January 1, 1970My first biscuits were hard little rocks of dough that were capable of breaking teeth. I had grown up with my mother’s – who pulled out a box and added a little milk or water to the contents before diffidently throwing them in the oven. They were fine, but rarely did people lie in bed in the morning, thinking, “If I could just have a hot biscuit, I’d get out of bed.”
That’s the way a true Southern biscuit should make you feel. But what IS a Southern biscuit? A Southern biscuit is a round or square bread made out of winter-wheat flour, a fat and a liquid, usually milk or buttermilk. That’s where the common ground ends with the English biscuit, which is a cookie.
No two cooks make the same biscuit. There are skinny, thin biscuits, crisp all around the outside, baked separated on a pan so they brown all over, best covered with pan gravy. Most popular are 1-2 inches high, sufficiently thick to split in two in order to hold pork tenderloin or chicken breast on a picnic. Tender ones butt each other in a round cake pan, so none of the sides are exposed, slathered with butter to keep the exterior soft. Little ones can hold slivers of ham at cocktail parties.
My friend Kate doesn’t measure her ingredients, starting with a wooden bowl full of self-rising flour, then making a well in the flour, packing the flour tightly. She follows this with a handful of lard or Crisco (her preferred shortening) and then pours in “some” milk. Sqooshing together the fat and the milk until they are combined, she moves the liquid around in the bowl, gathering in packed flour with each turn, until she has a soppy wet dough that holds together.
She picks up the dough in the bowl, turns it over so the wet dough is lightly covered with flour, and then begins to shape the dough. She sifts any remaining flour and returns it to the flour sack to use another time.
I cannot do any of the above magic of Kate’s. My best way is to cut the fat (lard, shortening or butter) into the self-rising flour with a pastry cutter, two forks or even a food processor, then stir in milk until I have a wet dough.
It is the shaping of the dough that is the most difficult for me. Hand rolling and shaping takes practice, just like hitting a golf ball does. To really perfect biscuit making, make a number of practice batches and write down the technique best for you. No one made a perfect biscuit the first time, not even your spouse’s mother. (See shaping, in box.)
Here are the important things in making a biscuit:
The right flour. The best flour is a soft-wheat flour. These primarily Southern flours have less gluten than bread flour and national brand all-purpose flours. Names of flours best for biscuits are Southern Biscuit, White Lily and Martha White. These are historically “winter wheat” flours, which are “softer”, having less gluten, and bleached, producing a lighter biscuit. Every flour is different every day according to the moisture in the air that has permeated the flour, so minor adjustments are necessary.
Self-rising vs. all-purpose flours. Self rising flour has baking powder and salt added. All purpose flours need these added. Some people add even more rising products to make an even lighter biscuit.
Fats – The lightest fats are lard and shortening, followed by margarine. Butter produces the least light product, but gives the most flavor. Some people combine two fats to come up with a product that gives some lightness and some flavor.
Milk – All purpose milk (AKA “Sweet” milk) and butter milk act differently with baking powder, and different flavor. Powdered milks of either kind are frequently effective substitutes for the liquid kind.
A wet dough - A “dry dough” will not be as tender as a wet dough. Overworking the dough, particularly if it is dry, will cause the dough to be tough. (Manipulation is an enemy of tenderness in biscuits and pie crusts.) To confound you, some manipulation IS necessary. Finding the “just right” amount is a matter of practice.
Shaping the dough- There are numerous ways to shape a dough.
1. Flour hands, pull a biscuit-sized piece of dough from the mass, dip the exposed (wet) part of the dough in flour, then roll in one palm while turning and shaping with the other. Give the dough a final pat.
2. Roll or pat the dough out then cut with a biscuit cutter, being careful not to twist the cutter. For a biscuit that splits open easily, fold the dough in half before cutting.
3. My friend Shirley Corriher uses a non-stick or floured ice-cream scoop, dipping it into the flour and scooping out the dough.
4. Use a large spoon and drop the biscuits onto a greased pan.
Pans – Shirley uses a greased cake pan, filling it with biscuits. This enables the sides of the pan to keep the biscuits from spreading out and thinning. Using the same pan over and over, daily, enables the pan to become seasoned and removes the necessity to grease it. A dark pan tends to burn quicker than a light one.
Placement of biscuits on pan – placing biscuits close to each other keeps the sides from browning, making the biscuits more tender, and allows them to prop each other up. Separating them on the pan makes a crisper biscuit, with the biscuits tending to spread and become thinner.