Podcasts

How Carla Hall Bakes (& Eats) A Perfect Biscuit

As heard on our new podcast, 'The Genius Recipe Tapes': a biscuit recipe decades-in-the-making, beginner baker no-no's, and Carla Hall's '90s sandwich business.

by:
October  7, 2020

The Genius Recipe Tapes is a weekly show from Food52's new podcast network, featuring all the uncut gems from the weekly Genius Recipes column and video series. This week, Kristen spoke with chef, cookbook author, and TV personality Carla Hall. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.


As Kristen announced a few weeks ago, over the past few months, we've been hard at work on a fun, new project: The Genius Recipe Tapes—aka more genius, and now for your ears.

On the show, you'll hear not only from the geniuses behind iconic recipes, but what they're up to, how they've been, what they're excited to make for dinner that night. This week: a call with the generous and wise Carla Hall quickly spiraled into a virtual biscuit masterclass, and we were 100 percent not mad about it.

Check out the full transcript below (or hit 'play' and head right to the kitchen yourself) for all the earth-shattering biscuit-making tips you never knew you needed.


Kristen Miglore (voiceover): Hi, I'm Kristen Miglore, lifelong Genius hunter. For almost a decade, I've been unearthing the recipes that have changed the way we cook. On The Genius Recipe Tapes, we’re sharing the behind-the-scenes moments from talking with the geniuses themselves that we couldn't quite squeeze into the column or video series: the extra-genius tricks, the off-road riffs, and the personal stories that actually have nothing to do with the recipe that week. This week I called up Carla Hall—of Top Chef fame, and cookbooks like Carla Hall's Soul Food—to talk about the biscuits that she has spent decades perfecting.

Kristen: Hi, Carla!

Carla: Hello! This is really exciting. It is biscuit time, and I can't tell you how many times I'm trying to tell somebody over a phone call, or something, how to make really great biscuits. So this is perfect.

Kristen: I know that you spent your life perfecting biscuits—is that right?

Carla: Absolutely. Seriously. And you know why? Because I feel like—and I make biscuits with strangers because I feel like—you should either know how to make a good biscuit or recognize one, you know. (Laughs) So don't send anybody to a place, and be like “oh, they have really great biscuits!” And you’re like, no…they don’t have very good biscuits.

(Kristen laughs)

Kristen: Well, why don't we start there. Can you tell me about the beginning of your relationship with biscuits? Like from when you were a kid? How did you like to eat them? When did you learn to make them?

Carla: So my grandmother made really great biscuits, and, um, and it was a special thing because my mother didn't make them. So they were always made at my grandmother's house, especially when we stayed there over the summer or over a weekend. She would get up and make these biscuits; and I remember the biscuit cutters. I remember the rolling pin. I remember the crunchy bottoms and the light fluffiness in the center. And it's all about how you eat them. So I eat them like this, because I want a crunchy bottom and the top. I always eat the top first, and save the crunchy bottom second, and I put butter on it first, so it can melt and then jam—different kinds of jams!— one on the top and one on the bottom. So that's my whole thing, that's how I've always eaten them to this very day, I understand some people make a sandwich, that they'll cut them in half and eat it like that. That's not my jam.

Um, I started making biscuits when I had a lunch delivery service. So back in 1990. And I started lunch delivery service as a fluke, and I sold biscuits with smoked turkey.

Kristen: And that's when you realized you needed to learn how to make your own?

Carla: Yes, and it was a process. It was a process, but an interesting fun fact. I was living in London right before that, and so I saw a scones recipe in The Guardian, and I used that as my base. And then I started mixing that recipe with some of the tips that my grandmother had. So I literally took something from England and the Southern recipe and mushed them together for my perfect recipe.

Kristen:Wow, how close was that to the version in Carla Hall's Soul Food? Back then were you doing the same tricks or were you doing something—

Carla: No, the recipe was really basic. My biscuit was flat and I started—even, even to this very day I'm always looking for really simple ways to teach people how to make a perfect biscuit, which throws me into some kind of trick, because I have the feel, as I’ve been making them for decades now. But I have the touch, and the feel, but I'm like, how can I teach somebody how to make the perfect biscuit? And it was when I had my restaurant for a very short period of time—so around 2016? 2017?—and I had to teach these young kids how to make biscuits who had never really made a biscuit before. So that's when I was trying to really come up with a foolproof way and a consistent way because, you know, if you have a restaurant, it’s all about consistency.

