Step-by-Step Photos & Detailed Instructions
+ Eight Tips for Extra-Good Biscuits
LET'S MAKE BISCUITS! Here are the promised Step-by-Step Photos, Detailed Instructions & Tips for Mom's Perfect Biscuits. Check there for the recipe written in traditional recipe format. Here? All the insider tips from three generations of excellent biscuits makers, my grandmother, my mom, my sister – and finally, ME! But the thing is? Nearly all of these tips can be applied to other biscuit recipes, not just our family biscuit recipe. Read on, biscuit people!
WHAT, REALLY, IS THE PERFECT BISCUIT? First, let's define the perfect biscuit, at least "my" perfect biscuit. Yours may vary but when I make biscuits, this is what I'm trying to achieve:
Tender with break-apart layers
Buttery & slightly salty
Golden-crisp on the top and bottom
Sturdy enough for mini biscuit sandwiches
Made from pantry ingredients
A real biscuit, not a soft airy yeast-ish dinner roll, not a sweet scone
Just like Mom's!
BISCUIT TROUBLESHOOTING And especially for anyone disappointed in their own biscuits or trying to figure out why their own biscuits aren't up to par, I've also included a special section for troubleshooting, with ways to avoid the Four F's of Biscuits, Flavorless Biscuits, Flat Biscuits, Floury Biscuits and UnFlaky Biscuits – to say nothing of the T&P of biscuits (okay, I made those last two up) Tough Biscuits and Pale Biscuits.
PERFECT PIE CRUST TOO? This is an aside but this is the time of year when many of us dust off our pie-baking skills. So many bakers have benefited from a similar set of Step-by-Step Photos and Detailed Instructions for homemade pie crusts. Here's the recipe written in traditional recipe format, Flaky Tender Pie Crust and here are the step-by-step instructions, How to Make Flaky Tender Pie Crust. I don't do many of these, they take hours and hours and HOURS to build, real labors of love. But I'm so committed to helping our world not lose these important cooking skills. Take a look! And if you like what you see, please do "Like" and "Share" and "Pin" and otherways spread the word! So appreciated!
+ Eight Tips for Extra-Good Biscuits
Quick Links for Easy Navigation
Mise En Place
Tip #1: Oven Temperature
Tip #2: (Briefly) Frozen Butter
Quality, Fresh Ingredients
Tip #3: An Egg Makes ALL the Difference
Tip #4: A Lazy Baker's Favorite Tool
Whisk Buttermilk & Egg
Mix the Dry Ingredients
Tip #5: Grate the Butter!
Mix the Grated Butter & Flour
Finally, Let's Mix Some Biscuits!
Dust the Counter with Flour
Roll & Cut the Biscuit Dough
Tip #6: Stack the Scraps
Tip #7: Bake Now or Later
Tip #8: Brush with Butter & Bake Another Minute
Voila! Mom's Perfect Biscuits
I'm not typically a mise en place cook – unless it really makes a difference! For biscuits? While you gather your ingredients, two very important things happen in the background so first-off, we'll put these in motion. For extra-good biscuits, we want:
A really hot oven
So before gathering your ingredients, get the oven ready.
Set an oven rack near the top of the oven, the upper third. In our oven, that's the second slot from the top.
Set the oven to 425F, that's 220C.
Why use the upper third of the oven? Well, heat rises, right? So that upper part of the oven is just a tiny bit hotter both above and below the baking sheet. It makes a difference!
Why use a hot oven at all? Well, it's physics, right? But let's put this equation in taste-good terms we can all understand. Here it is!
Hot Oven + Cold Butter = Extra-Good Biscuits!
Next? Put a stick of butter in the freezer. Even though it's already cold from the fridge, the briefly frozen butter will be much easier to grate later. (Grate the butter? You bet! More later.) And besides, remember?
Hot Oven + Cold Butter = Extra-Good Biscuits!
