a minor obsession with biscuits

My Dad is a son of the South, born in the state of Mississippi to a big family. I feel it is only natural then, that I sooner or later desire to make that staple of Southern cooking: the baking powder buttermilk biscuit. It’s a seemingly simple recipe. Take about two cups of flour, and cut in about a quarter cup of fat (butter, shortening, or *gulp* even lard.) To this, add salt, baking powder, and baking soda to taste. Bind it together by mixing in about a cup of butter milk, and knead oh-so-gently to form a soft, sloppy dough. Finally, flatten the dough, cut with a sharp biscuit cutter and bake. Easy, right?

Deceptively easy, I say. This is one of those recipes that looks simple on paper, but can often yield stiff, crusty little hockey pucks instead of soft, crumbly goodness. This is evident in the fact that no one can seem to precisely agree on anything where biscuits are concerned. All the recipes vary slightly in the ratio of this to that as well as how long to bake at whatever arbitrary temperature.

I first attempted the humble biscuit when we had my father-in-law over about three months ago. It was too be an all Southern-style affair — biscuits, pan fried chicken, and green beans cooked with a ham hock (alas, I could not find butter beans.) Though a good first effort on that occasion, I felt that the meal needed perfecting… and I repeated it again a week later. In both cases, the biscuits were lackluster.

I was recently emboldened to try again when I saw Alton Brown do biscuits on the Good Eats epiode The Dough Also Rises. The key, I thought, was in the flour; biscuits are supposed to be made with soft winter wheat commonly grown in the Southern and Mid-Atlantic states, not the hard wheat grown in the Mid-West often used in all-purpose flour. A little pleasant searching through many of the better nearby markets and food emporiums brought me to White Lily Self-Rising Flour. This was the flour used by Alton Brown’s grandmother in the episode above. Aha! I thought, I had finally found out why my biscuits were bad.

Alas, that turned out to not be true. I ended up making three batches of biscuit dough before I got some inkling about what I was doing wrong. For the first two, I accidently put in far two much buttermilk and got Kindergarten paper paste. The third batch produced biscuits, but of very uneven quality. It was only the last biscuits of the third batch that turned out best.

It was at that point that I decided to stop fretting about flour and exact measurements. I opted instead to just try to repeat whatever it was that made those last bisccuits better. That turned out to be two things: a certain consistency in the dough and how thick the dough was when I cut it. I also just opted to put the biscuits in the oven until they looked done, instead of sticking to an exact time.

Seat of the pants cooking actually works where biscuits are concerned, it seems. The last batch of dough actually produced biscuits that were not perfect… but at least more than presentable. The thickness of the dough when it is cut appears to be fairly important. Dough that is slightly more than half an inch thick rises and is fluffy; dough that is slightly less doesn’t really rise and turns into a hockey puck.

I don’t know if I can now make good biscuits consistently, but I think I have a shot. My obsession can now pass until I feel the urge to cook Southern once again. Mrs. Geek sometimes babysits for a nice couple nearby, and the wife is also from the South. She has evidently heard about my chicken and biscuit making experiments, and commented that hearing about them makes her mouth water. I evidently have a standing invitation to bring over any such “experiments” and they will provide a lovely vintage to accompany the meal. I think we’ll have to do that soon.

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