Making biscuits is not merely baking, it is an art. It seems counter intuitive that baking something with so few ingredients would be so difficult to master. But it is. I remember the first batch of biscuits I ever made; they came out more like hockey pucks than they did biscuits. They were inedible. Really more like weapons than a morning breakfast treat. So the more you practice, the more the dough will start to talk to you and let you know when it’s just right to make a deliciously light, flaky addition to your weekend breakfast or brunch.
Adding to the complexity of this little piece of bread is the definition of a biscuit, depending on which part of the world you happen to be in at the moment. In some places, such as the United Kingdom, a biscuit is not bread at all; it is more like something that we in America would call a cookie or a cracker. And in the Southern part of the USA a biscuit is a soft, pillowy, warm, inviting palette to which you can place a vast array of foods. Butter and jelly is my preferred method for weekend breakfasts with Larry. However, you could also take the savory route, enjoying your biscuit with sausage and mustard, country ham with red-eye gravy, fried chicken, or gravy made with bacon drippings. I think you get the idea. Slice your biscuit and enjoy it with pretty much anything you like.
The best biscuits I’ve ever tasted were made by my Aunt Easter. Second to hers were the biscuits my father made. Aunt Easter was a great-aunt who lived in Florala, AL which sits at the Florida/Alabama line along the panhandle of Florida, and is also where my dad grew up. I remember visiting Aunt Easter, and the highlight of my trip? You guessed it. Biscuits. I’d wake in the morning to find her in the kitchen, hands swirling round and round the largest bowl I’d ever seen in my life. Then out they would come, drop by drop, onto a sheet pan and into the oven where those heavenly delights of dough would bake into bread that was almost lighter than air. I didn’t know this at the time but Aunt Easter used lard, which you can substitute for the butter in my recipe. Lard will make the biscuits more flaky. I like to use half butter and half lard when I have some lard on hand (leaf lard, which comes from the fat surrounding a pigs kidneys, is the best). Anyhow, back to Aunt Easter. Although I’d watch her make her biscuits, I never knew exactly what ingredients she was using or how she was incorporating them with her hands. She did it fast, almost like a magician pulling gooey blobs of dough from a big bowl of dry flour. Then one day I was watching A Chef’s Life (Season 1, Episode 12 – The Buttermilk Belt) and there was a woman on the show, Lillie Hardy, who showed Chef Vivian Howard how to make biscuits. Lillie made them exactly the way Aunt Easter used to make them. One of life’s mysteries was solved in the moment that I watched Lillie Hardy make those biscuits. I still can’t make them with my hands though. I always end up with a big bunch of biscuit dough stuck to my fingers. So I use a spatula.
Aunt Easter served her biscuits with her homemade fig preserves from the fig tree that grew just outside her back door. To this day I’ve not made a biscuit as good as hers, but I’m still trying.
So here’s my recipe. I think if you asked Larry, he’d tell you that the biscuits are pretty darned good. I’ve tried many different recipes for biscuits and this is the one that I’ve come to count on to consistently make good, light, flaky, pillowy soft biscuits that Larry and I love to enjoy with our weekend breakfasts. I hope you enjoy them too.
Southern Buttermilk Biscuits
I know the instructions look very long and intimidating. Don't be put off by that. Read through them before you start. Once you've made them a couple of times, you, more than likely, won't need the instructions any longer. It's really a simple process.
- 2 cups (10 oz./284 g) all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon (1.2 oz./13 g) baking powder
- 1 teaspoon (.15 oz./5 g) salt
- ¼ teaspoon (.10 oz./2 g) baking soda
- 5 tablespoons (2.5 oz./70 g) butter
- 1 cup (250 ml) buttermilk
- Preheat your oven to 450°F.
- Combine the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda) into a medium-sized bowl and mix together with a whisk to combine well.
- Cut the butter into 1/4s lengthwise and put in the freezer for 10-15 minutes.
- Remove the butter from the freezer and grate the cold butter into the dry mixture.
- Incorporate the butter into the dry mixture using a pastry blender or two knives. The butter is already pretty small from grating, so you only need to blend for 5-10 seconds. There should be noticeable pieces of butter.
- (Optional) Place the flour/butter mixture and the 1 cup of buttermilk in the freezer for 10-15 minutes.
- Remove the flour/butter mixture and the buttermilk from the freezer.
- You may need to stir the buttermilk, as it will probably be frozen on the top.
- Make a well in the center of the flour and pour the buttermilk into the well.
- Using a spatula, start in the center and start combining more and more flour into the buttermilk just until it comes together to form a dough. Work as quickly as you can and try not to overwork the dough.
- If the mixture is too wet, add more flour.
- If the mixture is too dry, add a few more drops of buttermilk.
- The dough should be fairly dry but should hold together well.
- Sprinkle some flour on your work surface and place the dough on your work surface on top of the flour.
- Knead the dough by folding in half and gently pressing into the dough about 3-4 times. It is very important that the dough is not overworked at this point. If it is, the biscuits will be tough.
- Pat the dough into a rectangle that is about 1 ½-inches high making sure the dough is not sticking to your work surface. If the dough sticks, scrape along the bottom of the dough and add more flour to your work surface.
- Using a bench scraper or a knife, cut the rectangle of dough in half lengthwise and then cut each one of those pieces into six pieces (or four pieces if you want larger biscuits).
- Place the individual biscuits onto a parchment-lined sheet pan or an iron skillet and place them about two inches apart (or if you like soft-sided biscuits, place them about ½-inch apart and they will end up touching as they bake).
- With your thumb, make a dimple in the center of each biscuit.
- Place the biscuits into the oven, adjust the temperature to 425°F, and bake for 15-20 minutes or until the biscuits are golden brown.
- Serve them while they are hot.
You can substitute lard for the butter or, my favorite method, is to use half butter and half lard. It makes a flakier biscuit without losing the flavor of the butter. Play around with it. The most important thing is to have fun while you're in the kitchen. Keep making them. Your biscuits will get better every time you make them.