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Biscuits, American Style

The word “biscuit” is odd. It had been spelled “bisket” since about the 16th century, but the French spelling caught on in English sometime around the 18th century and has been with us ever since. “Biscuit” means two different things depending on where you are in the English-speaking world. In Great Britain, biscuits are what Americans think of as cookies – crunchy little rounds such as ginger snaps and digestives. In the United States, biscuits refer to fluffy quick-breads that are baked in a hot oven and eaten with savory dishes such as chicken and gravy (a southern favorite) or as a sweet breakfast or brunch item (e.g., with butter and jam). You can buy biscuit dough in a tube at the supermarket. But really, they are so easy to bake from scratch, and the flavor is so amazing, that you don’t need to reach for those blue tubes.

The problem with a lot of biscuit recipes is that the ingredients can be hard to find. For example, in the Southeastern United States (which produces some of the finest home-baked biscuits in the world) there are specialty flours specifically for biscuits, such as White Lily and Martha White. Those flours are not as easy to find in other parts of the country. Another problem is that some recipes are fussy. One recipe I have calls for hard-boiled egg yolks – delicious, but hardly a quick bread if you need hot biscuits on the table within the hour. I wanted a recipe that was fast and straightforward, and utterly delicious, and I am posting it here.

I’m actually posting two recipes: one for buttermilk biscuits and the other for sweet-milk biscuits. They are similar except for the kind of milk used. The buttermilk version has more tang, of course. The sweet-milk version contains both whole milk and heavy cream, so it will taste sweeter even though there is no added sugar. Both can be used as the base for berry shortcake (just split a biscuit, and top with berries and whipped cream), or as a festive addition to a Thanksgiving buffet. They’re best when hot from the oven, but you can make them the same day and re-heat briefly. The next day (assuming you have any leftovers) they are delicious split and toasted.

A note about buttermilk: Buttermilk is a thick, cultured milk product that is sold in quart-sized milk cartons. Since most people don’t keep buttermilk on hand, I came up with the idea of mixing equal parts regular whole milk with plain whole-milk yogurt to approximate the texture and tanginess of buttermilk. In my grandmother’s day, home bakers would sour milk by adding a bit of lemon juice or vinegar. I prefer the milk-yogurt combination because it is thick like commercial buttermilk.

A note about mixing and shaping. Biscuits require a light touch. If you over-work them, they’ll be tough. After the liquid is added, mix the dough just until it comes together. Don’t knead it, just pat it. Rolling and cutting with round cutter is the classic way to shape biscuits. But you can shape them as drop-biscuits if you prefer. Just scoop the soft dough into 10 or 12 mounds (depending on how big you want them), and bake as directed. They’ll be rough and craggy, but that’s part of their rustic charm. Another option is to use a 7-cavity biscuit pan, like this one:




You can buy non-stick versions of this pan, but I prefer the cast iron version (cast iron needs to be well-seasoned before foods will release easily). I fill each cavity with a teaspoon or two of melted butter before adding the dough. Portion the dough into seven equal pieces and lightly press into the buttered pan.

Buttermilk Biscuits

Yield: Anywhere from 7 to 14 biscuits, depending on how big you make them.

  • 4 oz. cake flour

  • 4 ½ oz. all-purpose bleached flour, plus extra for rolling

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda

  • ¼ teaspoon salt

  • ½ teaspoon sugar

  • 4 ounces butter, cold

  • 6 ounces cold buttermilk (alternatively, whisk together 3 ounces milk and 3 ounces plain yogurt and use that instead of buttermilk.)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees convection, 450 degrees non-convection.

1. Mix the dough: Mix together the dry ingredients. With a pastry cutter or your fingers, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles very coarse cornmeal, with some of the butter still visible as small lumps or flakes (see the photo below). Stir in the buttermilk just until everything is moistened. Pat until the dough comes together, not longer.

2. Shape the biscuits. For drop biscuits, scoop a large spoonful of dough onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet until you have 10 to 12 mounds. For rolled biscuits, roll out the dough on a well-floured countertop to ½ inch thick. Cut with a 2 ¼ inch round cutter, or slightly larger if you want. You’ll end up with about 10 -14 biscuits (you can gently re-roll the scraps -- they won’t look as perfect but they taste fine). For a 7-cavity biscuit pan, butter each cavity with a teaspoon or two of melted butter. Divide the dough into 7 equal pieces and press lightly into the pan.

3. Bake until internal temperature registers 200 degrees, about 12 – 14 minutes. Check after 7 minutes to make sure they’re not browning too quickly. If they are, lower temperature by 25 degrees, and continue to bake until they’re cooked through.

Sweet-Milk Butter Biscuits

Yield: Anywhere from 7 to 14 biscuits, depending on how big you make them.

  • 4 oz. cake flour

  • 4.5 oz all-purpose bleached flour, plus extra for rolling

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 4 ounces butter

  • 3 ounces whole milk

  • 3 ounces heavy cream

Preheat oven to 425 degrees convection, or 450 degrees non-convection.

1. Mix the dough: Mix together the dry ingredients. With a pastry cutter or your fingers, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles very coarse cornmeal with some of the butter still visible as small lumps or flakes (see the photo below). Stir in the milk and heavy cream just until everything is moistened. Pat just until the dough comes together, not longer.

2. Shape the biscuits. For drop biscuits, scoop a large spoonful of dough onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet until you have 10 to 12 mounds. For rolled biscuits, roll out the dough on a well-floured countertop to ½ inch thick. Cut with a 2 ¼ inch round cutter, or slightly larger if you want. You’ll end up with about 10 -14 biscuits (you can re-roll the scraps -- they won’t look quite as perfect but they taste fine). If you want to use a 7-cavity biscuit pan, butter each cavity with a teaspoon or two of melted butter. Divide the dough into 7 equal pieces and press lightly into the pan.

3. Bake until internal temperature registers 200 F degrees, about 12 – 14 minutes. Check after 7 minutes to make sure they’re not browning too quickly. If they are, lower temperature by 25 degrees, and continue to bake until they’re cooked thorough.


Note: This is a picture of what the flour should look like after you cut in the butter, before you add the liquid. The pastry cutter on the right is designed for this task, but you can use your fingers or a fork.






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