Food & Drink

How to make a better biscuit

Key to making best biscuits and gravy is getting personal with the dough, developing 'the touch'

Flaky, buttery layers are the key to light biscuits. (Joshua Tibbetts)
Flaky, buttery layers are the key to light biscuits. (Joshua Tibbetts)
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Biscuits and gravy. You can tell a lot about who somebody is by how they feel about biscuits and gravy: garbage food, best hangover cure, too many carbs, All-American, trashy, not as good as my Grandma’s, tasted like cardboard.

There are few foods that are more divisive, or quintessentially American, than this classic roadside diner breakfast. Few things that can disprove the myth that we have no culture.

To a chef, biscuits are a perfect challenge. For most recipes if you follow the instructions, all of the instructions, you won’t screw it up. It should turn out great. Not so with biscuits. You can read every instruction, follow it to the letter, and it will go sideways on you. You reread the recipe. Seems like you did everything right. Make them again and it turned out differently. What in the hay just happened?

Biscuits are a sort of Rorschach test. A biscuit tells you more about who made it than the recipe or ingredients used. That extreme level of personality that goes into making a biscuit fits in nicely with the American ideals of individuality, freedom and self expression. They also have that American dream sort of appeal. They are made from the most basic, simple things. Through our efforts and attention, we can turn them into something sublime and utterly beautiful. A really good biscuit can stop you in your boots, and inspire you to pull yourself up by their straps. They put a little spring in your step, a little glide in your stride. Trust me, if I’m not walking away from biscuits whistling a little tune with some bounce in my pounce, those biscuits were mediocre at best.

YOU GOT THE TOUCH

Biscuits are all about having “the touch.” Get a feel for them. They aren’t about rational number crunching or getting sucked into a routine. How are they now? This time? This time of year? This flour, that buttermilk, this weather? To make good biscuits every time, you have to be connected with the world as it changes around you.

The only way to predict how these biscuits are going to be after they come out of the oven, is to get a feel for them when you are mixing the dough. Literally. Feel the dough. Take the gloves off, and get your (clean) hands in the mix. Touch is everything. You can give a person six different recipes for biscuits, and they tend to make the same biscuits every time. You can give six cooks the same recipe, and get six completely different biscuits.

You have to break the rules, and trust your feels. Believe me, you have the touch. But a lot of your life has trained you to ignore your feels — to ignore your instinct, to trust the experts, blindly obey the authorities. Well, that’s not going to work out very well with biscuits, which is why biscuits are the most perfect representation of what it means to be an American. Get in touch with the dough. Literally. Touch it, feel it. Trust your fingers.

When we say “they have ‘the touch,’” that’s actually what we mean. If you have the touch for throwing a basketball, we mean you have the tactile intelligence to feel the weight of the ball, to feel the wind on your skin, to feel how much you are stressing your muscles to get that ball through the air into the hoop. It’s the same with baking, but for biscuits this tactile muscle memory is on a tiny scale. How wet is the dough? How firm? How grainy? How lumpy? Every time you make biscuits, you have to get centered and really feel it so that you can build that muscle memory for the next time. How to describe that in words? You can’t, really. Our language isn’t very good at describing feels. It’s one of the few senses that haven’t yet been completely controlled and scripted by advertising. Which makes it the best outlet for exploring freedom and personality. Biscuits are one of those ways we can share that with each other.

This Time, It’s Personal

So now that I’ve explained how a recipe for biscuits is essentially non-essential, I’m going to tell you why I’m sharing this particular formula and bothering to give instructions at all. It’s not that the recipe is pointless. You have to break the rules. And to break the rules, you need some rules to break, in the first place.

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My core principles, when making biscuits, are pretty simple. Use buttermilk, unsalted butter, baking powder and baking soda (both) and pastry flour. A lot of folks will get offended and disagree with me here. That’s fine. They are free to go write their own recipe. Welcome to America.

