The Fine Art of Making Buttermilk Biscuits
Although not really a dessert, good ole Southern Buttermilk Biscuits are frequently the basis for a favorite Summer confection known as Strawberry Shortcake. Make a batch of these biscuits, split in half, spread just a tad of homemade strawberry jam over the cut sides, then spoon over gobs of fresh strawberries. Top with a dollop of fresh whipped cream, and (as my fiance’ would add) it will make you want to slap your granny!
Biscuits appear to be the simplest of all breads to make, but they are anything but. Made merely from a mixture of flour, leavening (baking powder or soda), salt, fat (usually butter), and liquid (buttermilk or cream), there are strict rules to follow to provide the tender, moist, smooth, airy, delicious confections our grandmothers made.
Topping that list of rules is to keep everything COLD, just like pie crust. Freeze your butter. No kidding. If you have a food processor, great. Cut up the butter into 1/4 inch pieces and add to your dry ingreadients, pulsing 8 or 10 times until the butter is evenly mixed. OR, do it the old-fashioned way: get out a box grater. Put your dry ingredients into a large bowl (chill the dry stuff first) and rub the frozen butter against the large holes in the grater placed over the bowl with the dry ingredients. Using your fingertips (not hands), quickly “rub” the pieces of butter into the dry stuff. Then pop back into the freezer again to rechill. Little visible bits of butter are great for biscuits, so don’t worry that the butter must be perfectly incorporated.
And understand you will end up with a soft, slightly sticky dough. The wet dough will create steam when the biscuits bake and this steam will ensure a light, airy texture.
The reason for chilling is simple. If the fat (butter) softenes and binds with the dry ingredients during rubbing, it will form a pasty goo. The spaces between the flour particles collapse and the biscuits become as heavy as lead. Chilling is the secret to preventing this.
After rubbing in the butter, buttermilk is added and the dough is stirred just until the ingredients are bound together. You’re trying NOT to create gluten here.
A word about flour here. The very best biscuits are made using equal parts of all purpose flour and cake flour. If you don’t have cake flour on hand, substitute all purpose flour, but increase the buttermilk by 2 tablespoons.
Finally, biscuits need quick heat to cook properly. So make certain your oven is preheated and you place your biscuits in the very center of the oven to cook. As soon as they are light brown, they are done, and overcooking them will dry them out in a flash.
If there is a delay before you will be serving them, you can easily make the dough several hours in advance, keep chilled in the fridge, and bake when needed. They will still rise well.
Buttermilk Biscuits To Die For
1 cup (5 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup (4 oz) plain cake flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. sugar (or Splenda)
1/2 tsp. salt
8 Tbsp. (1 stick) frozen unsalted butter (see above text)
3/4 cup cold buttermilk (plus 2 Tbsp if you don’t have cake flour)
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees and place rack in the middle position.
Place the flours, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt in a large bown or into your food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse for 2-3 times in the processor, or combine in the large bowl using a whisk to evenly mix the dry ingredients.
(Again, see above text for how to incorporate butter)
If using a processor, cut the butter into 1/4 inch cubes and add to the processor, pulsing 8-10 times to incorporate. If making by hand, grate the frozen butter into your bowl of dry ingredients and quickly “rub” the butter into the dry ingredients. Using either method, the mixture will resemble coarse cornmeal with several larger lumps of butter.
Place the bowl into the fridge to chill for at least 15 minutes.
Next comes the buttermilk. If using a processor, pour the buttermilk evenly over the dough. Using about 8-10 pulses, process until the dough gathers into moist clumps. If making by hand, stir in the buttermilk with a rubber spatula or fork until the mixture forms a soft, slightly sticky ball.
Transfer the dough onto a lightly floured surface and quickly form into a rough ball. Be careful to mix as little extra flour into the mix as possible. Divide the dough into quarters and then cut each quarter into thirds. Quickly and gently shape each piece into a rough ball and place on an ungreased baking sheet. (At this point, you can wrap the stuff in plastic and refrigerate for up to four hours.
I make mine in a large (12″) iron skilled that has been preheated for five minutes. I place the rounds with sides touching into the skillet and brush the tops liberally with melted butter.
Bake until the biscuit tops are light brown, or for about 10-12 minutes. Serve immediately to the adoration of anyone around you.