However! Don't be tempted to put the butter in the freezer for a long while, it gets too hard to grate. Just a few minutes, maybe 5 or 10 minutes, makes a huge difference.
And just to be clear, we won't use the entire stick of butter, just 6 tablespoons for the biscuits themselves and 1 tablespoon, melted, for brushing the tops.
For extra-good biscuits made with so-few ingredients, quality is important. So is ingredient freshness.
QUALITY BUTTER In my kitchen, that means Land O Lakes. ALL.THE.TIME. It's the butter my mother used but it's also my choice for quality butter. It's not inexpensive but between now and Christmas, it's often on sale for a dollar or so less a pound. Butter freezes! Stock up! I I recently bought a two-pound pack of Land O Lakes butter at Walmart, just $3.50 a pound, that's $2 cheaper than my local grocery.
CHEAP BUTTER But cheap butter isn't always a good thing. In fact, during my recent biscuit odyssey, I was out of Land O Lakes and bought some Trader Joe's butter. It was cheaper, yes, but not worth the savings. Those biscuits? Extra disappointing.
EUROPEAN-STYLE BUTTERS The only thing that would make me switch from Land O Lakes are the much pricier European butters, KerryGold, Plugra and the like. These butters have a higher butterfat content but for biscuits, that would be excellent!
SALTED BUTTER This is unusual among cooks but I also always use salted butter, it just seems to work better for me, especially when baking with older recipes. And yes, even when I use salted butter, I also add salt.
FLOUR For biscuits, it's always tempting to use the lower-gluten White Lily flour that so many Southern-style biscuits call for. I do, some times, but am much happier to have a recipe that uses the flour I'm most likely to have on hand all the time, that's all-purpose flour, either Pillsbury or Gold Medal or some times King Arthur unbleached.
My next biscuit objective? Whole-grain biscuits, I'm especially keen to work on rye biscuits and buckwheat biscuits, love those flavors! (Update: Sorry there's no one-for-one substitution of all-purpose flour with whole wheat pastry flour, those biscuits have pretty color but are quite crumbly and dry-tasting.)
BUTTERMILK I'm partial to buttermilk in biscuits, it provides just a tiny edge that I really appreciate. Be sure to shake the carton before measuring! When you use buttermilk, you'll also use both baking powder and a smaller amount of baking soda.
SWEET MILK But you can (and I do) also use "sweet" milk for biscuits, that's your usual milk, I use whole milk but a low-fat or non-fat milk will also work fine. With sweet milk, omit the baking soda.
BAKING POWDER & BAKING SODA Freshness matters! If you haven't replaced your baking powder and baking soda in six months, toss what you've got and start fresh. I use an aluminum-free baking powder, it makes a flavor difference, worth seeking out.
SALT I use table salt, the smaller grains distribute more evenly. But a fine-grained sea salt would also work, it's what I plan to switch to as soon as I run out of a how-does-this-happen big supply of table salt and kosher salt.
SUGAR Even for savory biscuits, a small amount of sugar really helps turn out biscuits with golden color, it also helps with biscuit structure. FYI biscuits with just a touch of sugar aren't "sweet" but they're also less floury-tasting than biscuits made without a touch of sugar.
If only I'd listened to my mother earlier! Just like it took her too long to listen to her own mother! Here's what Mom wrote in a Kitchen Parade column way back 50+ years ago:
"Have you tried adding an egg to biscuits? Try it and see what a wonderful improvement it makes. For a year after I was married, the biscuits that came out of my oven were typical bride's biscuits – heavy and soggy in the middle. Mother kept telling me to use an egg but I was sure if an egg would improve biscuits, there's be a recipe somewhere that would call for an egg and none could be found. Finally, in desperation, I tried it. And what a pleasant surprise! Try it and you'll know what I mean."
