[Photographs: above, Robyn Lee; others, Marissa Sertich Velie]

When I was twenty years old, a friend and I took a trip (read: pilgrimage) to Chelsea, Michigan. What's in Chelsea, you ask? The home of Jiffy flour mixes, of course. The factory wasn't conducting tours that day (I never said it was a well planned pilgrimage), but I didn't care. I simply stood in front of the building and beamed, extremely excited to be in close proximity to the home of delicious biscuit mix.

What can I say? I'm obsessed with biscuits, from all varieties of box mixes to the devotedly homemade. Tender drop biscuits, quick and easy cream biscuits, and super-flaky buttermilk biscuits—I like them all. What other baked good transitions so gracefully from savory to sweet? They're the perfect tool for sopping up sausage gravy, creating a classic dessert out of simple strawberries and cream, and transforming a mere breakfast sandwich into something marvelous.

The humble yet mighty biscuit is an American quick bread that uses baking powder, steam, and minimal mixing to create a moist, rich product. Although the biscuit's name comes from the French word meaning "twice cooked" (similar to the Italian biscotti), it's not to be confused with French and British "biscuits" that refer to mere cookies.

There are several different ways to make biscuits, but today we're going to explore the world of the buttermilk biscuits. Similar to the technique used for scones and pie dough, solid, cold fat is "cut" into flour. Basically, this means that bits of cold fat are coated in the flour before the liquid is added and the dough is worked just enough for the ingredients to come together. This cut-in, or rub-in, method creates peelable, buttery layers.

Like with any recipe development, it's important to understand what individual ingredients do to the final product. Let's take a look.

Ingredient Role-Call

Butter/Fat

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Fat has several roles in biscuit making. First of all, fat tenderizes. As fat melts with the heat of the oven, it coats gluten strands and starches in the flour and prevents them from becoming too tough. Fats with lower melting points tenderize more than those with higher melting points. Therefore butter is a more effective tenderizer than, say, shortening. Fat is also the key to creating a biscuit's characteristic peelable layers. Solid layers of fat alternating with dough creates flaky layers when the product is baked.

Although many different types of fat make good biscuits, it's important to consider their relative water contents. Fats low in moisture, like shortening, will create more distinct layers, but butter (containing about 15% water) is useful in producing additional steam, which assists in pushing apart the dough layers. Last, but certainly not least, fat contributes flavor, which is why I prefer butter over shortening. (Lard, on the other hand, imparts a distinct "meaty" flavor that could be extremely desirable if you were making the biscuits for, say, a barbecue. For this purpose of this recipe, let's stick with butter.)

Baking Powder

We're all familiar with and have used baking powder, but what exactly is it and how does it work? Baking powders contain three ingredients: baking soda, dried starch, and acid salts such as cream of tartar. When exposed to moisture and heat, the acid in the baking powder reacts with the baking soda to create carbon dioxide. The released gas causes the dough to expand and also tenderizes the final product. (Read more about the difference between baking powder and baking soda and the science behind how they work here.)

Buttermilk

Buttermilk was originally made as the byproduct of cultured butter production; it's the tangy liquid that remained after the cream was churned. These days, buttermilk is created by adding lactic acid bacteria to milk to create that distinctive tangy flavor and creamy texture (similar to yogurt, the bacteria react with the milk proteins, thickening the liquid).

Buttermilk does a couple things in the biscuit-making process. It adds flavor and its acidity assists in leavening. During my investigations, I tested out a biscuit recipe using 100% buttermilk (rather than part buttermilk, part heavy cream). Although the final result was extremely flaky and rose more than the other, fattier version, it lacked tenderness. Buttermilk has very little fat, so I found that replacing a quarter of the weight of buttermilk with heavy cream kept the biscuit flaky while producing a softer crumb.

If you don't have buttermilk, add a tablespoon of vinegar to a cup of whole milk to create "sour milk." It won't be as thick as cultured buttermilk, but in a pinch, it will still provide the necessary tenderness and acidity.

Flour

When flour is mixed with water, gluten is formed, giving biscuits the necessary structure to expand and preventing them from collapsing after they've cooled. Yet too much gluten formation results in biscuits that are tough and chewy. To prevent an overly tough texture, avoid over-mixing the dough. Lower protein flours are also helpful when you want to avoid too much gluten formation. For this recipe I've used all-purpose flour because it's easy to find and doesn't contain too much gluten. But if you can find them, try using Southern biscuit flours, like White Lily or Adluh biscuit flour. They're typically soft wheat flours with very little protein.