Kristen: Got it. So were you doing the food processor method then, with the grating attachment? Or were you doing it by hand, hand grating the butter

Carla: At the restaurant, we did do it with a food processor.

Kristen: Okay.

Carla: Because it was a lot of butter.

(Both laugh)

Kristen:Yeah, yeah, a lot to grate on a box grater by hand. So with this technique, were you trying to achieve the same kind of biscuit you had made by hand by feel all those years, or were you going for a different kind of texture at all? Were you just trying to do your perfect biscuit, but with a simpler technique?

Carla: So I was trying to do a consistent biscuit that was tall and fluffy because sometimes mine were flat. And at the time—and this was before culinary school—I didn't understand the temperature of the butter. I didn't understand why sometimes they would be flat, sometimes they would be tall. So it was all of that. And so I'm always looking for a biscuit that's really fluffy in the center, and this is. And I make angel biscuits, which is with yeast; I make biscuits that are drop drop biscuits, so that's a different thing.

The biscuit that I'm talking about now is partially laminated, so I want that tall biscuit with a brown top, which means, you know, I can’t use bleached flour, because it doesn't brown the same way. And that crunchy bottom.

Kristen:: Could you just talk about the most important things about this technique that beginners should be keeping in mind as they follow your recipe?

Carla: The most important thing is cold butter. I mean, that is the most important thing, and it's because butter has water in it. You need the fat, and I use a really good fatty butter. And I think what people could do is just go and look at butters and look at the fat content, but also the water content. So a European butter tends to have less water. So I look at the fat content, and it has to be cold, because when that cold butter goes into the oven, that water converts to steam, and it's the steam that gives the biscuits the lift—so that that's really, really important. The other thing is measuring the flour.

I spend a lot of time telling people how to measure their flour. A lot of times what people will do is they take the flour, and they just dig in there with the cup, and then they tap it down, and then they never aerate the flour. If flour has been sitting, it just gets really heavy. Even when you pour your flour into a bowl and you whisk it, you're like, oh, that first little stir is hard to stir because it has settled. In the summer time, not only has it settled, but it also absorbs humidity.

So the first thing is, you whisk the flour, and I don't always do this, like take my flour out, put it in a bowl and whisk it if I have more space. Sometimes I’ll just take the whisk into the flour bag and spoon it out into the cup and then level it off with a knife or a bench scraper. What I see people do all the time: as soon as they do that, they’ll do the whisk, they’ll aerate the flour, they’ll aerate the flour, and then they will take [the measuring cup] and then go (Carla taps her table). They’ll settle it, and they put in more flour, and I’m like NOOOOOOOO! Because you just undid everything that I asked you to do. And now you're adding one or two tablespoons more flour, and it throws off the ratio of dry to wet mixture.

And I think that's why a lot of people don't have great biscuits, because I think that's probably why their cakes aren't light, because your ratios are off. And we have this thing about not wanting to do weights. If you did your flour by weight, if you wouldn't have that issue. So I spend a lot of time telling people how to measure their ingredients.

Kristen: Got it. And I feel like a lot of your other tips are also about not adding in more flour along the way.

Carla: Yes, exactly, right. So once I put the dry ingredients in, the other tip is to spray your cutting board. So now you have, you have your dry ingredients, you have your buttermilk. I also spray the cutting board with oil so that you put flour on, so that that flour will stay in place because your dough is wet. If you sprinkle your dry cutting board with flour and you put down, wet dough, it’s gonna pick up all the flour that you just sprinkled on your cutting board. So we want to control that, and that's why I spray the cutting board, then put flour down. Now you have this velvety section square section that you're going to work in.

Kristen: I love that tip, and if you don't have cooking spray, could you just butter the board or oil the board?

