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The great secret: How to make perfect biscuits

January 31, 2008

biscuitsI’ve been on a quest since mid-November. Longer, really, but that was about when I got seriously dedicated to The Quest for the Perfect Biscuit. It’s an art, and an art at which until now I was mostly failing to master. My mom occasionally comments on her own skills in the art, including the facts that her grandmother’s biscuits (and everybody knows grandmothers make the best biscuits) were made with lard, and the lard was cut in with her hands. None of this fancy Cuisinart shortcutting.

One day in Target, I saw lard. Now, I’ve seen plenty of lard for sale. But usually in buckets, measured in gallons. But Target sells it in a one-pound little box that looks just like a box of butter. Well, except for being green, saying LARD instead of BUTTER, and smelling like strange meat products. I will not tell you lies. This stuff does not smell good. But it makes some damn fine biscuits.

As a side note, I asked a nutritionist about the whole lard thing. I’ve always thought of lard as, “yikes! bad fats! stay away!” But once I bought the lard and read the package… really it’s no worse than butter. It’s even better, in some respects. So I said, “Hey, nutritionist lady. What’s up with all the anti-lard movement?” And she agreed with me that lard is no more bad for you than butter. So you heard it here. The nutritionist green-lighted my lardo biscuits. And I’m extending the green light to you.

Then I commenced reading everything the Internet could tell me about the art of biscuit making and applied said knowledge. I have not perfected the biscuit, but I’ve gotten pretty darn close. They are crunchy and flaky on the outside, smooth and fluffy on the inside. So I’m ready to share what I’ve learned. (The picture, by the way, is of tonight’s thawed and baked batch. More on that later.)

Here’s the how-to.

At whatever point you feel it’s appropriate to start preheating, turn your oven to 425. Mix together your dry ingredients: 1 cup of cake flour and 1 cup of White Lily all-purpose flour. Yes, it has to be White Lily. White Lily is known for its low protein content, which is good news for your biscuits. Then 1 tablespoon of baking powder, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Those last two are where I’m currently fiddling. I think it needs a smidge more of both, but I don’t want to overdo it either.

Next cut in your fats. The total should be about 1/3 cup or a bit more. I’ve gone to using half lard and half Butter Flavor Crisco. It’s even trans-fat free! Using all of either one will work fine, as would regular Crisco. But this half and half seems to be the perfect mix for the joy of the lard and the buttery goodness of the Crisco. In reality it might be because I just hate getting the lard smell all over my hands.

How to cut them in? My mom uses the aforementioned Cuisinart. I can’t on any given day correctly assemble my food processor, so I’ve been doing it by hand. It feels more authentic that way anyway. The first few batches I did literally by hand, working the fats into the flour mixture until I got what they call a “crumbly, coarse meal texture.” It’s really kind of satisfying. But also messy, and I’m not always interested in getting messy. So lately I’ve been using one of these doohickeys, which are apparently called dough blenders. I knew we owned one, and I was only marginally certain what it did. So I waved it at the baking-class-graduate husband and said, “Hey, is this for cutting in the fat?” which he confirmed. Sorry, I know that little anecdote didn’t inspire confidence in this recipe. But like I told you, my mom used the Cuisinart.

Now the wet part. Push all the “coarse, crumbly meal” to the sides of the bowl so you have a “well” in the center. Pour in about 3/4 of a cup of milk. Whole if you’ve got it, skim will do. Now your goal is to get dough using as few strokes as possible. Turn it into a contest with yourself. Beat your record. You may have to use as much as 1/4 cup more milk. It seems to depend on the general humidity. There are differing opinions on this, but I think the best result comes from having the wettest dough you can physically work with in the next part, which is the cutting.

If you’re really lazy, now just drop the dough on a cookie sheet and call it a night. Or call it “drop biscuits,” which they are. But I like the smooth tops of cut biscuits, so we’ll keep going.

Pat out a blob of the dough on a floured surface. (Either of the flours.) Pat it down to about 1/3-1/2″. Now fold a third toward the middle, then the other third, like folding a piece of letter to put in an envelope. Pat it out again and repeat, but folding the other two sides in. Do that a few times until you’re in the mood to stop. 😀 I think I usually do about 6 foldings? You don’t want to overwork the dough, but this is how you get the flaky layers.

Now use your biscuit cutter (or a floured glass, although the biscuit cutter is easier–no trapped air) and cut straight down. I know your sister twists, but that seals the edges and the biscuit won’t rise. Tell her that over the next Sunday dinner when she criticizes your boyfriend. “Oh yeah? Your biscuits are flat!” Ahem. Now when you pick it up, put the bottom side on top when you put it on the pan to bake. That way if you did seal the edges a bit, the sealed parts are on the bottom now, and the biscuit can still rise.

Remember how you don’t want to overwork the dough? So cut them as close together as possible–touching!–and maybe you work back in leftover pieces once. But no more. Shape what’s left by hand and eat them yourself in secret. You can feed the pretty ones to the guests. I like to braid the extras. Put all the biscuits (or biscuit-like other shapes) close together on the pan. Not touching, but biscuits like to share heat.

Now only bake what you’re going to eat right now. About 15 minutes should do it. You know when biscuits look done. While they’re baking, put the rest in the freezer for a couple of hours on the cookie sheet, then in a freezer bag. You can take them out when you want them and have fresh biscuits. In fact, as I mentioned, tonight’s batch was from the freezer, and I really think they were better than the ones I put directly in the oven last night.

Now you too can make (almost) perfect biscuits! Enjoy!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. mark permalink
    July 13, 2008 6:42 pm

    your biscuit recipe rocks you are the shit!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Bren permalink
    February 23, 2009 7:00 pm

    This is a cute article but I hope you are not serious about these being great biscuits. I will say that the photo of them looks great.

    Maybe I got too caught up in your great humor.

    First, you should use buttermilk.
    Lard is not needed as Crisco is great.

    Anytime one uses baking powder, one has to also add baking soda. Especially, if one is using whole milk.

    I have been cooking great biscuits for 25 years and there is one trick. Do not handle the dough after it is mixed.

    Just put out on a floured board and gently pad down with cold hands. Cut out just like you said. If you want them to rise high, put them in the pan as close together as possible.

    Keep working on it honey. You will get it right. After all, the journey is lot more fun than arriving.

  3. suehle permalink*
    September 27, 2009 2:13 am

    Bren — I promise they’re as delicious as they look. I do use Crisco for some things, and I even like the butter flavored one for some uses. But for biscuits, I can’t agree. Lard is great!

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