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How to Make the Perfect Buttermilk Biscuits

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We should all have a solid command of the ABCs of baking. Thankfully, Food52's Test Kitchen Manager Erin McDowell is here, with tips and tricks to help you master the most essential desserts and the simplest breads.

Today: How to make perfectly flaky buttermilk biscuits -- no Southern drawl required.

I’m not from the South; I didn’t grow up with White Lily flour on my mother’s countertops, and I didn’t fry anything in bacon grease (gulp) until my early twenties. But biscuits were still a pretty important part of my upbringing in the midwest. We eat a lot of fried chicken out there. And in my world, biscuits are crucial to the consumption of fried chicken. 

Regardless of the path that got me here (which may be littered with hundreds of fried chicken crumbs), I have a fair share to say about buttermilk biscuits. It may not all be "authentic" -- I may opt for boosted flavor over perfect appearance and throw in an entirely non-traditional (and totally optional, if you’re a purist) garnish -- but stay with me here. A slew of holiday meals are headed your way, and we should all be armed with a solid biscuit recipe to get through it all.

Here’s what you need to know to make your own perfect biscuits (whatever your definition of perfect may be):

Take a flour inventory. As nearly every biscuit recipe from trusted sources will tell you, White Lily flour is the absolute best. White Lily is a flour commonly available in the South -- it’s a bleached flour made from soft winter wheat and has low protein levels (9 to 10%). Most White Lily flour is also self-rising, though it is also available without the addition of a leavener.

In this way, it’s most similar to cake flour, which also has low protein levels (8 to 10%), is commonly bleached, and will lend a similar tenderness to the finished biscuit. That’s really what all this mumbo-jumbo is about: You want to use a flour that won’t get overworked, will stay tender, and will produce a light-as-air, flaky biscuit. But to be honest, I’ve made my recipe with all-purpose flour in a pinch, and it works pretty well.

Choose your fat wisely. Biscuits can be made with lard, and they are great made with bacon fat. But for me, nothing beats butter. The sweet flavor of the butter best complements the natural flavor of the buttermilk. Lard and bacon grease biscuits may be flaky, but the flavor is more neutral or smoky, respectively.

If you do use butter, I highly encourage you to choose a high-fat, flavorful one (like Kerrygold or Plugra). Whatever fat you use, make sure it’s nice and cold before you begin mixing. 

More: Our community has great advice for how to make perfectly flaky biscuits, too.

Know your leavener. Many Southern recipes for biscuits use White Lily self-rising flour and also add more leavener (usually baking powder). It may seem like a lot, but biscuits are not a time to skimp on it. Aside from the little bit of steam you get from cold butter hitting the heat of your oven, biscuits rely exclusively on chemical leaveners -- there are no eggs to make them light and fluffy. 

Baking powder -- a mixture of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), cornstarch, and a powdered acid -- is the most commonly used chemical leavener for biscuits. It creates carbon dioxide when it hits the heat of the oven and must be activated by the presence of an acid. Double-acting varieties, which are common, activate when hydrated (mixed into a batter or dough), as well as when they hit the heat of the oven. A generous amount of baking powder is crucial to light, fluffy biscuits -- but too much will lend a chemical taste to your final result. 

Don’t skimp on the buttermilk. Use the good stuff. Buttermilk is traditionally low in fat (1.5% is the average for most available brands), and if there was ever a time to find the good, local product, this is it. You really can taste the difference when you use a fresh variety. Sometimes I’ll even “make my own” by adding vinegar to high-quality local milk (a good rule of thumb is 1 teaspoon vinegar to 1 cup of milk). 

Take a note from pie dough. Remember everything you’ve learned about mixing pie dough? The process of making biscuits is really quite similar: Rub the cold butter into the flour to create shingled pieces of fat throughout the flour. The idea is to create a shaggy, mealy mass with butter pieces ranging from the size of a walnut half to the size of a pea. 

Whatever you do, don’t roll out the dough. Biscuit dough should be handled as little as possible to keep it tender. Lightly flour your surface and use your hands to shape the dough into a square or rectangle. The most important thing here is the thickness -- you want a generous height to begin with to make those gorgeously towering biscuits we all dream of. I like to shape my biscuit dough to about 1 inch thick. Use a floured biscuit cutter to cut out your biscuits and transfer them to your prepared baking sheets.

More: Next learn how to make yogurt biscuits without a recipe.

Take a moment and chill out. I’ve found that chilling my biscuits before I bake them is really helpful. Of course, I know from experience that any baked good that’s high in fat needs to be cold when it’s baked (and baked at a high temperature, to boot); this ensures that the butter melts properly, releasing steam that helps to leaven the baked good and produce flaky layers. Fifteen minutes in the refrigerator or 5 minutes in the freezer usually does the trick. Your biscuits won’t dramatically suffer if you don’t have time for this -- they just tend to spread out more, rather than gain vertical height (see below).

The biscuit on the right was chilled before baking.

Butter or egg wash: You decide. Once you’re ready to bake, you’ve got two options for finishing your biscuits: Brush them with melted butter or with an egg wash. For your convenience (and my own curiosity), I tried my biscuits both ways -- I often switch between the two. On the one hand, I like the boost of flavor a brushing of butter provides. On the other hand, egg wash makes the biscuits look shiny and golden brown. See below for the results.

The biscuit on the left was coated with butter; on the right, egg wash.

Decide for yourself: If you want pretty, go with egg wash. Or, you can get really crazy and brush the biscuit with egg wash before baking, then coat them with a bit of melted butter when they first come out of the oven -- the best of both worlds.

They like it hot, hot, hot. Biscuits, like pies, breads, and most yeast-risen pastries benefit from a high oven temperature. 425° F is the magic number for my biscuits -- it creates steam as moisture evaporates from the butter, creating a burst of leavening straight out of the gate (a low oven temperature can cause the butter to melt, yielding flatter, less towering biscuits). Plus, the immediate burst of heat is a surefire way to get the best oven-spring from your leavening agent.

Finish with flair. What can I say? I like salt. I like to finish my buttermilk biscuits with a sprinkling of flaky salt (coarse kosher salt works, too) after they’ve been buttered or egg washed. 


Buttermilk Biscuits

Makes 12 to 15 biscuits

5 cups (22 ounces) all-purpose flour (White Lily flour is best, if you can get it)
1 teaspoon (3 1/2 grams) kosher salt
1 tablespoon (15 grams) baking powder
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cold and cubed
2 cups (16 fluid ounces) buttermilk

Read the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Erin McDowell

Tags: Brunch, Side, Bake, Long Reads, DIY Food, How-To & Diy