Ordinary, White Flour Biscuits

It was a family ritual during my childhood:   Exactly 20 minutes before dinner was due to be served, my mother would finish cooking.  Then, she would prepare and bake biscuits.  While the biscuits baked, she would clean the kitchen.  Then, the biscuits would come out of the oven just a few moments before everyone was expected to sit down to the table.   

When the biscuits came out, the table would already be set for dinner.  My father would be called – urgently — to butter the biscuits.  Everything had to be done exactly punctually.  If the biscuits came out of the oven too soon, they would get cold.  If they came out too late, the rest of the food would be cold.  If they weren’t buttered when they were so hot that they would burn fingers, they would be too cold.  Success in dinner preparation was determined largely by whether the biscuits were served to perfection. 

My role in the biscuit ritual was to “help,” namely to turn the oven on to preheat, to transfer the biscuits from the cutting board to the cookie sheet for baking, to set the table, and then to assist in carrying the piping hot biscuits to the table.  Of course, this also involved watching my mother measure, sift, mix, knead and roll the biscuit dough.  I guess I was supposed to learn through osmosis, though it never worked. 

My mom always told me it was important not to work the dough too much, because it would make the biscuits tough.  She contrasted this need for sparcity in working biscuit dough as against working yeast bread dough, because the latter gets more pliable and soft with kneading.  She said you should keep kneading of biscuit dough to a bare minimum.  Her routine for making the dough and rolling out the biscuits took about five minutes, then the baking took about twelve minutes, and leaving three a three minute window to get them onto the table and buttered before everyone sat down to eat. 

I really took this admonition to heart, not to work the dough too much.  My home economics teacher taught our class how to make biscuits, but her instructions included that we should knead the dough.  My mother was very critical of this advice.  Based on the teacher’s accent, we already knew the teacher was a Yankee.  This hereditary condition would explain a whole host of mental imbalances and defects, including why she didn’t know how to make biscuits properly.  My mom assured me that my home economics teacher was wrong; and she took great pains to demonstrate for me proper biscuit making technique without kneading the dough.  I could never get it right.   

Strive as I might, my dough was always either too sticky or too dry, never that perfect balance.  One time, many years later but while I was still young and single, I cooked an elaborate “Southern” dinner for a friend visiting from another country.  When she saw the table I had set, filled with Confederate fried steak, rice, gravy, green beans, butter peas, carrots, and assorted other delights, she exclaimed with delight, “Oh! You made cookies!”  No, I had made biscuits, which were on the table in their own little basket, butter close by; but my biscuits were not soft and light and fluffy.  They were crispy and brown, like crackers.  Such was the miserable result of my best efforts.  Perhaps this was the reason my grandmother Mary Emma gave me the recipe for the mayonnaise drop biscuits (an earlier Blog entry).  She perhaps hoped that my possession of this one recipe would save me from calamity in the Art of Being a Southern Belle.  

After my “cookie” adventure, I didn’t try to make biscuits for several more years.  Law school intervened, and my law-school girlfriends and I seemed to have equally calamitous ventures in the kitchen.  At least my misadventures never reached the same level as those of my good friend Mary, whose neighbors called the fire department when they saw smoke billowing out of the kitchen window.  Apparently, this misadventure also resulted in a very unhappy landlord when an expensive oriental carpet had to be replaced.  At least we could all laugh about it.  Since we were young lawyers our livelihoods didn’t depend on our biscuit making expertise.  But still, something was missing.  I had a deep sense of my own inadequacy in the Southern Belle department. 

It wasn’t until I began to venture on my own, standing on my own two culinary feet and therefore beginning to be a bit more daring in the “alteration of recipe” department, that I actually learned how to make good biscuits.  I’ve decided to share my biscuit recipes in the hope that some other young Belles will benefit from my years of mistakes.

