Canned biscuits caused our ruination!
That was the subject of an e-mail I received after my last biscuit post. Who knew biscuits could stir such passion! Apparently, when canned biscuits made their debut, many women quit making them from scratch, even in the southern states.
Even in Tennessee where I’m from, when canned biscuits came out, women quit making homemade ones except for my grandmother who is 90 years old and still going strong. We live in Texas now and it amazes me how many people have never had a great homemade biscuit.
Carmen, the reader who sent the e-mail, went on to explain to me some of the real secrets of making great homemade biscuits and I am now forever in her debt!
The most important ingredient, of course, is the flour.
I’ve heard for a long time that White Lily brand flour is the best thing you can use for biscuits and Carmen’s passionate e-mail confirmed it. White Lily flour is made from 100% soft winter wheat and it has a much lower protein content than other brands of all-purpose flours. I won’t get too technical because for the purpose of this post, all you really need to know is this:
less protein = better for quick breads
more protein = better for yeast breads
Not all flours are created equal. Southern bleached all-purpose flours are made from the soft winter wheat that grows well in the warmer southern climate while northern all-purpose flours are made from the hard spring wheats that grow in the colder climate. Strains of soft winter wheat have less protein than the hard spring wheat and therefore southern all-purpose flours are better-suited for quick breads such as biscuits, cakes and muffins.
Here’s a quick rundown of some flours and their protein contents, taken from the book Cookwise by Shirley O. Corriher:
Cake flours (Swans Down, Softasilk):
7.5 to 8.5% protein
Bleached southern all-purpose (White Lily, Martha White, Gladiola, Red Band):
7.5 to 9.5% protein
National brand self-rising (Gold Medal, Pillsbury):
9 to 10% protein
National brand bleached all-purpose (Gold Medal, Pillsbury):
10 to 12% protein
Northern all-purpose (Robin Hood, Hecker’s):
11 to 12% protein
Northern unbleached all-purpose (King Arthur):
11.5 to 12.5% protein
So, keeping in mind that less protein equals light and tender cakes and quick breads, the flours from the top of this list are going to give you the best results for those types of baked goods. And since more protein equals higher rising yeast breads, the flours from the bottom of the list will be best for those.
Now that our quick flour lesson is over (I’ll be writing a more in-depth post about flours at a later time), let’s get back to baking some great southern biscuits!
As I mentioned before, White Lily brand flour is the flour of choice for biscuit-making in the south. But what about those of us who can’t run to the store and buy some White Lily flour? Well, you can order it online. Or you use your newfound knowledge about protein content in flour to create your own version.
Carmen was nice enough to e-mail me the biscuit recipe from her bag of White Lily Self-Rising flour so that I would have a starting point in creating my own version:
White Lily Light Biscuits
2 C. white lily unbleached self-rising flour
1/4 cup butter (plus two tablespoons for brushing on
top of biscuits)
2/3 to 3/4 cups buttermilk
Preheat oven to 500 degrees.
Spoon flour into measuring cup and level with a knife. Measure flour into bowl. Cut in butter until mixtures resembles coarse crumbs. Blend in enough buttermilk until dough leaves sides of bowl. Knead gently 2 or 3 times on lightly floured surface. Cut with large biscuit cutter. Place on pan with biscuits touching. Brush tops with melted butter. Bake at 500 for 8 minutes or until golden brown. Cool for a few minutes on wire rack.
What struck me about this recipe was that it’s so simple! Of course it gets slightly more complicated if you don’t have the White Lily self-rising flour, but it still doesn’t take much more time to throw these together than to open a can of store-bought biscuits!
After doing some research both online and on my cookbook shelf, I decided to try to approximate a White Lily biscuit by substituting a mixture of national brand all-purpose flour, cake flour, and leavening for the white lily self-rising flour.
For the first batch I tried using half all-purpose flour and half cake flour plus 3 teaspoons of baking powder. The biscuits were alright but they had an off-taste because of too much baking powder and I didn’t feel like they were as light and fluffy as White Lily biscuits are purported to be.
So for the second batch, I increased the proportion of cake flour and decreased the amount of baking powder. I carefully followed all of the biscuit-making tips given to me by Carmen (who in turn learned them from her 90-year old grandmother), made sure my oven was at the correct temperature, and held my breath.
These were the fluffiest, most tender biscuits that had ever come from my oven! Granted, I don’t know whether I have ever tasted a true southern biscuit, so I don’t know whether these compare. But these are good and they’re easy. And they don’t come from a can!
Here’s my recipe:
Fluffy Buttermilk Biscuits
1 1/4 C. cake flour
3/4 C. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1/4 C. butter, cut into small chunks
3/4 C. buttermilk
1. Preheat oven to 500 degrees
2. Prepare ingredients: Cut butter into small chunks, place in a bowl and return to fridge. Measure out buttermilk and set aside. Sprinkle flour on a work surface and have extra flour nearby for your hands and biscuit cutter. Have biscuit cutter and an ungreased baking sheet handy
3. Mix dough: In a medium-large bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt until very well blended. Add butter and cut into flour using a pastry blender, two knives or your fingertips, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Pour in buttermilk and stir lightly until dough comes together in a ball.