Buttermilk, Baking Powder Versus Soda

Buttermilk has an acidic tang to it. To counter the tart effects, cut your baking powder with a little baking soda. Baking powder, often labeled “double acting” is a blend of 2 parts baking soda to one part tartaric acid. Both of these release gasses when wet. Soda is basic, alkaline. Tartaric is acidic. Baking powder, with both soda and tartar, is PH neutral. But since buttermilk is slightly acidic, we want to up the ratio of soda, pulling it back into a basic balance, otherwise it would be too tart. Using some soda in place of the powder keeps it from being too tart. Soda sweetens.

Pastry Flour

This one’s where we get extra. Old recipes for biscuits tend to come from the Deep South and Appalachia. Baking yeast and loaf bread was hard to come by, and the hot temperatures tended to overproof a yeasted bread too quickly. Soda breads like biscuits were just a lot more practical.

Most of the flour we use these days is hard winter wheat, grown in western states like Kansas. The South grows soft red winter wheat. Soft wheat behaves differently in a recipe from hard wheat flour that we normally see — slightly less gluten, less protein. This isn’t the same as cake flour. That has even less gluten, less protein. Pastry flour can be hard to source. I go to Stringtown Grocery in Kalona. It has more flour varieties than you can probably imagine, all labeled simply and honestly with no distracting advertising.

Pastry flour is soft wheat, and you can feel it when you are bringing the dough together. The dough feels soft. An all-purpose biscuit dough feels grainy, like a cotton shirt. A soft flour dough feels like velvet or plush. After you bake them, they also behave differently. An all-purpose dough biscuit has a short shelf life. Eat it in the next two hours before it starts to go stale. A pastry flour biscuit will still be tender at the end of the night or tomorrow morning. Try it both ways and see how you feel about it.

Keep it Separated

One of the other keys to making a biscuit that is moist, yet flaky, is to prevent the butter from fully incorporating with the dough. Streaks of solid butter laced throughout the dough melt at a different pace from the rest of the dough. This leaves streaks in the dough, essentially creating two slightly different doughs. There are two things you can do to discourage the butter from incorporating: One is to freeze the flour before grating the butter in, as frozen flour doesn’t want to bind with the butter; the other is to not overwork the dough. You don’t need to knead it. You just gently press it together until the buttermilk saturates the flour.

Gently Pressed Layers

A third trick to get those flaky layers it to laminate the dough. Layer it up and press it down. On a lightly floured surface, gently roll the dough into a square shaped sheet, about as thick as a pencil. Cut it into 9 pieces like a tick-tack-toe board. Stack them on top of each other and gently press together with your hands or a rolling pin. The slight dusting of flour on the surface creates a third layer of uneven liquid saturation in between each of the nine layers.

Leftovers

Biscuits don’t keep very well, it’s true. They are great within a few hours of being baked, then start to stiffen up and dry out. They get rubbery in the fridge. You can freeze them, but the texture changes a lot and not in a good way.

My boss at the hotel, chef Justin Billings, showed me a great trick for leftover biscuits. Keep them in the freezer. Next time you’re making soup, break them into gumball-sized crumbles and throw them in the soup — instant dumplings.

The Rest is Gravy

Well, it wouldn’t be a proper biscuits and gravy recipe without including real gravy to smother it with. Compared to biscuits, the sausage and gravy is pretty darn easy. All I have to say on that subject: If you put all that love and attention into the biscuits, you for sure ought to give some love to the gravy. Check out the Extra Ordinary Food article that ran Nov. 17, 2019, in The Gazette for nuances and tricks for making gravy. For traditional biscuits and gravy, make a standard 8:1 béchamel gravy and fry up little chunks of breakfast sausage about halfway through. Include the fat from the pan you cooked the sausage in. Fat is flavor.

Chef Tibbs, also known as Joshua “Tibbs” Tibbetts, is a Cedar Rapids native who has been cooking as a professional chef for 28 years. He is now in the banquet kitchen at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex.

