My opinion about biscuits is this: They have to be light, they have to be flaky, and they have to be fresh. To make biscuits that are all of these things, one also has to understand this truism: Biscuits are not quick, and biscuits are not healthy. And under no circumstance should anyone try to make them either. In my kingdom, a quick biscuit isn’t given the time it needs to develop a light texture, and a healthy biscuit doesn’t have enough fat to make it flaky. Got it?!
Good! Now here’s the secret to great biscuits: It’s not so much about the recipe as much as it is about the technique. Here are my rules… Break any one of them, and you can’t blame me for a basket of dense little hockey pucks.
Ten Rules to Making the Best Light and Flaky Biscuits
- Use real butter. No margarine, no shortening, no I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. Just use the real thing. Note: maybe lard is okay, but I haven’t done it that way. (As of this writing, I use my lard exclusively for tortillas and hollandaise.) Also: your butter must be cold. And go with a good brand you trust and like enough to eat plain. (Yep, I just said that.) Cheap butter is watered down and therefore doesn’t contain enough fat. In recent batches, I’ve gone with Kerrygold.
- Ditch the pastry cutter. I’ve used pasty cutters in the past and found that spending my time trying to get the pieces of flour-coated butter out from between the cutter blades is tedious, and wasteful of the butter that gets stuck in there. So when it’s time to incorporate the butter into the flour, just use your thumb and first two fingers. For maximum impact, use both hands. Just rinse your hands when you’re done.
- Work fast. Humans are warm, and humans have fingers. Therefore, fingers are warm. So while you pinch the butter, there is no time for lollygagging; this exercise should only take about 30 seconds. Understand that softened butter will not create the air pockets you need to help develop the coveted flaky layers that make up a good biscuit.
- Sticky is good. When using a spatula to combine the wet and dry ingredients, mix only until the dough is mostly combined. About 10 seconds of spatula work will do; you do not want to fully incorporate the ingredients. Don’t freak out about the stickiness of the mixture; sticky is good.
- Flour the surface. Before turning out the sticky mixture onto your work surface, make you’ve covered it with flour. Then dust your hands with flour. Also keep a small pile (about ½ cup) of extra flour handy, so you can dust as you go.
- Create layers. The French perfected the art of layering with their classic cwah-sahnt-tuh, which is made by alternating layers of dough and butter. To make a good biscuit, we follow the same basic principle, and that is to create lots and lots of layers. So far, I’ve found that folding the dough over itself FIVE TIMES (for a total of 32 layers) makes a pretty damn good, flaky biscuit. If you need visual proof, take a look at the first photo in this post; the biscuit in the foreground is built with multiple layers… the biscuits in the background are built with two layers. If you look carefully, you can see a BIG difference.
- Walk away. When you work with flour, you need to let it rest, relax, hang out. Most of the time, letting it sit on the kitchen is good enough. For bonus points, find a way to let the dough sit in the refrigerator. (Back to the keeping the butter cold idea.)
- Use everything. When you cut your dough, (preferably with an upside-down juice glass), you’re going to have leftover scraps. Do not knead these scraps to reshape the dough. Instead, mold the pieces together to make additional biscuits with them. If you’re anything like me, these “scrappy biscuits” will be your favorite, as they flake not only horizontally, but also vertically. Below, a scrappy biscuit… Pull-apart goodness.
- Use your nose. Oven times are always suggested. Like all baked goods, when biscuits are done, you will smell them. Start sniffing around the 7 to 8-minute mark. As soon as you smell the biscuits, you should also notice that it’s golden brown on top. They’re done; take them out of the oven immediately. For bonus points, brush the biscuit tops with melted salted butter.
- Eat it now. Like crepes, biscuits are best right out of the oven. Wait for it to cool down enough so that you can handle it with your fingers, but not so cool that it’s considered warm. Eat it right away. The trouble with a cool biscuit is that the magic is simply… gone. Below, see the layers?
Got rules of your own?! I’d love to hear them.
Light and Flaky Biscuits
A good biscuit is not about the list of ingredients; it’s about the technique. Follow just ten rules and a recipe of 8 steps, and you’ll have the best, lightest, and flakiest biscuits in less than an hour. Quick and healthy need not apply.
~ Makes 6 first-cut biscuits plus a few additional scrappy biscuits ~
- 2 cups (250g) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 5 tablespoons cold, salted butter, diced (recommend Kerrygold)
- 1 cup buttermilk or whole milk
~ Preparation ~
Preparation Time: 1 hour
- Minute 1: Preheat a gas oven to 425°F or a convection oven to 400°F.
- Minute 2: Set aside a clean counter space or large cutting board. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl.
- Minute 4: Using your fingers, pinch the butter into the flour until there are thin, flaky pieces.
- Minute 5: Add the buttermilk/milk mixture to the flour mixture, stirring until the dough just comes together to form a ball.
- Minute 6: Prepare working space: Dust the counter space or large cutting board with flour. (For bonus points, work on a cutting board that you can transfer to the refrigerator for the rest period identified in Step 6.) Turn the dough out onto the working space. Gently pat the dough down and fold it over on itself. Pat the dough down and fold it over, repeating this process three more times to create 32 layers. When you are finished, the dough should be about 3” tall.
- Minute 8: Loosely cover the dough with a clean kitchen towel and let it rest for a half hour or so.
- Minute 38: With the palm of your hand, pat the dough down until it is about 1 inch thick. Cut the dough into biscuits using whatever cutter you like; I used my orange juice glass. For more biscuits, use a smaller glass. Note: I get 6 biscuits out of this batch; then I tear the scraps apart, loosely shape them into rounds, and make more biscuits out of them.
- Minute 45: Place the biscuits in an iron skillet or on a cookie sheet and bake until you can smell them, and until they’re golden brown on top, about 10-14 minutes for gas ovens and 8-12 minutes for convection ovens. Eat immediately.
Source: Rustic Garden Bistro, with original influence from My New Orleans by John Besh, Grandmother Walter’s Biscuits Recipe, p. 51
Need an idea for what to do with your biscuits? Try making a Southern-style Louisiana Shrimp and Sausage Gravy!