Thursday, March 26, 2009

A biscuit, a tasket...

Recently the subject of biscuits was discussed in my family forum, in honor of our late grandma, whose birthday was last weekend.

By the time I came along, Grandpa had passed and Grandma was no longer churning butter, raising vegetables, putting up any canning, or baking anything from scratch, much less biscuits. So "Grandma's Biscuits" are a completely foreign concept for me. The Grandma I knew made us fried bologna or generic beefaroni from a can for lunch, and for dessert we had Little Debbie cakes, which we washed down with technicolor "juice" from a diminutive plastic barrel. Still, I love the idea of the nostalgic Southern biscuit, and have for years made efforts to perfect the recipe that could have been Grandma's, or at least will be a grandma's someday, if my kids have anything to do with that equation.

I must admit that I haven't gone to the trouble of devising my own recipe. The recipe that I turn to most often is Alton Brown's Southern Biscuits and then I tweak it from there. Also notable are the yeast biscuits featured in Out To Brunch: At Mildred Pierce Restaurant (interesting film, by the way--haven't read the book yet.)

Wort saw my post about biscuit techniques and asked me to spread the love. So, here are some things I've learned in my experiments with biscuits:

  1. First, a word about shortening. We discussed Spry in the family forum. Spry was a solidified vegetable oil product. Crisco is also a solidified vegetable oil product, but it differs from Spry in three ways. One, Spry is said to have had animal fat (lard) added to it. Two, Spry was non-hydrogenated. And three, Spry was pre-creamed. Crisco is none of these. So apparently, you cannot make Grandma's Biscuits with Crisco, no matter how hard you try. So, I conclude, don't even try. My shortening of choice is Spectrum non-hydrogenated. I buy it at the local health food store. To me, it seems to have a creamier consistency than Crisco. Maybe it is pre-creamed, I don't know. It does make a good biscuit.
  2. I've read numerous times that the best biscuits are made with a combination of vegetable and animal fat. So I usually use both butter and shortening. I'm totally open to using high quality organic lard in my biscuits, only I can't find any in my local stores.
  3. Grate the butter, if using, into the (already sifted) dry ingredients using a cheese grater, then combine the fat into the flour using just your fingertips. If using just shortening, you still want to blend with your fingertips. Work quickly, so you don't melt the fat.
  4. White Lily Flour is said to be the very best for biscuit baking. Unfortunately, I seem to be not far enough south to get it. I have tried to emulate White Lily with with 3/4 parts King Arthur All-Purpose Flour (red label) to 1/4 part bleached cake flour. White Lily is a bleached, low protein, all-purpose flour. King Arthur is unbleached, with higher protein. Cake flour has very low protein. You will get even lighter biscuits if you use an All-Purpose flour that is bleached, but you also compromise flavor. The King Arthur flour has a wonderful, light wheaty taste.
  5. Use double-acting baking powder. Make sure the baking powder is fresh. Replace it every 3-6 months, no matter how much you have left in the can.
  6. Higher-fat milk seems to make better biscuits. I sometimes use 2% milk mixed with cream. I sour this milk with 1 Tbs. of raw apple cider vinegar per 1 cup of milky liquid. (You can use any apple cider vinegar, I just prefer to use the raw as often as possible.) Sometimes I use lowfat kefir, which is a sour, pourable yogurt. I usually do not use buttermilk, only because I don't keep it around. The kefir lends a nice sour flavor to the biscuits, even more than buttermilk or vinegar & milk.
  7. Handle the dough as little as possible, and it will be very sticky. Mix in the bowl just until it comes together (I use a rice paddle), then turn out onto a board and rather than kneading, flatten the dough gently and fold it over itself several times using a bench knife. If you don't have a bench knife, a bowl scraper will work almost as well. Fold no more than 5 times (I usually go for 3). Add only what flour you must to make it possible to handle.
  8. Use only a very sharp biscuit cutter, never a drinking glass, and don't twist the cutter when cutting out your biscuits. Cut them just a bit thicker than the recipe calls for.
  9. Place biscuits on the baking pan close but not touching, to help them raise better. I sometimes add chives, shredded cheddar cheese, pieces of cooked bacon, or tons of freshly cracked pepper to the dry ingredients just before adding the milk.
  10. Sometimes I replace a little of the AP flour with whole wheat (no more than 3/4 part AP to 1/4 part WW).
  11. I know that Grandma wouldn't approve, but you can even replace the milk with beer. With beer, you might even get a little more rise out of the biscuits. Use a pale ale, not a stout lager.
  12. To make biscuits like Red Lobster's (if you're into that sort of thing), use a tiny bit more liquid, add shredded cheddar cheese, drop batter by spoonfuls onto baking sheet, and brush generously with melted butter (salted for brushing, unsalted for baking) before AND after baking. (If you wanted to be really authentic, you'd use processed cheese and margarine, but let's be honest, you want better biscuits than Red Lobster's, right?)
  13. Finally, don't even think about using Bisquick! Ever! (Except maybe in wallpaper paste.)

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