The Perfect Biscuit
January 1, 1970Many years ago I embarked on my own search for the perfect biscuit. I tried recipes from cookbooks and sampled the tried-and-true techniques of old friends. I judges the biscuits, awarding scores of 1 to 10 based on color, fluffiness, moistness, crispness of exteriors, and so on. Shirley's recipe comes as close to perfection as any I've found, but I'm still looking.
You don't rate biscuits like you do ice dancers, with so many points for poise, so many for technical merit, and so many for musical score. A biscuit can't be divided that way—it's a total experience (just think about those homemade ones you remember being presented piled high and piping hot on a plate). Do you want one to melt in your mouth, oozing with butter, or one that is firm enough to sandwich a piece of sausage or pork tenderloin?
The ideal Southern biscuit is feathery light with a light brown crust on the top and a moist interior. It may have slight indentations on the sides where it has bumped into other biscuits as it baked.
Finally, I should say that to make true Southern biscuits requires something my colleagues and I call a touch of grace—a gift that some people are blessed with.
Shirley Corriher's Country Buttermilk Biscuits
Makes 12 to 18
Shirley Corriher is a very talented Southern cooking teacher and cookbook author who specializes in knowing why food works the way it does. Her grandmother, Nanny, taught her to use a big wooden biscuit bowl to turn out these feathery and delicate biscuits, but she's adapted it to modern measures and equipment.
2½ cups self-rising flour (if self-rising flour is not available, combine 1 cup all-purpose flour, teaspoon salt, and 1½ teaspoons baking powder)
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons shortening
7/8 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 450F.
Spray and 8-inch round cake pan with nonstick spray.
Combine 1½ cups flour, the soda, salt, and sugar. With your fingers or a pastry cutter, work the shortening into the flour mixture until there are no shortening lumps larger than a small pea.
Stir in the buttermilk and let the dough stand 2 or 3 minutes. It will be very wet. This dough is so wet that you cannot shape it in the usual manner. Pour the remaining cup of flour onto a plate or pie pan. Flour your hands well. Spoon or scoop with a small ice cream scoop a biscuit-sized lump of wet dough into the flour and sprinkle some flour on top. With your hands, shape the biscuit into a soft round, gently shaking off any excess flour. The dough is so soft that it will not hold its shape. As you shape each biscuit, place it into an 8-inch round cake pan, pushing the biscuits tightly against each other so that they will rise up rather than spread out. Continue shaping the biscuits in this manner using all the dough.
Brush the biscuits with the melted butter and place on the oven shelf just above the center. Increase the oven temperature to 475F. and bake 15 to 18 minutes, until lightly browned. Cool a minute or two in the pan.
Herbed Buttermilk Biscuits: Stir 2 to 4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or mint into the dough just before adding the buttermilk. Shape and bake as usual.
Angel Biscuits (p.132)
Makes 20 to 25 Biscuits
Angel biscuits are a traditional old-time Southern specialty aptly named because they are as light as clouds! They are also known as bride's biscuits. Because the dough contains yeast, these can be made ahead and you may bake up a few biscuits from the dough at a time over a period of a week. They also freeze well; no one would even guess if you baked the whole batch and froze them.
These wonderful biscuits are adapted from the Pirate's House Cookbook, compiled by my former assistant Sarah Gaede.
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons warm water (110F. to 115 F.)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
6 cups white soft wheat all purpose flour or cake flour
1 cup vegetable shortening
2 cups buttermilk
Dissolve the yeast and a pinch of the sugar in the warm water. Sift the baking soda, baking powder, salt, and the remainder of the sugar with the flour. Cut the shortening into the dry ingredients with 2 forks, a pastry cutter, or your fingers until the size of garden peas. Add the yeast mixture to the buttermilk and stir into the flour mixture until all of the flour is barely moistened to make a sticky dough. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or up to a week before using.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 425F. Lightly grease a baking sheet. Place about 1 cup additional flour on the work surface. Place the sticky dough on top of the flour and sprinkle with more flour. Pat out into a round 1/3 inch thick and then fold over to a height of 2/3 inch. Using a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter, cut out the biscuits. Move the biscuits to the greased baking sheet, sides touching on the sheet. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until lightly tinged with brown.
Refrigerator Biscuit Mix
Makes 4 batches of 12 biscuits
This biscuit mix is ideal for a busy cook. It will keep several months in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. Combine one part milk or buttermilk with two parts mix for any quantity of biscuits from 4 to 40!
10 cups self-rising flour
3 teaspoons salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups shortening
Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder. With a pastry cutter, 2 knives, a food processor or your fingers, cut in the shortening until it resembles a coarse meal. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container until ready to use.
Note: To make 12 biscuits, preheat the oven to 500F. Measure out 2½ cups biscuit mix. Add 1¼ cups milk or buttermilk. Mix just until you have a wet dough.
Turn out onto a lightly floured surface (such as a tea towel) and knead gently 3 to 4 times. Roll or pat the dough to 1/2-inch thickness. Using a 2-inch cutter, cut the dough into 12 rounds. Place them on a greased cookie sheet with their sides barely touching. Bake until golden, about 8 to 10 minutes.