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Practicing the basics: biscuits

Biscuits are a basic quick bread that share a basic baking principle with several other baked goods such as scones, croissants, and even pie crusts. The concept is simple: mix a solid fat (butter, margarine, shortening or lard) in with dry goods (flour, salt, and sugar) and liquid (usually some form of milk) to form a dough. Then, when baked, the fat melts, the water mixes in with the fat evaporates, and the result is lots of fluffy, bready goodness full of layers of air.

The one trick to pulling this off is to under-mix the dough so that most of the solid fat is still in small chunks, and not fully incorporated. The more you process the dough, the fewer chunks of butter remain, and the less fluffy the biscuits will be. You can do this in a bowl with a fork (or better yet a pastry blender) but it’s much faster and you’ll get better consistency with a food processor if you have one. It also helps if you keep the butter cold right up until you add it into the dough; I cut it into chunks in advance and then stick it in a bowl in my freezer so that it’s ready to go.

Minimizing the processing also includes the number of times you roll out the dough and cut it into biscuits: ideally you only want to roll it out once or twice, because every time you are further incorporating the fat into the dough.

Suggested reading: baking soda and baking powder

Makes 8-10 biscuits, depending on their size. Time required: 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/3 cup unsalted butter, COLD, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 3/4 cup cold milk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Set rack in center of oven. Prep a half-sheet baking pan with parchment paper.

In a food processor, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar and pulse a few times until well combined.

Add in the butter and pulse until the butter is in pea-size pieces. This isn’t the final size of the butter pieces, but we will need to process it more when we add the milk so this is a good stopping point for the moment.

Add the milk slowly, pulsing until the dough comes together in a ball. This takes less than a minute; it comes together very fast. Resist the urge to over-process the dough: stop as soon as it all comes together and has pulled off the sides of the food processor.

Lightly flour a countertop, pastry board or large cutting board, and move the dough from the food processor to the prepared surface. Sprinkle a bit more flour on the dough until it’s not sticky to the touch. Knead it two or three times to help it come together into a smooth ball.

Using your (floured) hands, flatten the ball into a layer about 3/4 inch thick. Cut into biscuits of desired size and move them to the baking pan. You can make the biscuits as big or as small as you like, as long as they are all about the same thickness so they will all bake at approximately the same rate. Round cookie cutters work well for this, but if you want you can just use a knife to cut the dough into squares. Try to minimize the number of times you need to gather up the dough scraps and roll them out again; the less you handle the dough, the more chunks of butter will remain.

Bake for 15-16 minutes at 425 degrees or until the tops begin to brown. Rotate the baking pan halfway through to ensure even baking.

Remove from oven. Serve warm or cool.

Tips and suggestions:

  • For heartier biscuits, use 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour and 1/2 cup whole wheat flour.
  • You can flavor these in all sorts of interesting ways. Throw in some herbs (like oregano or thyme), or some minced garlic, or finely-chopped chives or green onions.
  • For cheesy biscuits: try adding 1/2 cup of grated cheddar cheese. I suggest mixing it in with the other dry ingredients; it can be difficult to add it once the dough has come together.
  • You can try substituting other fats for the butter, including margarine, non-dairy spreads such as Earth Balance, shortening, or even lard. Just keep in mind that these aren’t exactly the healthiest food to begin with, and your choice of fat could make that better or worse.
  • If you like a shiny brown top to your biscuits, you can spray them with oil or cooking spray just before putting them in the oven; or, beat an egg for 45 seconds and then lightly brush it onto the tops of the biscuits (again, just before you bake them).
  • If you don’t have a food processor, don’t sweat it; just use a large mixing bowl. You can cut up the butter into smaller chunks up-front to save you some time, but make sure it’s very cold before incorporating it into the flour because it will take longer than the food processor method (pro tip: if you’re doing this by hand, refrigerate the flour too so that the butter stays cold and solid longer). Success with pastry comes from working fast, keeping everything cold, and handling the dough as little as possible. Some recipes will suggest that you use your fingers to work the butter into the flour and break it up into smaller pieces; that works, but you’re transferring a lot of heat from your hands to the dough in the process; using a fork or pastry blender is a much better way to go.

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