Saturday, July 21, 2007

Recipes for REAL Women, Volume 21 - Forget About the Dough Boy

This is a favorite recipe from our core group of friends. Emily has been bugging me for months to post it; any time she comes by after I've made biscuits the response is "Oh my God, where are they? Are there any left? Can I have one? Are you making more?"

Making biscuits is also a sure way of making sure EVERYONE stays for dinner.

Now for those of you whose favorite biscuits come from KFC, these are BETTER.... really they aren't even comparable. What KFC calls biscuits... aren't. If you're buying Bisquick (God knows why), these are just as easy to make and only take slightly more time. For those of you who, God forbid, resort to those compressed cans of Dough Boy marketing genius; everything you've been told is wrong.

Good REAL biscuits are quick, easy, and don't taste of preservatives. Bachelors and busy mothers everywhere: put down your cans of vacuum-packed dough, get the closest big bowl and wooden spoon, and follow me.

Despite what you've heard, biscuits are not a complicated, difficult endeavor. Quite the opposite in fact. Biscuits are the perfect failsafe for bacon and eggs without a partner, or a dinner bread within 30 minutes. They are the perfect accompaniment to every meal; breakfast, lunch dinner, and most importantly DESSERT.

So why is everyone so scared of biscuits?

Well.. biscuits are... touchy. If you're hankering for biscuits like Grandma used to make and all you come up with is crumbly bread that resembles hockey pucks, or overbaked mud pies, you are missing one piece of information and experience that Grandma had: when to stop.

Good biscuits don't come from a recipe. Good biscuits come from technique, quality ingredients, and being lazy.

Biscuits, muffins, quick breads, pastry; they all have one thing in common: overwork them and they'll crumble like San Francisco in an 8.9.

The first rule of biscuit making is STOP WHEN YOU ARE DONE. Don't try to make the butter bits all the same size. Don't mix out the last lump. Don't knead until your dough falls apart. The trick to biscuits is to not work hard, and to stop as soon as possible.

In other words, be lazy in your biscuit making and your biscuits will love you. They will be tender and light, instead of heavy and crumbly.

There are as many variations as biscuits as there are bakers. The classic Southern biscuit is made with self-rising flour, lard, and buttermilk. I prefer butter to lard when it comes to biscuits; lard biscuits are tricky for beginners and while they bake up higher they are also more difficult to make right. Also, I don't usually carry fresh buttermilk. I don't use it enough to justify keeping it on hand, but I ALWAYS have powdered buttermilk, because it's useful in lots of baking, and it's shelf stable.

So, here's my personal basic recipe:

Mel's Southern Biscuits


2 1/2 cups self-rising flour
2 tbsp powdered buttermilk
3/4 cup chilled butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces for ease
1 cup milk


The amount of flour necessary will change according to the flour, the weather, the milk, etc, but this is the minimum I've found necessary. You'll have a chance to add more flour later on in the process. If you have fresh buttermilk, use it instead of the powder and milk; if you don't have powdered or fresh, just use the milk.

BUT before you attempt the recipe, STOP.

Remember what I said about biscuits being technique, not recipe? The BEST biscuit recipe in the world will break your teeth unless you follow these basic guidelines.

Biscuits of all types follow the same basic procedure:
  1. Mix the dry ingredients together in the mixing bowl, the wet ingredients together in another container.

  2. "Work" the fat into the dry ingredients. Usually this means using your fingertips to crumble or squish smallish bits of the chilled fat into the flour mixture until you don't have any fat pieces bigger than a pea and the fat is fairly evenly distributed. Keep the butter as cold as possible; this is necessary for steam generation and flaky layers.

  3. Add the wet ingredients to the dry/fat mixture, and mix as quickly as humanly possible; but GENTLY. Ignore any small lumps left after mixing for more than 7-10 seconds, and no more than about 10 folds of the mixture.

  4. Place the dough on a lightly floured counter or other cool work surface. Flatten the dough ball out into a rectangle, fold the sheet over vertically, then fold it over horizontally, and flatten it again. If you need to add more flour to keep it from sticking, that's okay. Repeat the folding and flattening until the dough no longer sticks to the counter, or at least 4 times (to make 256 layers). These layers of wet flour and cold bits of fat create the steam pockets that makes for tender yet flaky biscuits.

  5. Pat the dough down and cut into individual biscuits. The shape and size depend on your preferences; I use everything from a drinking glass, crumpet ring, or cookie cutter to cut my biscuits. Lately I've skipped the cutter completely and just cut the dough into reasonably sized squares. Do whatever works for you, but get the most out of each patting of the dough as you possibly can. The biscuits from the first cut are always the most tender because they've been worked the least.

  6. Place your biscuits in or on your pan (or in your cast iron skillet or dutch oven if that suits your fancy) and bake until nicely golden; usually at 400 degrees or so on the middle rack of your oven.
Yes, it's a little bit of work, yes it's a lot of mess. But FRESH biscuits within half an hour is worth the mess any time of day.

These basic butter biscuits are wonderful for breakfast, for lining bowls of stew, for chili, pretty much anything you want. However, if you want to make them better, you can add any of the following to the flour/fat mixture before adding the liquids:

shredded cheese (the stronger the better)
bacon bits
cooked sandwich meats

Now for sweet dessert biscuits, simply add 1/4 cup brown sugar (and maybe a bit of cinnamon or nutmeg) to the dry ingredients, then mix and bake normally. You could add honey or molasses as well, but that changes your liquid to dry balance so it's a bit tricker (best left 'til you've got more experience).

With dessert biscuits, you may want to try these mixins:

dried cranberries
dried raisins
Fresh, dried, or stewed apple pieces

Oh and if you want to get really inventive; you can substitute cold bacon fat for the butter. It's harder to work with, and a bit more sensitive to both ingredients and prepartion, but the flavor is incredible. We'll talk about using hot pan drippings in the advanced course later on.

At any rate, the combinations and applications are nearly limitless. If you keep the ingredients on hand, you can do as I do and bake up a batch as the mood strikes you, or as needed for a quick and easy addition to dinner or breakfast.

And be sure to check out:

Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 20 - QDCBS (Quick and Dirty Chili Bean Stew)
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 19 - Chicken Salmonella
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 18 - I'll give YOU a good stuffing turkey (1)
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 17 - REAL Coffee
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 16 - DTG (Damn That's Good) dip
Recipes for REAL Women, Volume 15 - More Chocolate Than Cookie
Recipes for REAL Women, Volume 14 - Millions of Peaches
Recipes for REAL Women, Volume 13 - Mels 10,000 Calorie Butter Cookies
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 12 - Lard Ass Wings
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 11 - Bacon Double Macaroni and Cheese
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 10 - It's the meat stupid
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 9 - Labor Day Potatos
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 8 - It's a pork fat thing
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 7 - It may not be Kosher...
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 6 - Andouille Guiness Chili
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 5 - Eazza the Ultimate Pizza
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 4 - Two Pound Meat Sauce
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 3 - Highbrow Hash
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 2 - MuscleCarbonara
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 1 - More Beef than Stew