The Dough Also Rises


2 cups/10 ounces low-protein Southern soft-wheat flour (1 part cake flour to 3 parts all-purpose)
1 tsp salt
4 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
4 ounces shortening (Alton does ½ butter and ½ shortening)
1 cup buttermilk

Text of Good Eats, Alton Brown's biscuit episode

The American North and South have always stood toe-to-toe like great cultural tectonic plates forever held in check. Factory versus plantation. Yankee ingenuity versus Southern hospitality. Leonard Bernstein versus Lynyrd Skynyrd. Everything symmetrically balanced.

Until it comes to biscuits. See, the Northern biscuit has a distinctly nautical heritage. The word biscuit, after all, is from an old French phrase, biscuit [bis-KWEE], it means 'twice baked' and it refers to the method that was necessary to keep ocean-going sailor wafers from going stale at sea. These were nutritious little gut bombs but they had they had the texture of a rock and only half the flavor.

Now, Southern biscuits, on the other hand, hail directly from English scones and they are so light, so fluffy, so just down-and-out delicious that I wouldn't be surprised if Sherman's march to the sea was nothing more than a biscuit-run run amuck. Maybe he just didn't like banjos. Nah.

The Southern biscuit is much more than mere social icon. The cook who attains biscuithood, well, they receive the keys to quick bread city. Dumplings, scones, soda bread, shortcake, all fall within easy grasp. In short, the biscuit is a powerful tool, not to mention seriously good eats.

Making biscuits is like playing rock 'n roll. You only need three chords and a lot of volume.

Now, the biscuit chords are flour, fat and moisture.

First the flour. Among flours alone we've got, well, all purpose flour. There's self rising flour. We've got bread flour. Um, unbleached all purpose flour. Let's see, there's cake flour and, well, dozens of others.

With the exception of the self rising which contains chemical leaveners, the main difference between all these flours is, well, mostly protein content. And that depends a great deal on wheat.

About 75 percent of the wheat grown in America is hard wheat, meaning that it's high in protein. Now, flour made from this kind of wheat is often marketed as bread flour because it forms the kind of plastic structure that French baguettes and crusty sour dough rolls depend on.

Soft wheat, because it contains less protein, is more suited for softer baking goods like cakes, pastries and biscuits. These kind of soft flours are traditional in Southern baking because before modern transportation that's what they had.

Just as some traditional Northern hard flours have become available in the South, some Southern flours, often labeled as better for biscuits, are starting to show up on Northern shelves.

All purpose flour, by the way, is usually a mixture of hard and soft flours. 'AP' as it's called, is fine for most baking chores but just as you'll never make a great baguette with it, biscuits, too, will elude you.

In a pinch, you can concoct your own biscuit flour by mixing three parts of all purpose flour with one part of cake flour. It'll get you close.

Whether fat-phobics like it or not, fat, especially fats that are solid at room temperature, play a crucial role in the texture of baked goods.

Take this vegetable shortening. Not only will it tenderize and moisten our biscuits by surrounding all the starch granules, even a very small amount will create a dramatic increase in dough volume.

Any solid fat can be used in biscuits. Butter lends great taste but iffy texture while lard produces a very tender crumb but has a touch of gaminess. Vegetable shortening is neutral in flavor, produces a light texture, has a long shelf life and is easy to work with. Now, I like to use shortening for texture along with a little bit of butter just for flavor.

To bring the other ingredients together and supply the moisture needed for a good rise, the last of the biscuit power chords is liquid, usually in the form of milk, cream or, better yet, buttermilk.

I accidentally put some of this in my cereal when I was about three and I got to tell you, I never got over it. But when it comes to biscuits, there's just no substituting the sour twang of buttermilk. Now, either low-fat or fat-free will do fine. And since it's basically spoiled already, it keeps for a long time in the fridge. Just don't confuse it with skim come Saturday morning.

Here at Good Eats we make a habit of trafficking in cultural icons. And what could be more culturally iconoclastic than the American grandmother. That's right. This is not a TV grandmother. This is my real grandmother. I call her Ma Mae.

The battle line has been drawn. We are at battleground biscuit. Now, although Ma Mae taught me how to make biscuits and every biscuit that I've ever had has basically tried to live up to hers, over the years my methodology has definitely spread into a different direction, especially when it comes to measuring and measuring is really kind of the first place that you can go wrong in biscuiting. Now, when you've made biscuits for like a 175 years like Ma Mae has, then you know what things should look like and feel like. But for the beginning biscuit maker and even for me I still measure everything.

So, we have the differences in methodology here. Ma Mae using artifacts found in burial ground from like the 5th century.

