Why You Should Never, Ever Make Biscuits Without Buttermilk

Slate's Culture Blog
April 18 2012 1:21 PM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Biscuits

biscuit2_withjam
A biscuit made from the recipe below, plus jam

Heather Murphy

Scroll down a few paragraphs and you will see a recipe called “Biscuits.” It calls for buttermilk, but it is not called “Buttermilk Biscuits.” That’s because to call it “Buttermilk Biscuits” would imply that there are other acceptable ways of making biscuits that do not involve buttermilk. There are not. If you’re not going to use buttermilk, you should not make biscuits.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

To be clear, biscuit recipes that don’t call for buttermilk abound, with labels like “baking-powder biscuits” and “cream biscuits.” Ignore these recipes. They inevitably result in disks that are shorter, drier, and blander than buttermilk biscuits. You are literally better off popping open a can of Pillsbury Grands or stirring together Bisquick and milk than making baking-powder biscuits.

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But there’s no excuse to go the pre-packaged route, because buttermilk biscuits are nearly as easy and usually don’t even require a trip to the grocery store. That’s because the term “buttermilk” is less rigid than it sounds, at least when it comes to making biscuits: As previously discussed, you can approximate a cup of buttermilk at home by mixing a cup of milk with a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice. You can even, if absolutely necessary, substitute plain yogurt for buttermilk—for the purposes of baking, it’s roughly the same thing. What matters is that you use milk that has been acidified in some way: The acid activates the leavening power of baking soda to create soft, moist, pleasantly spongy biscuits.

You’ll also need plenty of butter. Some swear by shortening because it results in a slightly flakier texture than butter. But shortening is flavorless, and its trans fats will probably hasten your death.

Apart from butter and buttermilk, the secret to great biscuits resides in technique. Don’t overwork the dough. Stir it just until the liquid is incorporated, knead it just until it comes together, and try to avoid treating the scraps too roughly when you press them back together for the second rolling and cutting.

Speaking of rolling and cutting: The goal of biscuit-making is to maximize the fluffy insides, so don’t roll the dough too thin—three-quarters of an inch is about right. Some say you should use a biscuit- or cookie-cutter with a sharp edge so you don’t smush the edges of your uncooked biscuits, but I’ve been cutting biscuits with blunt-edged water glasses my whole life and have never had reason to complain. In this particular, follow your own heart.

Finally, when you place the uncooked biscuit rounds on the baking sheet, make sure they touch. Now is not the time to be giving your food space to breathe; the biscuits should be as tightly arranged as Fleet Foxes’ harmonies. As they rise in the oven, their tops will brown and harden, but their abutting sides will remain soft, feathery, and white—just like the delicious insides.

Biscuits have a lifespan of a few hours at best, so, once they’re out of the oven, eat them as soon as you can. This would be a difficult imperative if we were talking about baking-powder biscuits, but if you use buttermilk, you will find it no challenge at all to scarf them down right quick.

Biscuits
Yield: 15 to 18 biscuits
Time:  About 30 minutes

2½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading and rolling
3½ teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1¼ cups buttermilk

1. Heat the oven to 450°F. Combine the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl. Add the butter and blend with a pastry cutter or your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the buttermilk and stir just until combined, then transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead 5 or 6 times.

2. With a rolling pin, roll out the dough until it’s ¾ inch thick. Cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter or glass and transfer to an ungreased baking sheet with the edges of the rounds touching. Gather up the dough scraps, roll them out, and repeat.

3. Bake until the biscuits are golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Serve hot or warm.

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