For starters, I learned that a tiny bit of judicious modification of my basic biscuit recipe was in order.  My mother had always taught me to use two cups of flour and one cup of “other stuff.”  The “other stuff” consisted of ¾ cup milk and ¼ cup “grease”.  Grease is another word for rendered pork fat.  It really does make the best biscuits, but we all know it’s so unhealthy that we don’t ever use it anymore.  Instead, we use some other kind of fat, like Crisco or margarine or oil (depending on the recipe).   Anyway, my mother showed me how to measure 3/4 cup flour, and then add hunks of shortening by the spoonful until the measuring cup was exactly at the top.  But, I learned a little trick over the years.  Biscuits, in fact, do better if one uses ¾ cup milk plus about 1/3 cup shortening.  Then, after the batter is mixed, if the biscuits are too wet still a bit more flour can be added. 

My mother once told me that Mama Good’s cook told her a little secret shared by all good cooks:  they close their eyes when they add the fat and the sugar.  In other words, you don’t wanna know how much there is, but it turns out to be a bit more than we want to admit on the record!  So, that little "cook’s secret" was part of the reason my biscuits were never quite right!  The real amount of shortening is just a bit more than the official 1/4 cup!   

But there was another “eureka” moment for me, as well.  For that moment of inspiration, I must thank my friend Linda.  As a young newlywed, I often shared enjoyed dinners with other young newlyweds in my circle of friends.  One of David’s college buddies, Dale, married Linda.  They lived a couple of hours away, so our visits usually involved one or two meals together over the course of a day’s or weekend’s visit.  One day, Linda arrived to find me making biscuits.  The signs were already clear that my biscuits were headed for disaster.  Linda walked into the kitchen and I poured my heart out to her.  One look at my dough, and she immediately assessed the problem:  "You aren’t kneading the dough enough!"  She kindly took charge, literally “fixing” my biscuits and salvaging them from sure disaster.  I had been so concerned with not “working” the dough, she told me, that the batter wasn’t getting mixed properly. Linda assured me that kneading would not damage my biscuits.   And, gauging from Linda’s background and drawl from the heartland of South Carolina, her credentials in the Southern Belle department were very secure.  She proceeded to make her point by kneading the dough for longer and more times than I thought humanly possible.  Based on my mother’s exhortations, I was sure these biscuits would be stiff and hard as rocks, but Linda was right!  They were great!  There I had it.  Official permission from a true Southern Belle to knead the dough, and demonstration of how to do it.  She kneaded, rolled, and patted the dough, cut the biscuits, and the result was near perfection.   Here is the recipe:

