Buttermilk Biscuits

(The Southern kind, of course. Sorry, British friends!)

I once had a friend who complained that he was served biscuits and gravy for breakfast at a hotel, and it still boils my blood that he had the audacity to call the dish “vile.” He was not a native Southerner. I’d also like to think that he happened across a particularly bad batch in his travels. Still, unforgivable.

Unlike my very incorrect friend, I love biscuits – they are delightful, buttery, flaky quickbreads that go with whatever meal my heart desires. They take on both savory and sweet flavors, and stale ones can even be repurposed to make amazing French toast or strada. And once you get the hang of making them, they come together in 25-30 minutes, perfect for breakfast or a quick dinner “roll.”

Biscuits need to be both flaky and fluffy, so forget that peel-away layer nonsense that comes in a can. They should also be buttery enough that you don’t even think about buttering them. I’m also most partial to buttermilk biscuits, since they rise more and have a more complex flavor. So, how does one achieve this marvel of a bread? My hard and fast rules:

  1. Sift all of your dry ingredients together. This is a rule I follow in general for my baked goods, but this is especially important for biscuits. Achieving that combination of fluffy and flaky means you need to get the proportions of ingredients just right, as well as keep everything as un-compacted as possible.
  2. Keep your butter cold until you need it. Warm, or even lukewarm butter is the enemy of fluffiness, and the friend of gummy dough and hard biscuits. Some people even keep their butter frozen, but this is a bit much, IMO. Just keep it in the fridge until you absolutely need it.
  3. Keep your batter cold. Avoid kneading with your hands as much as possible – use a wooden spoon or a fork, and only lightly pat and shape the dough right before baking.
  4. Do not overmix your dough. Like pancake batter, there will be dry spots in the dough. This is okay, as long as the dough comes together in a mass – the butter will take care of any dryness during baking.
  5. Use cold buttermilk. If you don’t have true buttermilk, you can make sour milk either by adding 1 tbsp of vinegar or lemon juice per cup of milk and allowing it to sit for 5 minutes. It’s not quite as tangy or complex as buttermilk, but it’s certainly thicker and more sour than plain milk.

It may take some practice to get them right, but even an ugly homemade biscuit is a tasty biscuit, and they’ll get eaten, anyway. I use a biscuit cutter to make rounds (hence the name), but you can also make square biscuits, or even avoid the cutting altogether to make drop biscuits (variation below).

Ready to have the most delicious breakfast of your life? Yeah, let’s do this.

Buttermilk Biscuits

You will need:

  • 3 c flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 tsp cream of tartar (this also helps to keep the dough fluffy)
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 3/4 c cold butter, or 1 1/2 sticks
  • 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 c cold buttermilk
  • 1-2 tbsp melted butter (for topping)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper. Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and cream of tartar in a large bowl.
  2. Cut the cold butter into 1/4 inch cubes, then drop the cubes into the flour mixture. Using a pastry cutter or a fork, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs about the size of lentils, or even smaller.
  3. Make a hole in the center of the flour-butter mixture. Pour 1 1/4 c cold buttermilk all at once into the flour mixture, and mix with a wooden spoon or fork until the dough is just moistened. Remember, dry spots are okay. If the dough is not coming together at all, add the extra 1/4 c of buttermilk.
  4. Lightly flour a clean countertop, and turn the biscuit dough onto the counter. Knead the mixture briefly (using only 5-6 movements with your hands. I’m not kidding about the warm factor here) until the dough just comes together. Do not overknead. Pat or roll the dough until it’s evenly about 3/4 inch in height.
  5. Cut the dough into rounds using a biscuit cutter or drinking glass dipped in flour. Place rounds onto the baking sheet. Re-roll scraps up to 2 more times and repeat. Roll any remaining scraps into a mega-ugly biscuit (this is usually the best one!) and place on the baking sheet. You can also just use a floured pizza wheel and cut the biscuits into squares.
  6. Bake biscuits at 450 degrees F for 10-15 minutes, stopping at about the 8 minute mark to brush the tops with melted butter. Serve immediately.

For drop biscuits: Increase the liquid to 1 1/2 c – 1 3/4 c of milk or buttermilk (it should be significantly wetter than cut biscuits). After Step 3, use a cookie scoop or a large spoon to drop biscuits onto the baking sheet. Bake as directed.

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