To Egg or Not To Egg

There are a lot of biscuit recipes out there that don't include eggs. I've found that although eggs aren't critical, they do improve volume and contribute to a richer flavor. Eggs' natural leavening effect teams up with the baking powder to create extra fluffiness. The extra fat from the yolk is helpful because it helps tenderize the biscuit. Especially in flaky biscuits where the butter is minimally blended into the final dough, extra fat ensures that the layers are tender as well as flaky. Biscuits made with eggs will also be more golden in color because the protein contributes to Maillard reactions.

Buttermilk Biscuit, Step By Step

Step 1: Prepare the Butter

Using a knife or bench knife, cut your butter into marble-sized pieces. Store the cut butter in the refrigerator until you're ready to combine it with the other ingredients. Doing this step first ensures that the butter remains solid and cold when you begin the mixing process.

Step 2: Mix Wet Ingredients

In a small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, cream, and egg. The wet mixture can also be reserved in the fridge, providing double insurance that the final dough stays cold. These precautions help prevent the butter from melting or becoming overly blended, which in turn creates lots of flaky layers.

Step 3: Mix Dry Ingredients

In a large bowl, combine flour, salt, and baking powder. Whisk the dry ingredients thoroughly to ensure that the baking powder and salt are evenly distributed throughout the dough.

Step 4: Cut In Your Butter

Toss the butter into the flour mixture, making sure that each piece of fat is fully coated. Work quickly (don't let the butter melt!), rubbing the butter between your fingers, maintaining large enough pieces that they are clearly visible. If it's particularly warm, or you've got hot hands, this step can also be done in a food processor. With the food processor, 2-3 quick pulses should do it!

Step 5: Mix the Dough

Add your wet ingredients and gently (yet swiftly!) mix with a fork until they're just combined. It should still look somewhat dry and shaggy. Cover and let the dough rest in the refrigerator for a half-hour.

Step 6: Lamination Time!

Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. To create a cohesive dough, press and fold it with your fingers, rather than squeezing or kneading it. This controls gluten formation, which can make your biscuits tough rather than light and fluffy. Through this pressing and folding process, create a flat rectangle. At this point, divide the dough visually into thirds. Fold one of the outer thirds of the dough over the middle third, then the other outer third over the folded dough. (Think of a three-fold brochure.) Repeat this process one more time, rolling the final dough to about a half-inch thickness and use your fingers to feel the thickness of the dough for evenness. Allow the rolled out dough to relax in the refrigerator for about ten minutes.

Step 6: Cutting

Using a round cookie-cutter, cut out your biscuits. Cut them as close together as possible to avoid producing too many scraps. Remember that excess dough will have to be rolled out again and the more the dough is worked the tougher the dough becomes.

Step 6: Baking

Brush the top of each biscuit with egg wash. Egg wash gives the biscuits an attractive sheen, but also seals in moisture after they're baked. Avoid brushing the sides of the biscuits, as this seals the biscuits' layers together. Last but not least, the biscuits are baked at 400°F, until light brown.

Biscuit Making Tips

  • Control gluten formation: Gluten makes things chewy, rather than tender. So in the world of biscuits, we want to avoid it. To control gluten, I barely stir after the liquids are added. Using a fork rather than a spoon can help minimize mixing. The dough will look slightly shaggy and unfinished but don't worry—lamination will create a more cohesive, finished dough. Also, allow time for water absorption by chilling the biscuit dough before rolling it out.
  • Keep your butter and liquids cold: Mixing biscuit dough by hand helps control the size of the butter pieces and reduces the risk of over-mixing. If you're working in a very warm environment or have hot hands, consider using a food processor to cut-in the butter. Again, be careful not to over-mix. It will only take a few quick pulses to incorporate the butter.
  • Avoid twisting your cookie-cutters When cutting out biscuits, press straight down with the cookie cutter, rather than twisting. Twisting and dragging smears the layers of dough and butter, ruining the layers and creating uneven rise in the oven.
  • Only re-roll biscuit scraps once: Cut out biscuits as close together as possible to avoid a lot of scraps. Excess dough will have to be rolled out again and the more the dough is worked the tougher the dough becomes. Consider baking twice-rolled scraps in a loaf with layers of jam or streusel topping for a variation on monkey bread.
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