars on a bag of flour and carton of buttermilk. Take them into your kitchen and lock the door: nobody needs to know what you’re doing in there. And then just practice until it’s second nature.”

You have my permission, too, and fortunately, making biscuits for dressing/stuffing is excellent practice, because it doesn’t matter if they look perfect: you’re going to tear them up anyway.

To make about 12-15 Fluffy Buttermilk Biscuits, you will need

2 cups Southern soft-wheat flour (such as White Lily) or all purpose flour (see notes on ingredients)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons chilled lard (or if you must, vegetable shortening — see notes on ingredients), cut into small bits
¾-1 cup whole-milk buttermilk (see notes on ingredients)
1-2 tablespoons melted butter or milk, optional (see step 7)

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 450-to-500° F. (see A Note on Ovens, below). Sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl.

2. Add the lard and cut it in with a pastry blender or 2 knives until it’s the texture of grits or polenta meal with lumps the size of small peas. Do not over-blend; small lumps of shortening are what make biscuits flaky.

3. Make a well in the center and pour in most of the buttermilk (you may not need quite all of it; a lot depends on the moisture content of the flour, the humidity of the day, and how good you have been. Biscuits are very judgmental). Mix with as few strokes as possible until the dough clumps together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl, adding milk by the spoonful until the dough is no longer crumbly. I use my hands for this so I can feel the dough.

4. Turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface and pat out 1-inch thick. Fold it in half and pat it flat again. Repeat this three or four times, then lightly flour the surface and roll or pat it out ½-to-¾-inch thick. Don’t make too many folds or they’ll actually rise too much and look lopsided, but you’ll need enough folds so that they will split cleanly when torn apart.

5. Using a 2-inch biscuit cutter dipped in flour before each cut, cut straight down without twisting into 12 biscuits. When cutting at the edges, be sure that there is a cut side all the way around the biscuits or they won’t rise evenly. Lay them on an un-greased baking sheet; for very light, fluffy biscuits with soft edges, let them on touch; for crisper biscuits (the kind I prefer and the ones you want for dressing), space them at least half an inch apart.

6. There will be left over scraps: rework by lightly gathering them into a lump, gently fold it over itself and pat flat. Pat and fold as before about 3 times, just until the scraps hold together, then pat it out 1/2-to-3/4-inch thick and cut.

7. To help the tops brown, you may brush them with milk or melted butter. I never bother with this, but you may do it if you like.

8. Bake until they’re risen and golden brown on top, about 8 to 10 minutes. Serve piping hot, passing butter, jam, and jelly, chutney butter, or stuffed with thinly sliced cooked ham, country ham, prosciutto, extra-thick-cut bacon, fried sausage patties, split and browned smoked sausage, chicken-fried steak, fried pork tenderloin medallions, or thinly-sliced roasted pork tenderloin.

Biscuits can be served at room temperature when they are stuffed with any of the suggested fillings (although fried tenderloin is best hot), or when served as shortcakes filled with sugared berries (or sliced fruit such as peaches or plums) and whipped cream.

A Note on Ovens: One of the most amusing moments in my career as a food writer was the evening a woman came up and told me that she thought cooking had come into its own in the last half-century because of “reliable ovens and such.” Ah, if only our ovens were reliable. Their thermostats vary in levels of accuracy and their steel walls don’t hold and radiate heat evenly. In short, most of them are not reliable: they have hot and cold spots and can and will vary in actual temperature from the thermostat’s reading by as much as 75 degrees.
In other words, get to know your oven: if it runs hot, or if you’re using a convection setting (which does help even things out), cut the temperature to 450 or even 425.

Notes on Ingredients:

Flour: It is axiomatic that low-gluten flour made with soft winter wheat makes the lightest and fluffiest biscuits, but success really depends more on sound technique than ingredients. That said, the flour does make a difference. If you’re using “all-purpose” flour that’s not a Southern brand specifically made from soft winter wheat, take up a handful and squeeze your hand into a fist. Open your hand, palm up. If the flour holds together with the imprint of your fingers, it’ll make good biscuits. If it crumbles and doesn’t hold its shape, however, it won’t, so don’t use it.

Unless you bake often, self-rising flour is a waste of money: it will go stale long before you can use it up. And besides, it’s usually over-leavened so that it often lends a harsh, bitter aftertaste to baked goods – a taste that can only be counterbalanced with sugar.

And speaking of sugar: unless you are making shortcakes that will be filled with sweetened fruit, sugar has no place in biscuits. FORGET IT.

Buttermilk: use an all-natural, whole-milk buttermilk such as that from Southern Swiss Dairy. If you can’t get that, use whole milk yogurt or kefir thinned to buttermilk consistency with water or milk.

Fat: If you can get good-quality lard (rendered pork fat), that’s the best thing to use. Vegetable shortening will make acceptable biscuits if you have no other choice. While you can actually make good biscuits with quality butter, the results are never as light and delicate as lard or shortening.

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