Biscuits for Thanksgiving

In years past, we were part of a large communal Thanksgiving celebration that rotated between the houses of several families each year. For these events, I always enjoyed baking one or even two fruit pies. However, time has progressed. Children have grown up and moved away. Careers have changed. We moved from a large house to a cozy apartment. This year’s Thanksgiving was just three people.

For three people, I decided to do something a little simpler: biscuits.

That is, I have been tinkering with baking powder biscuits for more than ten years. However, I had not made any biscuits since 2009. Time to dig the recipe spreadsheet out of the archive and try again. Here is this year’s version:

Ingredients

  • All purpose flour – 3 cups (300g)
  • Quick cooking oats – 3/4 cup (75g)
  • Baking powder – 3 tablespoons (40g)
  • Baking soda – 1/2 teaspoon (3g)
  • Sugar – 3/4 teaspoon (4g)
  • Salt – 3/4 teaspoon (4g)
  • Unsalted butter – 3/8 cup (75g)
  • Crisco vegetable shortening – 3/8 cup (75g)
  • Low fat buttermilk – 1 cup (225ml)
  • Additional cold water – as needed, about 1/4 to 3/4 cup (50-150ml)

Utensils

  • Cookie sheet – a professional aluminum “half sheet” available from your nearest restaurant supply store works much better than a consumer-grade tin sheet.
  • Mixing bowl – that you can put in the freezer
  • Medium plastic bowl or similar for weighing on the scale
  • Cutting board – that you can put in the freezer
  • Flour sifter
  • Postal scale – I have a nice Japanese one that reads out in grams, much more accurate than U.S. scales that read only in ounces
  • Measuring cups
  • Measuring spoons
  • Large wooden or plastic spoon for mixing
  • Biscuit cutter 2.5 inch (6cm)
  • Plastic wrap
  • Timer
  • Oven mits
  • Rack for cooling
  • Spatula to move biscuits from hot cookie sheet to rack

Key Points

  1. Use a postal scale to weigh the flour, oats, butter, shortening. The ratio is tricky and using a volume measure for flour is very unreliable. The volume of the flour can vary widely depending on the humidity, whether it has been sifted, and so on.
  2. It is hard to get the amount of liquid just right. How much liquid the dough needs will also vary from day-to-day depending on humidity, temperature, the phase of the moon, and so on.
  3. The goal is similar to that of a pie-crust. We want to make little balls of shortening that are covered in flour and do NOT dissolve into a wet mush. When we put the biscuits in the oven, these should fluff into “flakes” or at least that is the idea.
  4. One method of keeping the little shortening balls intact is to get them very cold just before the final prep of the dough. It also helps to have the working surface really cold. Finally, you want to handle the dough very quickly and briefly. Otherwise, your hands will warm it up, melting these little balls.
  5. For those not used to weighing things on a postal scale, put the plastic bowl on the scale before you turn it on. That way, the scale will calibrate itself to “0” including the weight of the plastic bowl. This technique makes it very easy to measure ingredients and then use the plastic bowl to dump them into the mixing bowl.

Preparation

Starting two hours before meal time:

1 – Weigh flour into sifter.

2 – Measure baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar into sifter.

3 – Sift together.

4 – Mix the oats into the bowl and stir together.

5 – Put some of the mix back into the plastic bowl, put it back onto the scale, turn the scale off and on again to calibrate.

Picture shows bowl on postal scale with some flour mix and vegetable shortening
Weigh Crisco into Some of the Flour

6 – Scoop the vegetable shortening into this mix using a spoon until you have measured 75 grams.

7 – Dump the mix and vegetable shortening into the bowl.

8 – Calibrate the scale again.

9 – Trim one stick of unsalted butter until it weighs 75 grams.

Shows intact and unwrapped stick of butter sitting in flour mix in bowl
Put Butter and Crisco into Flour Mix and Allow to Soften

10 – Unwrap and drop the stick of butter into the bowl with the vegetable shortening and dry ingredients.

11 – Allow the mix to sit on the counter for about 30 minutes until the butter is fully softened.

Continuing 90 minutes before meal time:

Shows crumbly flour mixture
After Cutting in Shortening, Mix Will Look Like This

12 – Use a knife to cut shortening up into smaller chunks. Then use fork to press these against the sides of the bowl, turning and repeating until the mixture has the texture of cornmeal.

13 – Cover with plastic wrap.

shows bowl and cutting board in freezer
Bowl and Cutting Board Into Freezer

14 – Place cutting board and bowl into freezer.

15 – Turn on oven to “bake” and 450°F (230°C) and allow to preheat.

16 – Allow cutting board and mix to chill for 45 to 60 minutes.

17 – Remove bowl from freezer.

18 – Add buttermilk, 1/3 of a cup at a time. Stir lightly to spread moisture. Do not over-mix.

Shows that dough is still too dry to come together
Not Moist Enough After Adding One Cup of Buttermilk
shows dough now sticky enough to form a ball
Moist Enough After Adding a Total of 1/2 Cup of Additional Water

19 – Assess dough. Is there enough moisture that this dough will stick together? You don’t want a cake batter. You want a level of stickiness that just barely picks up the flour mix.

20 – If necessary, carefully add more cold water, 1/4 cup at a time until the dough is just sticky enough.

shows a ball in the bowl
Form a Ball in the Bowl

21 – Form a ball of dough in the bowl. Don’t over-work it. Just squeeze and pat it together until a ball forms.

Shows crumbly dough patted into a rough square on cutting board
Pat Dough Flat

22 – Remove cutting board from freezer. Sprinkle lightly with flour. Pat dough ball into a square about an inch (2.5cm) thick.

23 – Lightly oil the cooking sheet.

24 – Cut biscuits with the biscuit cutter, twisting slightly to separate each one.

shows 13 biscuits touching each other on cookie sheet
Place Biscuits Touching on Cookie Sheet

25 – Place biscuits touching each other on the cookie sheet. Placing them this way will encourage them to expand upward rather than outward.

26 – Press the scraps of dough together, pat back to a smaller square and continue cutting. Don’t worry if there are small gaps in the dough. These actually make the biscuits more interesting.

27 – Take the last tiny scraps of dough and push them into the biscuit cutter to form one last biscuit.

28 – Using your thumb, press a small dimple into the center of each biscuit. This dimple will prevent the biscuit from crowning (forming a domed top).

Finished Biscuits After 15 Minutes in Oven
Finished Biscuits After 15 Minutes in Oven

29 – Place cookie sheet in oven.

30 – Set timer for 15 minutes.

31 – Bake until golden brown on the top. Remove from oven.

32 – Use spatula to transfer biscuits to rack for cooling.

Finished Biscuit with Butter and Jam
Finished Biscuit with Butter and Jam

Critique

The biscuits look and smell great. However, for my taste they are a little dry. I would like them to be a little softer and more like the unspeakably artificial biscuits that you get in a little cardboard tube at the grocery store. I realize that those instant biscuits contain all kinds of frightening chemical ingredients…but I like them. As a next step, I may cut the cooking time slightly. I may also experiment with adding an egg to the dough.

Sources

  • http://www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/tech/recipes/bread/biscuits-1/Chap1.html
  • Alton Brown “Good Eats” seen on 27 May 2004
  • GQ Magazine August 2004 issue page 66 on 10/9/2005

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