Honestly? I knew about this egg trick for extra-good biscuits years ago but had forgotten. I've been experimenting with different recipes and techniques for three or four years now, trying to find my own perfect biscuit recipe. In my own fit of desperation a couple of weeks ago, I asked my sister for help – she's a master biscuit maker, her biscuits are at least as renowned as her pancakes. "Mom's recipe is in the family cookbook," she reminded. "It uses an egg."
So just like my mom said, "Try it and you'll know what I mean."
But really, why use an egg in biscuits? It makes biscuits slightly richer, slightly moister, slightly more tender. And just as importantly? Easier to handle!
I may be a lazy baker but I'm also particular about the results. That's why I pull out a kitchen scale many times a day. One big reason?
A scale saves dishes, no need to use different measuring cups.
More importantly? With a kitchen scale to measure important ingredients, we can reproduce our results over and over again.
A scale delivers consistent results, each and every time.
Measuring flour, especially, by volume is a fool's folly. I've done side-by-side comparisons and without a scale, the amount of flour used in cookies, bread, etc, can vary by as much as 25%, in baking, that's huge! With a kitchen scale, precision comes easy.
Good recipe writers often include ingredients by weight for flour, sugar, etc. I also include them for wet ingredients, like buttermilk. To me, it's crazy to use a scale for dry ingredients and then go back to measuring by volume for the wet ingredients!
Sorry, off my soapbox ...
Okay, back to that mise en place.
Whisk the buttermilk and egg together. For extra-good biscuits, really get in there with the whisk, a kitchen fork works great too, turning two distinct ingredients into "one" single ingredient. Be sure to mix all the way to the bottom, a rounder bowl (vs my glass measuring cup) would help with that.
For extra-good biscuits, now do the same for the dry ingredients. It's harder to tell when the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda are all so white but really give them a good stir, then do it again a time or two. It's especially important to evenly distribute the salt (flavor) and sugar (color and structure) and baking powder and baking soda (for leavening) throughout the flour.
Otherwise? Salty spots, burned spots, uneven rising. Not good biscuits!
Okay, now the mise en place is done. Let's move on.
Yes, we're going to grate the butter with a box grater, the one we use for grating cheese! This is a technique I've used for a couple of years now, for biscuits, yes, but also for scones and even my Flaky Tender Pie Crust. Grating works great!
Grating the butter replaces other techniques used by other fine biscuit makers. A pastry cutter works too or we can also use a knife to cut the butter into a tiny cubes (it's easier to do the cutting before the butter goes into the freezer) and then work the butter in with our fingers.
I like grating the butter because the butter stays cold longer, also because grated butter is just about the right size for biscuits, scones and pie crust. (If the holes on a box grater were just a tidge bigger, it would be even better.)
Please know, from here on until the biscuits go into the oven, it's important to work quickly, keeping the butter cold. There are good places to pause if needed, I'll mention them below. But if you're making biscuits following this guide, please do read ahead so you know what to do next. For extra-good biscuits, it's so important to keep the butter as cold as possible!
So okay, it's time to retrieve that stuck of butter from the freezer. Remember, we're only going to use seven of the eight tablespoons of butter in the stick. And please know, this step is for all my fellow perfectionists!
One tablespoon goes into a small bowl to melt in the microwave 10 seconds at a time, we'll use it to brush the biscuits after baking.
Six tablespoons will be grated for the biscuits themselves.
But I slice off that extra tablespoon but then leave it attached to the six-tablespoon stick. Why? It's just easier to grate the butter with a little more "handle".
As I say, detail for the persnickety perfectionist, here. :-)
Put the box grater onto a piece of wax paper, a plate would work too.
While grating the butter, use the wrapper, otherwise your warm hand will melt the butter, making that silly stick of butter all slippery and hard to manage!
And besides, we remember this, right?
Hot Oven + Cold Butter = Extra-Good Biscuits!
And voila! Grated butter, all cold and ready for extra-good biscuits!
Do check the inside of the grater and scrape out what's there.
