Biscuits are an amazing food with as few as three ingredients, and damn near impossible to get right. They’re supposed to be tender and flaky, which Alton Brown fans will recall are two characteristics at odds with each other. Flakiness requires working the dough, which develops gluten, which reduces tenderness. One approach that I’ve used here is to reduce the gluten content of the flour. This is why White Lily, a naturally lower gluten flour, is so popular for biscuits. I decided instead to sub out 2 Tbsp of my King Arthur all-purpose flour with cornstarch, which is gluten-free.
I had good results with the following recipe, which takes a pretty extreme stance (for biscuits) on folding – creating, in theory, 729 (3^6) layers. In reality, I don’t develop enough gluten before beginning the folding, or flatten out the butter pockets enough, to keep most of these layers distinct. I want to test this recipe with different shaping techniques to see how I really feel about folding and flakiness in biscuits.
My current stance is that tender and flaky isn’t the best way to think of biscuits. The real goal, I think, is fluffy and buttery. Fluffiness comes from enough gluten development to avoid crumbliness but not enough to be tough (this folding technique seemed to be a good amount), enough liquid and a short enough bake time to avoid dryness (the dough can be fairly wet without being unworkable), and enough leavening to provide lift. For leavening, I use baking powder only. That way, I don’t have to worry about whether there’s enough acid for a given amount of baking soda to react with, I get lift during the initial mixing but also in the oven because baking powder is double-acting, and I don’t use my precious buttermilk’s acid on leavening when I want it for tenderness and flavor.
Butteriness is pretty simple – use a lot of butter! And splurge a little on your butter. I got a fancier brand than usual and I think it paid off. Finally, don’t mix the butter in completely. Pockets of butter add flavor and vary the texture.
With fluffiness and butteriness in mind, I referenced Southern Living’s recipe and The Food Lab’s recipe and also took some liberties. I quickly checked the first few sources on baking them in cast iron to get a sense of the temperature; I saw a wide range of temperatures and chose 450F – on the high side to help them brown before they have time to dry out. Here’s what I did, for my best biscuits to date:
- 265g all-purpose flour (a little over 2 cups, but volumetric measurements of flour are really ambiguous)
- 15g corn starch (about 2 Tbsp)
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 Tbsp baking powder
- 1 stick salted butter (1/2 cup, 113g), cold
- 1 cup buttermilk
- Put a cast iron pan in the oven.
- Preheat oven to 450 Fahrenheit/230 Celsius.
- Mix dry ingredients in a bowl.
- Cut butter into chunks.
- Mix butter into dry ingredients. I use my fingers, but you can also use a fork, knives, or a pastry blender. The goals are to coat some of the flour in butter to reduce the amount of gluten development, and to reduce the size of the butter chunks without letting them melt or mix in completely so that they contribute to flakiness and interesting texture. I aim for a crumbly end result with no leftover pure flour and chunks around the size of M&Ms.
- Chill the dough for 10 minutes in the fridge. I’m not convinced this is necessary in my climate but for once I decided to just follow directions.
- Add the buttermilk. Stir it in just enough; the dough should be wet and lumpy but hold together.
- On a lightly floured surface, gently pat the dough into a rectangle about 3/4 inch thick and trifold like a letter, left side in then right side in. Then trifold again in the other direction, the top third down and then the bottom third up. Turn over, pat out into a rectangle of the same thickness and repeat. Finally, do it a third time. It will get a little harder to do each time as the gluten develops. If it gets too hard, just stop.
- Pat the dough to about 3/4 inch tall and cut out as many biscuits as you can fit. Use a plain round biscuit cutter, not a glass, and cut straight down, not twisting. The idea is that you don’t want to seal the edges together and keep the biscuit from rising. Gather the scraps, pat them again with as little working as possible, and keep cutting biscuits until you run out of dough.
- Carefully take the cast iron pan out of the oven, sprinkle flour in the bottom if it’s not super nonstick, and put the biscuits in it. I figure that if there’s enough space that you can choose to smush them against themselves or the sides of the pan, you should choose themselves; my reasoning is that dough against dough won’t form a crust and so it will be able to keep rising for longer.
- Bake at 450F/230C for about 15 minutes. You’re looking for lightly browned tops (lacking sugar, they won’t get super brown) and for the quantitatively inclined, a center temperature of 210F/99C.
- Carefully remove the cast iron pan from the oven and carefully remove the biscuits from it and definitely don’t forget that the cast iron pan is hot and grab it barehanded like I definitely didn’t do. Put the biscuits on a cooling rack.
- Serve warm and enjoy!
I want to compare shaping methods to see how they affect the biscuits. This recipe includes more folds than many do. Does it make a difference? A way to make the layers really come through in the final product would be to flatten the dough with a rolling pin instead of patting by hand – this would increase gluten development as well as flakiness. Is that a good thing? If the layers are really great but the toughness is a problem, more cornstarch could help. I’ve also thought about shaving bits of butter onto a layer before folding it, like a lite version of croissant lamination. That should increase layering without increasing toughness.
Another idea I might try is adding sour cream or subbing some in for part of the buttermilk. It seems like the fat and acid in sour cream is magic for baked goods.
Good luck and happy brunching!