Okay, so we're both going to be starting with a soft, winter wheat flour. We're not going to name brands but, Ma Mae prefers to use self rising flour that already has the leavening ingredients added in. I have to admit I very often use it as well but for the sake of argument, I'm going to be using all purpose flour today and I'm going to add the baking powder and the baking soda separately. And we're going to come back to more of those later.

Okay, we're going to start with phase one: measuring. I do it. She doesn't. Here we go.

She'll be spooning out her flour while I'll be precisely measuring my ingredients. I use a digital scale that has what's called a tare weight on it which means I can slap a bowl on there and then basically subtract the weight of the bowl.

Ma Mae goes with two cups of flour and I basically do to only that my two cups of flour generally weighs out to about ten ounces. You'll also notice that she sifts her flour.

She says it makes it lighter, I'm not so sure. We'll have to be the judge later on. I've got ten ounces of flour. And I suspect that because she sifts her flour, she's probably using a little less than I am because the grains in her flour are going to be kind of lifted away from each other while mine are more compact.

Okay, I'm going to go ahead and add four teaspoons of baking powder, which is the same as one teaspoon plus one tablespoon. Now baking powder is interesting stuff because it's balanced. It holds both acid and alkalines so it will, ... it can rise all by itself without any other chemical agents.

And I'm going to add about a quarter teaspoon of baking soda, a tiny, tiny little amount. It's going to give us a little bit better of a rise especially with the acid that's in the buttermilk we're using. But the reason I also use a very small amount is that it will flavor things. It's got a lot of sodium in it. And if you use a lot, you'll taste it.

Okay, we're done with the measuring part, right? The dry stuff?

Okay, so you're ready to go. Give me a second. Let me stir this up.

Oh, salt. Her flour already has salt worked into it. And you've got to have salt for any kind of bread or it just tastes ... I don't know.

What does it taste like when you don't have any salt in it?

MS: It's just flat.

Flat. Dead. Flat. So I'm going to add about, that's about a teaspoon of salt. You don't have to use kosher salt but it's pretty much the only kind I use.

Ma Mae has moved on, pulling in front into the cutting-in of the fat. Again, renegade as she is, no measuring, just diving right in there. And she's going to cut it in ...

I'm going to weigh mine and what I like to do. And what I like to do is I like to have my fat cold when I cut it in. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to go ahead and measure out my buttermilk. And I like to use a cup of buttermilk. And since a pint is a pound the world around, eight ounces fluid measure equals eight ounces of weight. So I can just look at my scale and I've got eight ounces, which is the same as a cup.

And I'm going to put in two ounces, actually more like an ounce of butter. And I'm just going to add it straight to this until I get one ounce which is there.

I'm going to hit the tare weight again. She's already smoking me. Slow down, you make me look bad.

I'm going to add, also, two ounces of shortening. She likes all shortening. I like to use a little bit of both.

Shortening is going to give you a little bit better texture, right? You think?

MS: Right.
AB: It's just a lighter kind of thing?
MS: Um, hm.
AB: Now you remember using lard for biscuits, don't you?
MS: Yes. In my early years of life, I did use lard.
AB: Yeah, like around the time of Gone With the Wind.

I like to use a combination. You're going to get a tender tooth, a tender crumb out of the biscuit, from shortening. You're going to get a little bit of flavor if you use butter.

Now where she cuts hers in with a spoon, I like to use my fingers. But when you do this, try to use just your fingertips. I know it looks messy but don't worry. And just kind of work it in. What we're wanting is something like looks kind of like corn meal. Just break it up and work it in. This is a lot more fun than her method. All right. She's already going on the buttermilk.

But she and I both like a very loose dough. One of the great secrets which she's taught me is the secret, really, to biscuit making is a very, very wet dough that you don't work very much.

Just stir it until it comes together into a kind of sticky mass. If it looks sticky and nasty you're going to right way.

She likes to do this on parchment paper which makes for a slightly neater kitchen. I don't really get too worked up about that. Now that I've got the fat worked in it just looks crumb-y. It kind of looks like bread crumbs almost.

I'm going to make a well, kind of right in the middle, and I'm going to add my buttermilk.

Aw, she's ahead of me already. This is looking pretty bad for me. You see how gently she's working it. These are the hands of a master, right here. You don't see this kind of biscuit making much in America anymore. Barely patting it out. No rolling necessary.

Going to roll out enough flour to keep it from sticking on the board and then just turn out the whole thing. Oh, she's gone for her pan, her special biscuit pan. Circa 1853. Ulysses S. Grant.

Like many of our favorite kitchen tools, you probably won't find the ideal biscuit pan at the mall. But if you town has more than three restaurants, there's probably a restaurant supply store that's open to the public and that's where I promise you will find sheet pans, standard issue for the commercial American bake shop. Unfortunately it's a little large for home use. But fear not. It comes in a half size called ... yep ... a half sheet pan. Forged from a single piece of heavy duty aluminum and more trustworthy than your dog, this pan is built to take it and dish it out.