Need to step away for a minute? Go ahead, just put the grated butter into the freezer (best) or refrigerator (this works too).
Working quickly, use a fork (a big meat fork seems to work best) to toss together the grated butter and flour, the idea is to lightly coat every piece of butter with flour. Once it's tossed quite a bit, you might need to get in there with your fingertips to gently and deftly separate and break up large clumps of butter that remain.
Why use a fork if you're going to use your hands in the end? The whole idea is to keep the butter as cold as possible. Because, why? Oh yeah. Somethin' about Extra Good Biscuits, a Hot Oven and Cold Butter. I'm nothin' if not consistent. :-0
The butter-flour mixture should look something like this.
Need to take a break? No problem. Just put the butter-flour mixture into the freezer or refrigerator. Even a couple of minutes makes a difference.
Still working quickly, make a well in the Butter-Flour mixture. Give the Buttermilk-Egg mixture another quick whisk, then pour it into the mixing bowl.
Still working quickly, use the fork to gently work the wet and dry ingredients together, it should come together quite quickly and it's definitely not necessary to completely mix the dough.
Here's where recipes always say to not "overwork" the dough, to make sure the biscuits stay tender. But in practice, what in heck does that mean?
Work to gently "lift" the ingredients together instead of pressing them together. Working from underneath also means you can incorporate even more of the flour that tends to collect in the bottom of the bowl.
Work to do this in as few stirs as possible, it's okay if not all the flour is worked in.
All it takes is a light dusting of flour, really. You can always add a little more, really. Use a "fairy duster" if you like although that might just be showing off unless, like me, you are into pie crust, cutout sugar cookies scones and biscuits.
What you don't want is to use so much flour on the counter that it doesn't work into the dough. If there's the cut biscuits are dusty with visible flour, be sure to brush it off, I use a soft silicone brush.
Turn the dough out onto the counter. I'll admit, it doesn't look like much – hard to imagine extra-good biscuits coming from that floury pile!
That's more like it! But how did we get from there (two photos above) to here (the photo above)? Please know, this is the step to pay most attention to, it's the one place where it is so-so easy to overwork the dough.
First, knead the dough four or five times. But do it gently, not like with bread dough where you use the palms of your hands and really work the dough.
For biscuits, use a light touch. Start with just your fingertips, bringing the dough together into a ball. Then fold it over itself a couple of times.
And take time to "feel" the dough. The baking powder is going to begin working, the dough will somehow magically take shape, it just needs a little help with a light touch. You want a nice, neat package that's pretty smooth on the outside although some cracks and crinkles are fine too.
With a rolling pin, roll out the dough evenly. How big should it be? how thick? For a dozen total biscuits, try to estimate what it'll take to get seven or eight or sometimes even nine "first roll" biscuits. If you want fewer thicker biscuits, or more thinner biscuits, adjust accordingly.
BARE BAKING SHEET? PARCHMENT PAPER? My original cookie sheet from when I first set up housekeeping out of college is still going strong – and I sure wish I knew what happened to the second one because darn it, I.Miss.It. and there's no way to replace it. To use a regular baking sheet, line the sheet with parchment paper!
BISCUIT CUTTER Use a real live biscuit cutter – not a drinking glass – and press straight down without twisting. Usually, the cut biscuit will lift right up, it's easy to pry out and put onto the baking sheet.
DRINKING GLASS, IN A PINCH? I know, I know, drinking glasses were good enough for cutting biscuits for our grandmothers, they should be good enough for us too. But our grandmothers lived without iPhones too. The rim of a drinking glass just isn't sharp enough to cut clean through the biscuit dough, your biscuits won't rise as tall as they will with a biscuit cutter.
THE FIRST ROLL Think of biscuit dough like good olive oil, the olive oil from the first press is most delicate, most revered. The same thing is true with biscuit dough, the biscuits cut from the first roll will be the most tender and the most pretty. In fact, when I'm making biscuits for a dinner party, I make extra batches, just to make sure there's enough biscuits from the first roll to go around.
