2/7/10 UPDATE: After recently acquiring some hand-rendered lard, I made a batch of biscuits using it instead of the butter. They were the best so far - still tasty and flaky, and super tender. If you can get hold of some, you should definitely try it. Also, if you use buttermilk instead of milk, the biscuits rise a little higher if you add 1/2 a teaspoon of baking soda. Both of these notes have been added to the recipe linked to in the next paragraph.
Since I wrote this post on flaky biscuits. I have learned a thing or two along the way which I think are worth sharing with you. I thought it would also be helpful if I took you through the process one step at a time, so if you had any reservations at all about tackling them you could see how easy they really are. I hope the pictures below will convince you that these are worth making, and making often.
So what have I learned? The most important thing I learned is from when I had some buttermilk in the refrigerator and no idea of how I wanted to use it. I started to wonder what would happen if I simply substituted the buttermilk for the milk in the Tassajara Bread Book recipe.
The result was spectacular. While the recipe is delicious as is, the buttermilk elevated it to something sublime. The minute I tasted it I knew it was how these beauties were meant to be made. The light tang from the buttermilk acts as a flavor enhancer for the rest of the ingredients and takes the flavor to another level. While I would make biscuits with milk again if I did not have any buttermilk around, I plan to never be out of buttermilk again so I don't have to make that sacrifice. It's amazing how that one ingredient can make such a big difference.
What else have I learned? I'm a little chagrined to say that I've learned to cut the biscuits into rounds, rather than just slicing the dough. It is certainly faster to just roll them out and slice them, but as I've been mastering the technique, I've realized that when you slice the knife through the dough rather than cutting straight down with a cutter, it seals the edges so they don't rise, and I ended up with pieces that were higher on one end than the other. Using a cutter, and cutting straight down without twisting, helps the biscuits rise evenly, and higher than they would otherwise.
I did not have a biscuit cutter, but I did have a recycling box that had an empty can of coconut milk in it. Looking at it, I realized it was just about the size I wanted my biscuits to be. I cut out the bottom side with a can opener and voila! - the perfect biscuit cutter. You can see it in the next-to-the-last photo. It works perfectly.
I've also learned to handle the dough as little as possible, to keep the biscuits as tender as possible. It's not like they'll be as tough as shoe leather, but there is definitely a difference if they've been handled too much.
But those things are all easy to accomplish, and the photos below should give you an idea how, if you've never tackled them before. I hope they will encourage you to get busy with the biscuits, because they are a fast, easy, delicious way to start the day.
Full disclosure: You might notice that some of the biscuits shown below seem to be missing the thyme. That's because they don't have any. The photos were taken over two different baking session in order to get the best samples
For the actual recipe, go to this post.
Turn on the oven and set it to 450 deg. F. You want to make sure that the oven is fully heated by the time the biscuits are ready. Next, combine the dry ingredients. What we have in this bowl is flour, baking powder and salt. There is also a teaspoon of dried thyme in there - I was experimenting with herbs, but you don't have to.
After measuring out the ingredients, I took a whisk and mixed them all together, to make sure the baking powder and salt were fully incorporated into the flour.
Next you are ready to add the butter. Actually, I cut the butter into 1/2-inch pieces before I do anything else and put them in the refrigerator while I am getting the rest of the ingredients together. You want the butter to be cold, and cutting it warms it up a little. This is not critical, but I've gotten into the habit of starting there and it ensures that the butter is nice and cold by the time I am ready to add it to the flour mixture. Here, as you can see, I've just put it into the bowl. Before I start to cut it into the flour, I will gently coat the pieces with the flour to split them up a little.
I have had a pastry cutter for most of my adult life, and for most of my adult life I never knew exactly what to do with it. I understood the concept - you use it to cut the butter into the flour mixture. But I always just ended up with massive clumps of butter stuck to the solid sides of the cutter instead of blended into the flour.
What was I doing wrong? I'm not sure, because it's fairly straightforward and simple. I'm a little embarrassed to say that I think the main problem was elbow grease. You do have to work the cutter like you mean it, and before you know it you have the butter cut down to size (sorry - couldn't help it) and well blended with the flour. I know some cooks use their fingers and smush (is that a word?) the flour and butter together, and I'm sure that would work just as well.
