I learned to make biscuits from my grandma while sitting on her kitchen counter as she measured by eye and hand a formula she’d made hundreds of times. When my grandma was gone, my mom, armed with the written recipe, finished my formal education into this culinary comfort food. There is a good bit of mystique that surrounds the making of biscuits, but in reality, just like pie crust, a little practice and some simple rules are the difference between hard tack and sublime.
Because the recipe is so simple, there are only a couple of places where a person can get a bit tripped up.
1. To start, make sure that the fat is well incorporated. Using a pastry knife is the easiest.
2. Like my grandma taught me, I use my hands to incorporate the milk so I can feel the exact amount of liquid to add.
3. Adding the liquid is the trickiest part. Too much and the biscuits aren’t fluffy. Too little and the biscuits are dry. The recipe wants just enough milk to incorporate all of the flour, no more. It’s okay to reserve a little to make sure your batch needs all the recipe calls for.
4. Don’t over mix. As soon as you begin mixing in the milk, gluten begins to develop and this is what makes biscuits chewy instead of fluffy. The less mixing the better.
5. Pat out your biscuits on a well-floured counter. Instead of rolling, which sometimes has us touching the dough too much, pat the dough out with your hands, again because working the dough too much makes hard, chewy biscuits.
6. If you find that you might have overworked the dough, a little helpful trick is to set the biscuit aside once you’ve cut them for 10 minutes or so to give the gluten time to relax before baking.
That’s it! Fluffy, buttery biscuits are yours!
Baking Powder Biscuits
This recipe is excerpted from my cookbook, At Home, At Sea: Recipes from a Maine Windjammer. My grandmother used shortening, and maybe even lard. Currently, shortening is out and butter is in, but to honor the history of the recipe, I’ve left shortening as an ingredient. It is a one to one replacement to substitute butter.
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/4 cup shortening
3/4 cup whole milk
Preheat oven to 450°F. Measure the flour, baking powder, and salt into a sifter set in a medium bowl. This is an important step because you want to add air to the mixture so the biscuits are as fluffy as possible. Use a pastry knife to cut the shortening into the mixture until it resembles a coarse meal. Add milk, stirring until a soft dough forms. It is important to not overmix; you’ll hard tack instead of fluffy biscuits. Turn out onto a floured board and knead 10 times, then STOP! Roll or pat out the dough until it is 1/2-inch thick. Cut with a floured 2-inch biscuit cutter. Transfer the biscuits to an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.
Makes 12 biscuits