Now for the "second roll" and even the "third roll," don't just gather up the scraps in a ball and re-roll the dough. That's what I USED to do, turning out funny-looking and way-less tender biscuits made from the scraps.
This is way-way better! Just piece together two layers of scraps, fitting them together like a two-layer jigsaw puzzle.
Just two layers will do it.
This technique makes so-so much sense, in fact, it mimics the "foldover technique" that many biscuit makers like to use.
Once the scraps are stacked in two layers, roll it out a second time and cut out another biscuit or two. You'll probably need to do this one more time to use up all the dough.
FYI I learned this tip from Making Dough: Recipes and Ratios for Perfect Pastries by Russell Van Kraayenburg, a great resource for bakers looking to up their game. So grateful!
Here's one of the most-excellent things about biscuits, how flexible they are, timing-wise.
BAKE NOW Put the biscuits straight into the oven, ten minutes should do it. Remember to use a high temperature, 425F/220C and position a rack so the biscuits are in the upper third of the oven.
REFRIGERATE NOW, BAKE LATER To hold biscuits for a few hours, even overnight, just refrigerate the biscuits, tray and all. If it's going to be more than a couple of hours, I'd cover the biscuits with a light tea towel. (In fact, some recipes swear by letting the biscuits rest for an hour in the refrigerator as a matter of course. To my taste, this didn't make a lot of difference, maybe because of the other techniques I use, i.e., the frozen butter, working quickly, etc.) Then just bake the biscuits as usual, hot oven, upper third.
I especially love "holding" unbaked biscuits in the fridge for a few hours, especially for parties. I time dinner so that the biscuits go in the oven just before it's time to eat.
Because here's a new biscuit equation:
Hot Biscuits = Happy People!
FREEZE NOW, BAKE LATER But wait, there's more. You can freeze biscuits! Just freeze the unbaked biscuits on a baking sheet until they're solid. For freezing efficiency, you can really fill a baking sheet full, just make sure the biscuits don't touch one another. Once the biscuits are frozen solid, transfer them to an airtight container, I use cookie tins and waxed paper to separate the layers. Anytime within a couple of months, bake the biscuits, one or two or a few at a time. So totally convenient!
After 10 minutes in the oven, the biscuits should be crisp and golden. But they're not quite done yet!
BRUSH THE TOPS WITH MELTED BUTTER Brush the biscuit tops with that tablespoon of extra butter, melted in the microwave. (To melt butter in the microwave without spattering it all over, run it in 10-second increments. It'll take just a couple of spurts.)
BAKE ONE MORE MINUTE And now, most important! Put the biscuits back in the oven but just for one more minute. This will bake the butter into the tops, they'll still be crispy and golden but now they'll be extra buttery too.
So ... yeah, biscuits, tender, flaky and warm from the oven. The reward for all our efforts. So good! Ready for the recipe, written in traditional recipe format? Here you go, I call them Mom's Perfect Biscuits!
Flat Biscuits + Was the baking powder fresh? + Was a biscuit cutter used to cut the biscuits, without twisting? + Did the recipe make more than 12 biscuits?
Floury Biscuits + Was a kitchen scale used to measure just the right amount of flour? + Was a kitchen scale used to measure just the right amount of liquid? – Was the working surface over-floured?
Unflaky Biscuits + Was the butter cold? + Was the oven hot? + Was the butter in bigger-ish pieces? + Was the dough handled with a gentle touch?
Tough Biscuits + Did the biscuit dough include an egg? + Was a kitchen kitchen scale used to measure just the right amount of flour? – Was the biscuit dough overworked?
Pale Biscuits + Was there a little sugar in the biscuit dough? + Were the biscuits baked in the upper third of the oven? + Were the biscuits baked at high enough temperature?
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