Battle of the Biscuits
Unfortunately, I am not of that fortunate faction of Americans who grew up with homemade buttermilk biscuits. A born and raised New Englander, I can fondly recall weekly doses of buttermilk pancakes with Vermont maple syrup, but I won’t pretend I know real Southern Biscuits and their associated sugary toppings. So you can imagine that it came as somewhat of a revelation when I discovered them in Brooklyn of all places, a mere six years ago. Imagine! Nearly one-fifth of my life spent without true buttermilk biscuits.
I had just moved to New York City and was waiting tables at Egg, a tiny breakfast spot (nowadays they serve all day long) in Brooklyn. Opened by George Weld, a native of Virginia and the Carolinas, Egg was for me at the time an oasis of laid-back Southern-ness, smack in the middle of a neighborhood becoming hipper by the minute. Despite week after week of packed, standing-room-only brunches, George always managed to churn out the most ethereal buttermilk biscuits I have ever tasted. How they were at once fluffy and flaky, light and buttery, I will never truly know.
The thing with biscuits is the recipe is so simple that the details and technique are absolutely crucial. Now, I can only by trial and error attempt those flaky little monsters for myself. When I was back in New York over the past couple of months, I made sure to get in a few breakfasts at Egg, naturally ordering a buttermilk biscuit with homemade fig jam. All nostalgia aside, here goes with biscuit experiments 1.0.
Traditional Southern-style biscuits are most notably made with White Lily brand flour. This is difficult to get in the North of the United States and nearly impossible elsewhere in the world. So, we got that out of the way. What’s the point of even trying, then, you ask? Well, a perfectly wonderful biscuit can still be made without this very specific kind of flour.
White Lily is made from soft red winter wheat, which is both low in protein and low in gluten. This is similar in structure to what is sold in the US as pastry flour, or in Germany as type 405 flour. All-purpose flour, on the other hand, is made from a harder spring wheat variety (or a mixture of hard and soft), with more protein and gluten. This is known as Mehltyp 550 here (in France type 40 and in Italy type 00). What’s with the numbers? Well, in Europe flour varieties are labeled according to the ash mass (or mineral content) that remains after a sample is incinerated in a laboratory oven at a specific temperature. Leave it to the Germans…
Ok, onto the recipes. I first was attempted a recipe based on Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s. Miss Lewis, who passed away a few years ago, was largely responsible for the revival of a more refined and traditional Southern cuisine. She was a great friend and mentor to chef Scott Peacock, who served as her caretaker for the last years of her life. It must have indeed seemed a strange relationship- between a younger gay, white male chef and an elderly African-American woman chef and writer- but I rather find it beautiful and inspiring. I imagine them debating until the very end which type of flour to use in the quintessential buttermilk biscuit.
I used all-purpose flour (type 550) for this first experiment, baking powder without aluminum (or you can also use self-made baking powder*), a fair amount of salt, good quality cold butter, cubed and then again chilled, along with, of course, buttermilk. Many advise the use of lard, however given that I have some vegetarian tendencies, I wanted to stick with the butter. But by all means, try the lard!
The dough comes together easily and quickly. Dry ingredients are first sifted together, then cold butter is added and quickly rubbed into the flour mixture until it is coarsely blended. A well is created in the mixture, and the buttermilk added, mixing quickly (ideally with a wooden spoon) until it is just incorporated, soft and sticky. The dough is then turned out onto a floured surface and kneaded a few times, rolled out, pricked with a fork, and finally rounds cut out with a biscuit cutter. Place them a small distance apart from one another on a parchment lined heavy baking sheet and set in a 500° F oven, in the upper third part, for 8-12 minutes.
There you have a quick recap of the process, but before I continue, let me tell you how they turned out. Taste: quite good- tang of the buttermilk was noticeable and nice. Pull-apart factor: also pretty good- you always want that small gap where the biscuit pulls apart in half naturally due to the lamination of the dough. Rise: not enough. This was my main problem with this batch. The issue, however, is that lack of rise could be due to many factors in the technique of making the biscuit apart from the recipe itself.
But I forged onward. My next attempt was using the same recipe, only this time with pastry flour (type 405) and a pinch of sugar (I know, more than one variable changed- not very scientific- but I couldn’t resist trying the sugar!). I used the same process, but left one half of the dough unrolled, as I had the feeling it compressed it too much for proper rising. I actually found that the rolled half reacted very similarly to my first test with all-purpose flour, while the unrolled half rose better. The taste, however, was not as satisfactory as the first batch, which I attribute to the sugar’s counteracting of the saltiness of the original recipe.
My next test consisted of a basic baking powder biscuit using the pastry flour and cream rather than buttermilk. Long story short, the texture was great but the flavor was very much lacking in that classic buttermilk biscuit sourness that I was after in the first place. Therefore, this little diversion was crossed off the list immediately.
In a final attempt to get a big rise out of the dough, I thought about trying yeast. Why not? A yeasted biscuit with all-purpose flour and buttermilk yielded a nice-flavored dinner roll-like result, but not characteristically biscuit shaped. I decided I would tuck that recipe away for another occasion.
Finally, FINALLY, I managed a great biscuit, with a fine texture, a tangy and buttery flavor and a healthy rise. So as not to force you to consume your life with biscuit-baking for many days or weeks as I have, here I will share my recipe.
SOUTHERN-STYLE BUTTERMILK BISCUITS
2 ½ cups sifted pastry flour (Mehl typ 405) – measured after sifting
2 tsp. aluminum-free baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 ½ – 2 tsp. salt
1/3 cup butter, cubed and chilled
1 cup buttermilk
a couple of extra tablespoons of butter, melted
Preheat oven to 475° F (245° C). Prepare a baking sheet with a lining of parchment paper. Prepare butter by cubing into small pieces and then re-chilling or even freezing for a few minutes. The idea is to keep it as cold as possible during the process of making of the dough. Whisk together sifted flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl.
Add the cold, cubed butter to the flour mixture and quickly rub together between your fingertips until it is coarsely blended.
Make a well in the mixture and pour in the cold buttermilk, mixing quickly with your hands or a wooden spoon. The dough should be soft and sticky. If you find that it is too dry, add a bit more buttermilk. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times until the dough is in one cohesive mass.
Gently flatten the dough to be about ½ inch thick. Prick the dough all the way through to the work surface a few times with a fork, at evenly spaced intervals. With a floured circular biscuit-cutter, stamp out (do not twist) rounds as close together as possible and arrange them on the parchment-lined baking sheet. What to do with the scraps, you may ask? You can either just bake them as they are and have extra tasty little devils, or try to press them together to form a biscuit shape (however, this composite biscuit will not rise as much as the others do).
Bake biscuits in the upper third of the oven for 8-12 minutes, or until golden brown on top. You can rotate the sheet halfway through if you find they are not cooking evenly. Remove from oven and brush tops with melted butter.
Serve warm with butter, honey or marmalade. The biscuits are also delectable the next day with sausage gravy or, my favorite— halved and toasted with a fried egg on top.
*self-made baking powder- Some advocate the use of a composite made of cream of tartar and baking soda. You can make up a larger batch in advance by sifting together three times the following: ¼ cup cream of tartar and 2 Tbsp. baking soda. Transfer to a tightly sealed jar and store at room temperature for up to four weeks. I myself did not try this, as it is almost impossible to find cream of tartar in Berlin, but I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to it.