Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Making Biscuits

Real buttermilk biscuits, hot from the oven.
It doesn't get much better than that.

I don't mean the kind that come out of a can.
And I don't mean what we would call cookies but English people would call biscuits. Totally different thing.

I mean the kind that your grandmother used to make.
If, that is, your grandmother was from the Southern US.

Somewhere along the way, making good biscuits became one of those litmus test things for a good cook. I don't know how that happened, given that making good biscuits is possibly one of the easiest things in the world. Making that the standard for good cooking is a lot like judging someone's baking skills by how good their mud pies are. The process is very similar!

There is really only one thing you need in order to make excellent biscuits: you need your mother to show you how. Of course, she needed her mother to show HER how, and on and on back through the matriarchal line of your entire ancestry. If you don't have that, it's going to be a lot more difficult.

You can try a substitute Mom: there are, believe it or not, youtube videos of someone else's Mom demonstrating how to make a real Southern buttermilk biscuit. That might help, or it might not, since the directions are usually pretty vague, and assume a familiarity with the making of biscuits.

Even so.
I'm willing to make an effort to help you. Making biscuits is fun, tasty, and a great thing to share with your kids both before and after the baking part.

The first thing you need (besides your Mom, but if you have your Mom, you don't need me!) is a large bowl. Preferably a corningware bowl, in one of the truly horrendous colors they used to make them in (mine is avocado green). Wear an apron- you're likely to get flour all over.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees, if you have that sort of oven. If you have one that uses some other settings (like they do in England, I'm told) get a thermometer, and use that to figure out what you need to set it to. It probably doesn't have to be exact, but it shouldn't be too far off.

Sift a bunch (that's a technical term) of self-rising flour into the bowl. How much you use depends on how many biscuits you want, of course. I usually want a lot, so I use a lot of flour. Don't use more than your bowl will hold.

Make a well in the center of the hill of sifted flour.

Put some shortening into it. Crisco. Lard. I wouldn't use all butter.
That's another technical term. Some. You've baked before, right? So you should have some idea of a typical ratio of shortening to flour in most baked goods. Start there, and maybe add a little more. More shortening makes for a lighter biscuit. To a point. What point? I have no idea.

Use your hands to start blending the flour and the shortening. Use a light touch, and don't let the shortening start to warm up from your body heat.

Once it's mixed up a little, so there aren't huge globs of shortening sitting there, pour in some buttermilk. How much? I don't know. Some. A puddle of it. Mix everything together. (It's going to stick to your hands, so don't be surprised by that.) If it's too stiff and dry, add more buttermilk. It's going to be cold, mixing the buttermilk in by hand, since you keep your buttermilk in the refrigerator, right?

Here's the part no one can tell you: mix until it looks and feels like biscuit dough. It should be pretty soft, but not too wet. Not sticky. Not too dry and stiff. Don't overmix it, or the biscuits will get tough. Add more of whatever you need more of to get it to turn out right. When you are starting out, you might want to mix flour into the wet ingredients, instead of trying to mix the other way around, and don't feel like you have to use all of the flour in the bowl. Just mix it in until it feels right, and stop. Once you have more experience, you'll be able to estimate more accurately, and will have a better idea of how much of things to use to only sift the amount of flour you want.

Once the dough is right, break off a piece of it that will make a biscuit the size you want to make.  Remember they will rise in the oven. Using your hands, slightly roll and tuck the edges underneath to make a rounded but somewhat flattened ball. You know. A biscuit shape. You can roll them out and cut them with the open end of a tomato sauce can if you want, but it's quicker to just hand form them.

Put them on a cookie sheet, barely touching, and bake for 20-25 minutes, depending on how big you made them. They should be a little brown on the bottoms, and starting to be golden on the tops.

Next comes the best part: finding out if you made biscuits, or if they are a bunch of duds.
You might be a little nervous the first few times That's okay.
Break one open with a fork. Steam should come out. Butter or something similar should go on.
If all is well, remember what you did so you can do it next time.
If not... remember what you did so you don't do it the next time!

Your biscuits should be light and fluffy on the inside. If they are tough, or chewy, you either used too much flour, too little shortening, or you mixed it too long. Adjust those things and try again.

Once you've gotten to where you can do this without looking at any instructions, and you consistently turn out good biscuits, it's time to pass it on to your kids. Because it doesn't take any measuring, and the recipe is pretty forgiving, it's a great recipe to play with with small kids. Who doesn't like mixing dough by hand? Even a very young child should be able to help with this one.

If they turn out to be duds, you can always give them to the dog and try again.

They are best right out of the oven.
They don't keep very well, although you can try to heat them up if you want. They are okay that way, but it's kind of like the difference between fresh brewed coffee and instant- from what I've been told anyway. I hate coffee.

I learned to make biscuits almost literally at my mother's knee, since that is about how tall I was at the time. She used this method, and also had another method that uses both baking powder and yeast. That method has an actual recipe, with measuring and everything, but it isn't nearly so traditional.

That was my adventure for today. Making mudpies, without the mud part.

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