Ordinary, White Flour Biscuits

2 Cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup shortening of some type (Crisco, margarine, or butter)
¾ cup milk (or any liquid you prefer)
[I will add a note here on the ingredients:  these biscuits can easily be made vegan, and they turn out equally delicious.  To make them vegan, simply use Crisco for shortening and soy milk for the liquid.   The soy milk actually seems to make them more tender!] 
Preheat oven to about 400 degrees F.  Mix dry ingredients in a two quart measuring bowl. (Self Rising Flour can be used, of course, in place of baking powder and salt.)  Sifting is not necessary, unless you are using flour that still has chafe mixed in or is lumpy.  (Let me give you a hint:  use good quality flour.  If your flour has lumps in it, it is old and it won’t make good biscuits!)
After the dry ingredients are mixed, add the shortening.  Use a knife or fork to cut the shortening into the flour.  To do this, you literally cut the shortening over and over, coating the pieces with flour each time until the pieces of shortening are very tiny and all coated with flour.  The point of “cutting” it in is to keep the flour light and fluffy, so don’t mash the flour when you cut in the shortening!  When it’s properly mixed, the flour will be saturated with the shortening, so that it will be slightly damp feeling between the fingers and will cling to itself a bit like damp sand does.  Next, add the milk or other liquid and stir to mix the batter. 
The next step is the kneading.  I prefer to use a large cutting board or plastic mat, to make cleanup easier.  Take a handful of flour and sprinkle it in an area about 7” in diameter, about the size of a dessert plate.  Next, put a bit of oil on your hands.  This will keep the biscuit dough from sticking to your hands.  Then, turn the biscuit dough out on top of the flour.  Sprinkle a bit of flour on top of the dough, then mash it down.   After the dough has been mashed down, bring it up from the sides and fold it over on itself.  Only add as much flour as the dough soaks up by itself.  This is not the time truly to “add” flour; that has already been done.  At this point, only supply flour that is needed to keep the dough from sticking to everything.  Keep folding the dough over onto itself until it begins to feel like a unified lump and is smooth on the outside.  Use your hands to shape it into a shape that can be rolled out easily.  Then, use a rolling pin to roll out the dough.  I am attaching pictures, below. 
Don’t roll the dough too thin.  One-half inch is not too thick.  If you do get it too thin, simply fold it over on itself.  Folding the dough over on itself is a trick even used by some restaurants to make the biscuits very easy to slice down the middle.  When I personally want to make biscuits that are very easy to slice, in fact I deliberately roll the biscuit dough too thin, cut out all the biscuits, and then stack them two by two on the cookie sheet to make a rather tall biscuit that will come apart at the center very easily. 
But ordinarily, simply use a biscuit or cookie cutter to cut the biscuits into round shapes.  Or, if you prefer, you can use a knife to cut them into rectangular shapes (but this is not the classic shape of course).   Then, transfer the cut biscuits to an ungreased cookie sheet.  I prefer for the biscuits not to touch each other when they are laid out to bake, but they will not spread like cookies, so it is permissible for them to touch if the pan is small. 
Take the leftover dough, re-knead it, and either roll it out one more time to make another set of biscuits, or use it to make a sticky.  If you have a small child as a little helper, this dough is a nice gift to give them and let them make a shaped biscuit all of their own creation. 
Pop the biscuits in the oven and cook for 12 minutes or so.  Watch to make sure they don’t burn! 
A note on how long to cook biscuits.  Some cooks will cook biscuits at a lower temperature and take longer time.  Other cooks cook in a hotter oven for a shorter length of time. For example, biscuits cooked at 375 F will take about 20 minutes to cook, whereas biscuits cooked at 425 F will take about 8 minutes.  The slower they bake, the longer they are in the oven, which means the more they will dry out while cooking.  The hotter the oven, the more quickly they will cook on the outside but risk leaving the inside raw.  Given my “cookie” experience of habitually making biscuits that are too dried out and crisp, my personal preference is the compromise in the 400 degree oven.  But watch them, experiment, and adjust your cooking time and temperature according to what works in your oven.  And on the subject of ovens, be aware that not all ovens are created equal.  Some ovens have hot spots.  Hot spots can really affect the quality of cooking, leaving one end burnt while the other end is raw.   In one oven I once had, the hot spot was so bad that I had to rotate the biscuits halfway during cooking time.  Be aware and watch to see if this might be true in your oven, too!  But also, remember that when you open the oven door, the heat goes "whoosh" and flies away!  Resist the temptation to open the door on any baked good before it is done, for this un-does all the convection magic that is occurring in the chemistry of the dough-rising. 
Anyway, I call these biscuits “Ordinary, White Flour Biscuits” exactly because they are ordinary, in contrast to some recipes I hope to add to my Blog in the future – whole wheat, yeast, and buttermilk variations.  Learning to make “ordinary, white flour biscuits” is like learning how to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.  Once you perfect the technique for these, you can stop with these, which are very nice biscuits, or you can move on to more sophisticated variations on the tune. 

1 Comment

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One response to “Ordinary, White Flour Biscuits

  1. Since it’s been proven that hydrogenated vegetable oil is MUCH more unhealthy than lard, because it creates trans-fats, i think you should recommend returning to lard. Crisco & other shortenings, it turns out, was more unhealthy than pork lard. Trans fat is literally created by the hydrogenazation process required to make shortening. I heard Crisco was making a non hydrogenated crisco with zero trans fats, I would be interested to know how they did it, and whether or not it still works well.

    Fat is fat, cholesterol is cholesterol. Does it really matter if it comes from pork, shrimp or vegetable oil?

