Two and a half months in, I can see through the Biscuit Matrix.
When I embarked upon my trawl toward biscuit perfection at the dawn of aught-nine, it was from a flat, sad, bitter place, indeed. Rather than crispy-footed, larded puffs of sweetly steaming layers reaching -- straining ever heavenward, my oven yielded depressing, molar-cracking pucks I refused to inflict upon my entirely un-picky dogs. Now my biscuits rock, and I'm pretty sure it's a matter of methodology rather than recipe.
Here's what I've learned after a couple dozen batches, and plenty of advice from Slashfood commenters, Facebook friends, cookbooks and Southern grandmas:
- Store the flour in the freezer, and sift it before measuring, even if it says "pre-sifted" on the bag. This has a direct effect upon the density. An overall low temperature keeps fat from heating, so use every opportunity to bring the chill. 3 1/2 - 4 cups of flour scooped straight from the bag can yield 5 cups after sifting. It makes a significant difference. Thus far, Southern Biscuit Self-Rising and White Lily All-Purpose have been very good to me.
- Whisk dry ingredients together, rather than stirring, in order to maintain airiness.
- Don't skimp on the salt, and even if it's not called for in the recipe, toss in a pinch of sugar to aid with a crunchy crust. - Chill the fat as well, and experiment to find the blend that suits your tastes. The shortening batches I tried lacked flavor, and once cooled, lost any initial moisture. I've settled on a 50/50 blend of lard and unsalted butter, which adds a rich flavor upon immediate serving, and helps any leftovers remain entirely appealing, even through a re-heating.
- To mix in the fat, cut it into pat-sized pieces, chill your hands under cold water, dry them, and use your fingers to rub the fat into the dry ingredients. Work it down until half feels like meal, and the other half is pea-sized lumps.
- Buttermilk is the only way to go, liquid-wise, and make sure it's cold. The mixture should be fairly wet, as the escaping steam will help loft the layers.
- I've yet to experiment with my grandmother-in-law's pillow-case rolling method, but have opted instead for a brief knead, and then pat the dough into a rough, thick rectangle. Early batches barely held together because I was afraid to touch the dough. I got over it.
- Al la Master Biscuit Maker Scott Peacock, dip a dinner fork into flour and prick the surface of the dough all over before cutting the biscuits. It'll help steam escape. And for goodness sake, don't twist the cutter, as that will seal the sides and inhibit the loft you're after. Let the sides touch a little, as that will provide a pleasing contrast in texture.
- Use an ultra-hot oven, 'bout 500F, and use the top couple of racks. Parchment paper on a cookie sheet provides a perfect, non-stick surface.
- A little bit of melted butter brushed onto the biscuit tops seconds after they leave the oven helps 'em taste like goshdarned heaven above.
The mission continues throughout '09, and I wouldn't have made it this far without your help. If you've any more advice to share in the comments below, I'll happily sop it right on up.
See previous Biscuit Mission dispatches here.
Filed Under: Recipes
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