Recipes

Quick Gravy

2 cups (475 milliliters) whole milk

Half a stick (50 grams) butter

5 1/2 tablespoons (50 grams) flour

12 to 16 ounces breakfast sausage

Salt and pepper to taste

Warm up the milk. Make a roux with the butter and flour. Whisk the milk into the roux. Let it thicken over low heat.

Fry little chunks of sausage in a pan over medium heat. Add them to the gravy when they get nicely browned, along with the rendered fat in the fry pan.

Biscuits

To make 4 big ol’ 3 inch biscuits. This recipe can be doubled or tripled for larger batches.

2 cups (275 grams) pastry flour, plus a little more for rolling the dough out

1 cup (138 grams) buttermilk, roughly: you might need a little more

1 stick (69 grams) unsalted butter

2 teaspoons (12 grams) baking powder, double acting

1 teaspoon (6 grams) baking soda

1 teaspoon (6 grams) salt

Mix the flour, powder, soda and salt. Freeze for at least an hour.

Shred the butter into the frozen flour with a grater that has relatively large holes. This can be done ahead and refrozen. It keeps well this way, indefinitely. I like to make 4 or 5 prepped batches at a time so I can just pull one out of the freezer any time I feel like it.

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Fire up your oven. 350 degrees if you have a convection fan, 425 degrees if you have a conventional oven (also called a “still oven.”)

In a mixing bowl, add buttermilk to the frozen dry mix. It will be very sticky at first, so use a couple forks to gently fold the wet into the dry. You will start to see big lumps of wet, sticky dough and a lot of dry dust in the bowl. At this point, set the forks aside and gently pull the wet clumps apart, pressing them into the dry dust. Keep doing this until the dust gets fully mixed in.

If you hit a wall and the dust isn’t sticking to the lumps at all, you might need to add a little more buttermilk. Just a teaspoon. It will probably want less buttermilk than you think it does.

If you feel like it’s taking too long, or you are getting distracted by something, put it in the fridge for a while to cool off again. You want to work fast but gentle. This isn’t the best time for small talk.

It will start to look like feathery shreds. Keep mixing. Gently squeeze parts of the dough together and combine them with other squeezed parts. Might need another spoonful of buttermilk.

You want it to look like lumpy dime-sized marbles, packed together. With visible streaks of butter in the dough.

Lightly dust a countertop with flour. Put your lumpy marbled dough on the counter and squeeze it into a mound. Press it down with your palms into a flat square. You may want to use a rolling pin, but don’t get too carried away with that. Press it or roll it until it’s about as deep as a pencil.

Then cut it into 9 squares, a tic tac toe shape. #. Stack the squares on top of each other, and press them down together. Until they are about an inch deep. I like big biscuits, so I cut this sheet into 4 pieces with a knife, or use a 3 inch pastry ring to cut them out. You can reshape the scrappy end pieces into extra Frankenstein biscuits. Some folks like 2 1/1” or 2 inch little biscuits. That will work fine with this recipe, but I’m pretty Midwest on the size thing. Go big or go home.

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Butter up a sheet tray and cram your biscuits into one corner, with the edges touching each other. If you have extra dough, make a little snake out of them and wrap it around the outside edge. Let them rest at room temperature for 5-15 minutes. This resting period lets the buttermilk activate the off-gassing properties of the baking powder and soda.

Bake for 12 or 13 minutes. Being crammed into the corner, they should rise straight up. After your timer goes off, gently separate the biscuits from each other so they have some air space. This will cook the sides and center more evenly. Bake for another 12 to 13 minutes.

That should do it. If you aren’t certain they are done in the center, poke a toothpick in through the side and pull it back out. If it has gooey dough on it, they are not done. If the toothpick is mostly dry, with maybe a couple grainy bits on it, you are good to go.

Let them rest for 5 or 10 minutes to fully set. Then break them open, smother them with gravy, butter, jam, or whatever your favorite biscuit topping is.

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.