    In Sweden there is no shortening. Nobody even knows what it is. Some places don’t sell lard anymore, a few areas with high concentrations of muslim immigrants who don’t eat pork, but sell kokosfett, which is coconut fat and is 100% fat just like lard. Allegedly better for you than meat fat, but coconuts have one of the highest cholesterol contents of anything on earth. I haven’t done any research but why I wonder if people just assume plants are automatically healthier. kokosfett is so hard you can barely cut it, I can’t really, just hack it and break chunks off. It works quite well, though, for baking and even deep frying, but the taste just isn’t there. Lard is soft even when cold. Butter is 80% fat, and 100% fat just works better for biscuits. Also, butter is NOT a form of ‘shortening’ which is important to know, because some recipe authors do not differentiate, and when they say ‘shortening’ they mean a 100% fat product. The 20% NOT fat portion turns into LIQUID when you cook, so it changes the amount of milk required, etc.

    I had to ‘re-discover lard’ when I moved to Sweden, because there is no shortening. I really love it, though. Also, they say buying some lard at a butchery or farm is much healthier than some store lard, because the animals are healthier and leaner than ‘fattened factory’ pigs. Their diet is better and the lard tastes better as well.

    Just passing on something I learned very recently.

    Also, every biscuit recipe I have read so far (there’s no biscuits in Sweden NONE, not even mcDonalds sells biscuits, so i have been reading and trying to make biscuits for an accumulated several hours) advise NOT to reknead the dough. Over kneading biscuit dough makes the biscuits hard, the more you knead. I also discovered by myself, that kneading it gentley and softly (rather than my normal way which is rough and hard) left the biscuits softer. Kind of like the difference between petting a tiny puppy and scruffing a big old dog. I took my scraps a handful at a time and GENTLY pressed them together, gently rolled it into a ball and softly mashed it into a hamburger patty thing. Those biscuits actually rose more and were fluffier than the cut biscuits.

    Cutting with a knife into squares isn’t really recommended, either, for ‘short breads’ it pinches the sides of the dough keeping the biscuits from rising well, if at all. They come out flat and hard. It is very important NOT to ‘twist’ the biscuit cutter, but just press down and pop straight up. BELIEVE me, I know from a thousand miserable failures of elly mae clampett hocky puck biscuits. Twisting the cutter to make sure it cuts all the way through AGAIN pinches the sides of the biscuits, THEY WON’T RISE. You could bean somebody in the head with those hard biscuits.

    I used a 4 ounce can of jalapenos, cut off the top and bottom, washed & dried it of course, to make a biscuit cutter. Works perfectly, it was free & didn’t have to drive anywhere and look for one. Jars don’t work so well, there has to be holes or an opening on the opposite side. I don’t know why, but it makes a big difference.

    I have just spent the past 2 weeks, hours and hours and hours reading recipes, techniques blah blah, and finally made some pretty good biscuits, not great, just acceptable. Although my Swedish husband ate so many he almost threw up. THE POWER OF BISCUITS. haha He never had eaten any. So he ate some with butter, marmelade, svärt jelly, ham & sweet hot mustard, ham & brown deli mustard all in one sitting. He loved them, and I barely liked them. BUT, the good ones finally came when I just started to use my instincts instead of following exact recipes. If it felt dry i added milk, if the lard didn’t seem like enough, i added more. THEN the biscuits started coming together a little better. Did you ever notice, if you go online, the wide variety of differences in the amount of liquid versus fat versus flour? The differences in the amount of baking powder, just everything?

    OH yeah, if you use ‘cake flour’ they are a thouand times softer inside. Cake flour has a low protein level, like 7 grams, regular flour has 11 to 12 grams. I don’t know what that means, except higher protein flour isn’t as fluffy. I had to buy some imported Serbian flour just to get some cake flour here, Sweden is so weird. But american LILY flour is an example of a ‘soft’ flour, the difference was AMAZING, the inside was like a cloud fluff.

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