May 18, 2010, 09:59AM

How to Make the Perfect Biscuits

Just the way Aunt Marilyn used to make them.

I'll always remember Aunt Marilyn's biscuits as the best.

We spent a few idyllic long weekends at her house in Virginia when I was very small and I retain a few sharp memories of those times—there was a hammock in the back yard strung between a magnolia and a pine tree and laying in it smelled like heaven. She had an extensive vegetable garden, and seeing broccoli grow in orderly rows was the first time it occurred to me that broccoli grows out of dirt like a plant. It was a profoundly weird revelation.  

And then there were the biscuits, which arrived at the table in a basket, wrapped in a checkered napkin. Sliced, with a sliver of Virginia ham tucked into each. I can still smell them, and it breaks my heart that I can't recreate them. The closest I've come is moderating a recipe from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American:

Put a skillet with a generous plop of lard into a 500-degree oven. Take 1 c plus 2 tbsp flour and mix in one tbsp salt, 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp baking powder. Rub in one generous tablespoon of butter and one of lard until the mixture looks and feels like cornmeal with pea-sized chunks of fat scattered in it. Add 1/2 a cup of buttermilk and knead lightly for a minute. Turn dough out on a table, roll or even pat to about a 1/2, 3/4 inch thickness. Use a biscuit cutter or a small juice glass to cut rounds.  

Note that the more you handle the dough, the more gluten will form and the less tender they'll be, so don't roll up the leftover dough into a ball, re-roll, and cut more biscuits more than twice. Take the skillet out of the oven and put biscuits in as far away from each other as space will allow. When they're all in, flip all the biscuits over in the order you put them in. Put back in the oven until done, which is usually about 10 minutes. While they're baking, no one will judge you for munching on the scraps of raw dough. 

Now, here are some notes: Jeff Smith's recipe calls for all Crisco instead of a butter/lard mixture. I like to add half butter for flavor, and lard because Crisco, frankly, scares me. It’s an unnatural product. So if pig is treyf, or just skeeves you out, use Crisco. Shortening has a higher melting temperature than butter, which means the little beads of shortening suspended in the dough stay around longer in the oven before finally melting, leaving a tiny pocket of air behind. Unlike a piecrust the fat and steam are not the primary leavening agents, but shortening adds something essential to the texture and an all-butter biscuit would not be as light. 

The buttermilk is used for its acidity. Baking soda and baking powder are the leavening agents in non-yeast biscuits and when activated by the buttermilk they make bubbles in the batter in the manner of the volcano you made out of vinegar and baking soda in the second grade. Buttermilk is not something I keep on hand and if you don't have any, bring an equal amount of milk to room temperature and add a tsp or so of white vinegar. Alternately, buttermilk freezes beautifully. A final note is that most people today use a dough cutter to mix in the fat, but older recipes call for "rubbing it in," and that's the method I prefer. For one thing, dough cutters are a pain to clean, and it's more fun, and easier to use your hands.  

I often whip up a batch of skillet biscuits when I'm feeling low or just need a carb fix, but for company I use a modified recipe from Shirley O. Corriher's Cookwise. 

2 c self-rising flour with 1/8 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 c sugar mixed in. Cut or rub in 3 tablespoons of lard and 1 tablespoon of chilled butter. Add 2/3 c heavy whipping cream and 1 cup of buttermilk. The dough should be unworkably soupy. Have a cup of regular four on hand, and grease a pie plate or brownie pan well. Flour your hands and scoop up the dough in a 1/4 cup measure. Toss it in your hands with a tablespoon of flour until it roughly forms a ball and plop it in the pan. Repeat. You will wind up with scary dough hands. Bake at 425 until light brown, 15-20 minutes, and then immediately pour a few tablespoons of melted butter over. These biscuits are light and cakey, and are good with butter and jam but I think their sweetness really shines next to sausage gravy. 


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