Carla: You can butter the board. Oiling is probably better a lot of times. If you butter it, you're gonna have lumps, you know, because it's not gonna be smooth. So what I would do is just take a paper towel, put some oil on—whatever kind of oil—and just make your little square. And it's all smooth. What I find with butter, people will put too much butter, because they think more is better and then you have lumps of butter and then their flour is in a clump, and ah la la la la la—

(Both laugh)

Carla: So, look to alleviate —I mean, I've done it. I put butter down, I put the shortening down. And so, you know, but I've done this a lot. So I know what to look for, and what not to do.

Kristen: Is there anything else that you see beginner bakers do with making biscuits that you are like, no, no, no, please, please stop?

Carla: I think the rolling pin. People love a rolling pin, and they naturally think they want to do a rolling pin. I think that people have seen people make biscuits and so because they haven't done it, and they're like, oh, I've seen this on television. I'm saying, I'm not even talking about a cooking show. I'm talking about, maybe, just a movie where you've seen somebody make biscuits, and you see them rolling out dough, and then they will cut them out into these little hockey pucks. I don't use a rolling pin, I only use my hands, because I don't want to pack down the dough. If I'm doing shortbread, that's a whole different thing. But if I am doing regular biscuits, I don't want my dough packed down, really pat down, so it will create a fluffier biscuit. People tend to overwork the dough, they really want to feel like they're doing something. I feel like it's when people are cooking, and they like, they wanna toss, you know, the pan up in the air— like, there's no fire up there! There's no fire up there, so keep the pan down.

I understand why you're tossing, but they're tossing because they've seen it, not because they're trying to toss something that's very gentle in their pan and they don't wanna mush it. They think this is what they're supposed to do. But If you don't understand why behind what you're doing, you will make a mistake.

Kristen (voiceover): This is The Genius Recipe Tapes. We'll be right back.

Kristen: Where do you think there's flexibility to use something else with the ingredients? And where do you think, you just, if you don't have this thing, you should just wait until it's safer to go to the store?

Carla: I’ve even made my biscuits with coconut oil, so unrefined coconut oil instead of butter. I have made these biscuits vegan, so I've used coconut oil or a cultured vegan butter, or a milk substitute. If I'm using a milk substitute—oat milk, almond milk, macadamia milk—I choose the one with the most fat because biscuits need that. So that's the thing. You also think about that fat content, when substituting buttermilk, which even during regular times, you go to the grocery store and you will see low-fat buttermilk. It's an oxymoron right there on the label. Is it low-fat, or is it butter? I mean, I don't know. Is it margarine milk?

(Kristen laughs)

Carla: I don't know what it is. So what is this? (Laughs) So I tend to get the low-fat buttermilk, but a lot of people don't have it. So in these times, I would say, get whole-fat whole milk and then sour cream, because you generally are going to use the milk, the whole milk, and you're gonna use sour cream for something else. In this case, you're gonna put them together. A lot of times new cooks will ask me, oh, can I make my own buttermilk? Can I just put, um, lemon juice or vinegar in the milk and make my own? No, you cannot. Because that is not adding the fat, you still have the same amount of fat in your milk. I mean, that's great for making ricotta, but I don't suggest it for biscuits.

Kristen: And what are you looking for when you're combining those two things? Is it roughly half and half, or are you looking for a particular consistency?

Carla: I'm looking for the consistency of heavy cream or a little bit thicker.

Kristen: Okay, got it. And flours. Would you ever use a different type of flour besides unbleached all-purpose?

Carla: I have! I have used different types. I'm going to say right now I love King Arthur, just because I just love it. I look on the back of the bag and it's, you know, it's wheat and barley and it's unbleached and that works well. I have done a side-by-side by My Southern Beauty, um, White Lily and and I'm not gonna poo poo it, if that's what you can get, you know? But it doesn't brown the same way, and it tastes slightly different. But that's fine. I've used Gold Medal. I've used every kind of flour, so it's fine. It may brown differently.

Kristen: Okay, what about whole-wheat flours and spelt flours, and things like that?

Carla: If you're doing a whole wheat, I would say use whole-wheat pastry flour, because it's a little lighter. Otherwise, mix a whole-wheat flour with a white flour. It's just gonna be a very different biscuit. You can use spelt, absolutely. Again, you're gonna have to mix it with something, otherwise you're not, it's not gonna be, as light, which is fine. If that's what you're going for.

