There are few foods so fundamentally satisfying as a fresh, flaky, buttery biscuit. How difficult could it be to make a decent biscuit? But so often, I am routinely frustrated to partake in yet another dry, dense, lackluster puck of a biscuit. Then, a month or so ago, I began extensively testing and manipulating recipes with the aim of finding the perfect biscuit for our new brunch menu. I realized that while making good biscuits is not exactly difficult, it's a bit complicated.
Should the fat used be butter, shortening, lard, oil, cheese, or some combination thereof? Buttermilk or regular milk? All-purpose, self-rising or cake flour?
After a lot of side-by-side sampling, butter was the winner overall for flavor and texture, but I also discovered that cutting a touch of cream cheese into the dough ensured flakiness while imparting a bit of extra richness and tang. Buttermilk won on flavor over regular milk.
I tried making doughs with various flours, and discovered that lower gluten flours, such as cake flour, yielded the nicest results. In our small kitchen with its dry storage area packed to the gills as it is, I had no desire to clog the works even more with a big bin of special flour just for biscuits.
With a bit of trial and error, however, I discovered that a moist crumb and tender texture could be achieved using all-purpose flour cut with cornstarch. It also turned out that the overall flavor of a biscuit was much more nuanced and pleasant with a small dose of sugar—not enough to make it sweet, just enough to balance and draw out the flavors of the butter, salt and toasty, golden biscuit crust.
In terms of technique, I'm still learning as I make new batches. So far, I've discovered that while it's important to handle the dough gently, so as not to over-develop the gluten, it's equally important not to under-work the dough. A little bit of kneading (in my recipe this takes the form of patting and folding the dough a prescribed number of times, in order to establish some consistency) yields biscuits with the best rise and overall texture. A higher baking temperature yields a more golden, crunchy browned crust with a moist interior. Patting the dough out flat by hand makes it more difficult to roll the dough too thin (it's very easy to roll the tender dough out too thin with a pin with hardly any effort or realization), and pushing cutters straight through the dough, with no twisting along the way, ensures the best rise and shape.
More than recipe or technique, however, the surest path to good biscuits rests with fresh ingredients: new, pure, unsalted butter for the best flavor and fresh, active baking powder, and soda for the good texture and rise.
About the author: Amanda Clarke is a recovering restaurant pastry chef with a background in architecture. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she writes, tests, and develops recipes and works on freelance food-styling gigs between walkings and feedings of her two dogs and husband.
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (270g)
- 2 1/4 teaspoons cornstarch (18g)
- 1 tablespoon sugar (14g)
- 1 tablespoon baking powder (14g)
- 1 3/4 teaspoon salt (5g)
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 stick or 1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold (112g)
- 2 tablespoons cream cheese, cold (56g)
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup buttermilk, cold
Preheat oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a non-stick baking mat, or grease liberally with softened butter, and set aside.
In the bowl of a food processor, combine all of the dry ingredients. Pulse a few times to evenly distribute.
Add butter and pulse until butter is finely dispersed throughout dry ingredients, yielded a mixture with the texture of fine couscous.
Add cream cheese and pulse to distribute, leaving a few small, pea-sized pieces of cheese in tact. Turn mixture into a mixing bowl.
Drizzle in about a 1/3 cup of the buttermilk and toss gently with your hands to evenly distribute. Add more milk a tablespoon or so at a time until dough is just moist enough to come together without any dry crumbly bits.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Dust the surface of the dough lightly with more flour and pat the dough out to about ¾-inch thick.
Fold the dough back over on itself in thirds, like a business letter, and pat out to about 3/4-inch thick again, flouring the surface lightly as needed to prevent the dough from sticking.
Fold the dough back over on itself in thirds again, then pat it out to a final thickness of about 1/2 inch.
Using a lightly floured 2 1/4-inch round cutter, cut the dough into rounds and place on prepared baking sheet, at least an inch apart. Scraps may be gently packed together, patted out to 1/2-inch thickness once more and cut.
Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until biscuits are well-risen, pale golden on top and a deeper brown on their bottoms. Biscuits are best served within about 6 hours of baking, though a few minutes in the oven or a few seconds in the microwave will revive slightly older biscuits if eaten shortly thereafter.