Buttermilk Biscuits

Buttermilk Biscuits

I’ve made a lot of biscuits over the years, and I’ve tried a few different biscuit recipes, but this one is still my go-to for fast, light and fluffy biscuits.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups flour*
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup cold  butter or shortening*
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk

Directions:

In a large bowl, sift all dry ingredients together. Cut in butter/shortening until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well in the center; add buttermilk all at once. Stir just until dough clings together.

On a lightly floured surface, knead dough gently for 10 or 12 strokes. Roll or pat dough to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut with a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter, dipping cutter into flour between cuts.

Transfer biscuits to a baking sheet. Bake in a 450-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes or until golden. Serve warm.

Yield- about one dozen.
* Cook’s Notes: As with many simple recipes, the devil is in the details when it comes to making biscuits. Read on for a full dissertation on the finer points of biscuit making:

On Flour:
For best results,  I strongly recommend that you look for a Southern brand like White Lily, Martha White, or Southern Biscuit- all of these flours are made from a soft red winter wheat and have a lower protein content (around 8%). A flour’s protein content roughly corresponds to how much gluten it contains- so if you use a low-protein flour, when roll out and knead your dough it won’t form big chewy strands of gluten. The end result is tender, fluffy biscuits.

Can’t find White Lily? Try using the next closest thing: pastry flour (which typically has an 8.5-9.5% protein content), or fake it by mixing 1 cup of cake flour (such as Swans Down of Softasilk; protein content is generally between 7-8.5%) and 2 cups of all-purpose flour. This should give you something pretty close to a good biscuit-making flour in terms of protein content, but keep in mind that this isn’t always a completely reliable substitution as the percentage of protein in all-purpose flour can vary from 9-11+%.

If you want to take out a little extra “insurance” or find that your biscuits need a little extra lift (hey, everyone’s kitchen conditions are different), you can try using a self-rising flour. Self-rising flours were designed as a convenience item for bakers, and are made by adding baking powder and salt to the flour. In general, if the recipe you’re using has less than 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt, you shouldn’t substitute self-rising flour in the recipe. So, if you are using self-rising flour in this recipe, you can omit the 1/4 teaspoon salt, and you can even reduce the amount of baking powder to 2 teaspoons if you’re afraid your biscuits may bake up too tall and topple over.

No matter what flour you use, make sure you sift it at least once. Yes, even if it says “pre-sifted” on the bag. “Pre-sifted” just means that the flour was sifted at the mill before it was bagged- you can bet that it’s settled in the bag since then, so it needs sifted again. If you’re not going to bother to sift your flour, you may as well go buy your biscuits in a tube.

On Shortening:
It is important that whatever you use here MUST BE COLD. If it isn’t, you’re going to end up with a melty, greasy mess on your hands, and it will be pretty much impossible to get the mixture to the right consistency. Leave your butter, margarine, or shortening in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. That said, it will be easier to add your shortening of choice to the mix if you cut it into small pieces before you start working it into the flour (this is especially true if you cut it in by hand, as the heat from your hands can cause the shortening to melt).

Over the years, I’ve found that using a mix of half butter and half shortening produces the best flavor and texture. That said, if you want a really great texture and taste, I’ve found that using half butter and half lard actually makes some of the best biscuits of all. Some squeamish folks may balk at using lard because it sounds “icky”, but at the end of the day, you are still consuming fat whether it came from a plant or animal. That said, not all fats are created equal.

At the most basic level:

ANIMAL FAT (*usually rendered from pig fat) = LARD
MILK or CREAM + SALT (*salt is optional) = BUTTER
SOYBEAN OIL + FULLY HYDROGENATED PALM OIL + PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED PALM AND SOYBEAN OILS + MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES + TBHQ + CITRIC ACID = VEGETABLE SHORTENING (*Crisco, in fact- I pulled this straight from their website, and this does not include flavoring additives)

..and if you break them down by the numbers:

Nutritional data (per 100 grams)

Lard: 902 calories; 100 g fat [39 g saturated fat (195% DV); 11 g polyunsaturated fat; 2.2 g monounsaturated fat]; 95 mg cholesterol (31% DV)

Vegetable shortening: 884 calories; 100 g fat [91 g saturated fat (455% DV); 1 g polyunsaturated fat; 45 g monounsaturated fat]; no other dietary value

As you can see, the ingredient list for lard is both shorter and easier to pronounce than the ingredient list for vegetable shortening. In addition, lard has less saturated fat and more monounsaturated fat (which, incidentally, is the same type of “good” fat as in olive oil). While lard does contain cholesterol, that’s not really all that bad of a thing either. Cholesterol is actually vital for normal body function, and is found in the outer membrane of every cell of the body. Without cholesterol, you wouldn’t be able to absorb vitamins A, D, E, or K. Long story short, a little cholesterol won’t kill you (just don’t eat too much of it too often- that is bad for you. Then again, so is too much salt, sugar, or pretty much anything else).  Finally, some vegetable shortenings may still contain trans fat- while most American companies avoid trans fats like the plague these days, some products containing trans fat still show up on U.S. grocers’ shelves (often in imported and “bargain” brands of shortening).

Ultimately, it’s your call on what to use, but unless you stick to a vegetarian, kosher, or halal diet, my personal recommendation is that you try the half butter/half lard combo for the fat in this recipe.

On Working the Dough:
I was always taught to “keep a light had” when making biscuits. Basically, that means don’t over-mix and don’t over-knead. If you do either, you will end up creating chewy strands of gluten. Gluten is great when you want a nice, crusty baguette or a stretchy, elastic pizza dough- but it’s the last thing you want in biscuits, cakes, pie crust, or pastries. The less you knead and roll your biscuit dough, the better- this is especially true if you have to re-knead and re-roll the scraps after you’ve cut your first round of biscuits.

When you cut your biscuits, be sure you cut straight down. No twisting the cutter (twisting seals the edges)! When you lift the cut biscuits, place them top-side down on the cookie sheet. Those two things will ensure that you don’t excessively seal the edges  and that the most sealed edge–the side that you cut from– is on the bottom, so your biscuits will have a better chance of rising up nice and tall. Also, don’t forget that biscuits like to stay close together, so don’t place them too far apart on your baking sheet- I promise, they can even be touching, and it won’t hurt a thing, because biscuits don’t spread. The reason for this is that the biscuits will give off a tiny bit of steam as they bake, and this will provide just a little extra heat to help them rise better.

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last updated August 17, 2023