You could make whole-wheat biscuits. Absolutely. If you're gluten free and you want to do something Cup-4-Cup or Anson Mills, the ratio is very different. You wouldn't need as much liquid because a gluten-free flour doesn't absorb the liquids in the same way.

Kristen: If people didn't have shortening on hand, could they just do the same thing with butter or oil?

Carla: I would say oil and I have done this. I made biscuits in Germany. It was a U.S.O. event, and they couldn't get shortening. So I ended up taking just vegetable oil, two tablespoons, and then tossing the flour in that. That basically, that shortening or that oil, gives you that crunchiness that you really want. Butter is very different because butter has water in it, so it doesn't really react the same way, so you could just do two tablespoons of oil.

One of the things that we didn't talk about in terms of the biscuits was how I punched them out. So after I do the folds, right, I look for the pretty side and the pretty side goes down on the cutting board. I have my dough—that's gonna be about three quarters to an inch thick, and that depends on how big they're gonna be, right. If they're gonna be really small, you could make them a little flatter. But with a two-inch cutter, you want about three quarters of an inch. I press the biscuit cutter straight down; I don't twist it. Then I twist it once it gets to the cutting board and I shake it out, and then I turn the dough over so the pinched edge is on the top. And the reason I do that is because you're gonna get like, an eighth of an inch, a little bit, higher lift. If you keep it on the bottom, the weight of the biscuit keeps that pinched edge down, so that's just a very simple little trick, and it’s just little things like that so you could get a big, high biscuit.

Kristen: How do you pick up these tips? I mean, is it just from making it over and over and over, or talking to other people who make biscuits? There's just so many little genius tricks all through your recipe.

Carla: It's all of that. It is looking at people make biscuits, it’s looking at other recipes. It's looking at Cook's Illustrated, and you know, when they go through these things. And so over the years, I've just gathered little tips—oh, there was another tip that I got from Nathalie Dupree. So, Nathalie was talking to me about how she mixes, like, this old-fashioned way—where you have a big bowl and you would take your fat, and your lard, and you mix it in the hollow of your liquid.

I even tried mixing my shortening with an immersion blender with the buttermilk, and it's a completely different texture, and it is beautiful. It is so beautiful. And the biscuit: It's so light because all that buttermilk has fat straight through it. And so you don't worry about putting it in the flour, because it's all gonna touch every piece of that flour. Oh my God, it's so gorgeous. I know, I get so excited.

Kristen: Okay, well, I'm trying that one next!

Carla: It is beautiful. It is so great. And when she told me, I was like, oh, my gosh, because when I make my pie dough, I put the salt and the sugar in the water not in the flour. Because instead of having water with flour, salt, sugar, salt, sugar, now I have salt-sugar water that goes through the entire pie crust. So this is the same thing: that fat is in the buttermilk, and you've increased the fat. So now it's going through.

One other thing: If you're making this, let's say you say, oh, I want to try that buttermilk trick later, so once you have your dry mix, you can actually keep that in the freezer. You can make your dry mix and just put it in a zip-top bag, keep it in the freezer, pull it out when you want to make some biscuits and you're just adding the buttermilk.

Kristen: And then there's no chance that you're, well, very little chance you're gonna warm up your butter if everything was frozen.

Carla: Yeah!

Kristen: Carla, thank you so much for taking the time.

Carla: You're welcome.

Kristen (voiceover): Thanks for listening. Our show was put together by Coral Lee, Gabriella Mangino, Alik Barsoumian, and me, Kristen Miglore. You can find all the Genius Recipes, videos and stories on our site, Food52.com. And if you have a genius recipe that you'd like to share, please email it to me at [email protected]—I am always hunting. If you like The Genius Recipe Tapes, be sure to rate and review us. It really helps. See you next time.

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From our new podcast network, The Genius Recipe Tapes is lifelong Genius hunter Kristen Miglore’s 10-year-strong column in audio form, featuring all the uncut gems from the weekly column and video series. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out.

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Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.

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