4. Knead dough and cut biscuits: Dump dough mixture out onto floured work surface. With floured hands, lightly knead dough a few times until it is fairly well blended. Pat out into a circle, 3/4 – 1 inch thick. Dip cutter into flour and cut biscuits without twisting the cutter. Form the dough scraps into an extra biscuit-like shape instead of re-rolling the dough. Place cut biscuits together on the baking sheet so that the sides are touching. Brush tops with melted butter, if desired.
5. Bake biscuits: place baking sheet in the middle of a preheated 500 degree oven and bake for 8-10 minutes until they are golden brown. Remove biscuits to a wire rack to cool for a few minutes.
Tips for Perfect Biscuits
- Make sure your baking powder, baking soda, and/or self-rising flour are fresh! (see note at end of post)
- Start preheating the oven as soon as you start thinking about making the biscuits! You want the oven to be completely preheated before the biscuits go in.
- Prepare your ingredients and tools in advance so that once you get started, you can work quickly and efficiently: cut your butter in small pieces and put it back in the fridge, measure out the buttermilk, flour the counter, get out the biscuit cutter and baking sheet.
- Use very cold butter, keep it in the fridge until you’re ready for it. Work the butter quickly into the flour so that it doesn’t have a chance to even think about melting!
- When you add the buttermilk, stir lightly! This can be done simply with a fork. You just want to get the dough to a point where the flour is all clumped together, not a smooth dough!
- Knead lightly and minimally. You aren’t kneading this like bread dough, you are simply finishing the mixing process with your hands. You only want to knead a couple of times to finish dispersing the liquid through the dough. The more you knead, the denser your biscuits will be!
- Even if you use self-rising flour in the dough, dust the counter and dough with all-purpose flour. Self-rising flour can give the outside of the biscuits a bitter taste, due to the leavening it contains.
- Don’t pat the dough out too thin. If you want high biscuits, don’t roll the dough any thinner than 3/4 – 1 inch.
- When cutting biscuits, use a sharp cutter and press straight down and up. Don’t twist! This was the hardest tip for me to adapt. I have always twisted the biscuit cutter. But guess what, it makes a difference!
- Place cut biscuits together on the baking sheet so that they are touching. Again, this is something I have never done. But I found that the biscuits do rise well and I really enjoy the texture of the soft-sided biscuits!
- Don’t re-roll the scraps. Since it is best to work the dough as little as possible, instead of gathering the scraps, re-rolling and cutting into biscuits, just form the scraps into biscuit shapes by hand. I usually end up with scraps to form two extra biscuits. They might look a little funny, but they rise as well as the others and they taste just as good!
Cut butter into small chunks before adding to the flour. This makes it easier to cut/rub it into the flour quickly.
I prefer to work the butter into the flour using my fingers rather than a pastry blender. Wash your hands well before beginning then toss the butter cubes with the flour so that they are all well-coated before you begin. Using only your fingertips, flatten the butter cubes and rub them into the flour. Dig your hands in and toss the butter and flour together while you are working the butter. Work quickly and stop when the mixture looks coarse with a few chunks of butter spread around that are no larger than the size of peas.
After adding the buttermilk, stir lightly until the dough turns into a shaggy mass and most of the flour has been incorporated. Don’t mix any more than this as you will finish the mixing process by hand after it’s turned out onto the counter.
After you cut the biscuits, place them together on the baking sheet so that they are touching each other. This makes for a nice soft-sided biscuit and is said to help them rise better. At this point, you can quickly brush the tops with melted butter before placing them in the oven.
Bake biscuits in a very hot oven (500 degrees) until they are golden brown, which should take between 8 and 10 minutes. Remove them to a wire rack and let cool for a few minutes before digging in!
Come back soon because I plan on posting my sausage gravy recipe as well as how to create a buttermilk biscuit mix to keep on hand so you can make biscuits just like these anytime by just adding water (trust me, it works!).
Edit (9/25/07): A word on leavening: I don’t know how I managed to write this entire post on biscuits without giving you the most important tip of all! You must make sure your baking powder and baking soda are fresh! The same goes for self-rising flour since the flour contains baking powder in it. These leavening agents do not stay fresh forever and as they age, they lose their ability to do their job, which is making those biscuits (or cakes, quick breads, muffins, corn bread) rise!
You will notice a date stamped on the can of baking powder as well as on the bag of self-rising flour. If that date has already passed or if it’s coming up soon, just buy new stuff!! If you can’t find a date and you don’t remember when you purchased it, buy new stuff!! These are some of the least expensive things you can buy in a grocery store these days. If you have any doubt as to the freshness of your ingredients, just start fresh! And although I’m not sure if baking soda goes bad, remember that one of it’s jobs is to absorb odors. Don’t use that open box of baking soda you’ve been keeping in the fridge or freezer! If you haven’t purchased any in a while, buy a special box specifically for baking and keep it closed!
Around the Web:
- Biscuits from Homesick Texan
- Buttermilk Biscuits with Goat Cheese and Chives from Simply Recipes
- Cream Cheese Biscuits with Chocolate Gravy from Bake or Break
- Paula Deen’s Basic Biscuits from Bake or Break
- Biscuits and Gravy from Bucky’s Barbecue and Bread Blog
- Buttermilk Biscuit Cinnamon Rolls from Eating Out Loud