After the butter has been cut into the flour mixture, you want to make a well in the bottom of the bowl. I try to get the flour mixture as high up the sides of the bowl as I can.
That is why it is good to use a bowl that is the right size for the amount of ingredients you are using. If you use a bowl that is too big, you can't really get the well deep enough to contain the liquid which you are about to pour into it. I do not use my bread bowl to make biscuits - a medium-size bowl works best - I think this bowl would hold about 6 cups.
First you crack the eggs into the well . . .
. . . and then you add the buttermilk. As you can see, the sides of the mixture are still a few inches higher than the liquid in the well. That's what you want. This helps keep the liquid separated from the dry for as long as possible.
Take the whisk and briskly mix the eggs and buttermilk together. You could do this separately in another bowl and just add them already beaten, but why dirty another bowl? Besides, it's fun to watch it come together right there in the bowl.
After the egg and buttermilk are combined, take a big spoon (wooden is best but not necessary) and, starting with the liquid, start combining it with the dry in concentric circles until the flour mixture is just moistened. This is where you want to start being careful how much you work the dough. Once you combine the liquid with the dry, the more you work with it the tougher the flour will become. Once the ingredients have started to come together, I will start folding the dough rather than stirring it.
Using a scraper, I then turn the dough out of the bowl onto a floured surface, in this case, my countertop.
The dough will be wet at this point, so you want to make sure you have enough flour on the surface, otherwise it will stick when you start to knead it. And you don't want that, believe me. After you have scraped the dough out of the bowl, cover the top part with a good coating of flour as well. With your hands, lightly knead the dough just a few times, enough to just bring it together. It will still be wet inside, but you want the surface area to be floured enough so that you can start to roll it out.
This is what it looks like when it's ready to roll. It doesn't matter that it's not smooth. You're going to roll it out a few times, and those breaks and cracks in the dough are what's going to help it flake when it rises. The most important thing is that it has enough flour on it that you can roll it without it sticking to the rolling pin.
Notice that the dough is oblong. You are going to roll it into a rectangle, so you want to start with a rectangular shape. Take a generous pinch of flour in your hands and brush it onto the rolling pin. Roll gently out from the center first on the bottom, and then on the top, always starting in the center and rolling away, until the dough is about 1/2-inch thick.
And here is the first roll. It's not the prettiest thing in the world, but that doesn't matter. It will get better as you go.
After this first rolling, the dough is still pretty wet inside, so you want to be careful when you fold up the ends. Lift up the top third of the dough, being careful to scoop up anything that is stuck to the counter top, and fold it over toward the center, then do the same with the bottom. If necessary (and it probably will be), throw down some more flour on your surface where the top and bottom were.
Here's how it looks after the first fold. Turn the dough a quarter turn, so that the narrow part of the rectangle is facing up and down. Again starting in the middle and rolling out, roll another 1/2-inch rectangle.
Fold it in thirds and turn another quarter turn. Roll it out into a 1/2-inch rectangle once more. This last time, you can also roll it out a little from side to side so all of the sides are even.
This is how it will look after the third roll-out. All of those rolls and folds will make your biscuits nice and flaky. Take a 2 to 3-inch biscuit cutter, or a can with both ends opened, and dip it into some flour. Position the cutter over the dough and push it straight down until it has cut through. Do not twist the cutter or you will toughen the edges and they will not rise. Cutting the dough with a knife will have the same effect. That's why I don't cut my biscuits with a knife anymore. It really does make a difference when you use a biscuit cutter (or a coconut milk can).
After you have cut as many biscuits as you can from the rolled out dough, combine the scraps, kneading as little as possible, and roll them out to a 1/2-inch width, again folding and turning two times. Keep doing this until you run out of dough.
And here they are all cut out and ready to go. Note the three biscuits on the bottom left of the pan. I got tired of rolling out the dough and decided to just shape them with my hands. I was curious to see how they would fare.
And here is the finished product. See how light and flaky they are. You will have to take my word for it that they are quite tender and almost melt in the mouth.
Except for those three hand-rolled biscuits. In this picture they are on the top right. You can see that they didn't rise at all and look more like dinner rolls than biscuits. But they were just as tender and full of flavor, so it was not exactly a tragedy.
And there you have it. The flakiest, tenderest, most mouth-wateringest biscuits you will ever make.