Aluminum is an excellent conductor. So it heats quickly and it relays that heat nicely to whatever happens to be sitting on top. Now unlike non-stick or dark metal pans, this one won't burn biscuit bottoms before the rest of the biscuit has had time to cook. See this lip? Not only does it stop disastrous slides, it adds stability rendering the pan, well, virtually unwarpable. Show me a cookie sheet that can do that for under ten dollars. [takes all the pans] Just in case.

You notice another thing that she does which is good. Straight down and then she gives a little bit of a twist. If you twist your way through biscuit dough you won't get a clean rise.


MS: Right.
AB: What else will happen? Something bad.
MS: I don't know.
AB: They tear.
MS: Something you cooked up, I guess.
AB: Oof. I hate to hear that kind of talk.

I use an aluminum pan. I don't like to use stainless steel and I don't like Teflon pans.

AB: Have you ever tried to bake biscuits on Teflon pans?
MS: No, I haven't.
AB: They turn black on the bottom. It's not a good thing.

Biscuit cutter. Straight down, twist, pop out. Down, twist. The twist is okay but only if you've gone all he way through. Now you'll notice that both she and I like to put our biscuits shoulder to shoulder and that's because you'll get a better rise out of them if they're just touching. If you crowd them too much, the heat won't be able to get in between the biscuits.

Okay, I'm right on something, finally. It's taken all of these years.

AB: So, if you have them too far apart they'll burn and they'll spread out, won't they, ...
MS: Sure.
AB: ... instead of going up.

So if you just touch them next to each other they'll rise straight. Now she's rolling out her garbage, as we say, her trash. And you roll those together just as lightly as you can because the dough has already been worked perfectly. You don't want to go too far.

Now as usual I have more "trash" on my board than she does but that's okay.

I've probably eaten 50,000 biscuits at Ma Mae's house.

Okay, the very last touch, and for goodness sakes, don't skip this, note the indentation, the slight indentation. Now I do mine with the thumb. Ma Mae does hers with two fingers. Pushing down in the middle is going to help the biscuit to rise evenly since the heat hits the outside of the biscuit and works in. If you didn't punch it in you might end up with a domed biscuit.

MS: You want my biscuits in the oven yet?
AB: Yes, well they're done aren't they? Why? Don't you want to sit around and, like, stare at them?
MS: You don't want them to rise until they get in the oven.

So, the power chords are in place: Flour, fat, moisture. Now for the unifying element of good rock 'n roll and biscuits, volume.

Baked goods get their volume from the lift of hot air. Or to be more exact, steam and carbon dioxide that's produced by yeast and chemical leaveners. Now as you no doubt remember from your fourth grade science class, if you combine an alkaline, say baking soda, with an acid like vinegar you get, well, a big case of gas. Now, this relationship like most has to be equal if it's really going to work and that's what's so great about baking powder. You see, it contains an equal ratio of an acid, cream of tartar, and baking soda. All you have to do is add liquid ...

Double acting baking powders react once when wet, then again when hot.

... and instant gas. So, why does so many recipes call for both baking powder and baking soda? Well, it's got to do with an equal ratio. You see, a lot of ingredients—chocolate, sugar, eggs, even dairy products—can throw off the acid/alkaline relationship. So, we add just a little bit of baking soda to our biscuit dough to help counteract the acid in the buttermilk. [phone rings] Excuse me.

Once you've got biscuits down, you can experiment with endless variations on the theme. Scones start with the same dry mixture as biscuits but with the addition of two tablespoons of sugar and an extra two tablespoons of butter. Substitute three quarters of a cup of cream for the buttermilk and add one beaten egg. A handful of currants or dried cranberries would be traditional but not mandatory.

Shortcake is even easier. Just add a third of a cup of sugar to the dry mix and you can replace the buttermilk with half & half if you want but I'd miss that buttermilk twang. It's up to you. Stir the dough until it just comes together then spoon it right out onto the pan. Brush thoroughly with melted butter, sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 400 until golden. Cool. Smother with berries and whipped cream. Eat. Repeat.

Now that's what I'm talking about. Perfect golden biscuits.

How did yours out, Ma Mae?

MS: Perfect like always.
AB: So did mine.
MS: When did yours get to be perfect?
AB: So, what do we put on the perfect southern biscuit?
MS: You put butter.
AB: Well, I don't know. We've got some jam, some preserves, some sausage, bacon, ...
MS: Well, so what? Just ...
AB: Butter.
MS: Butter.
AB: I'm with ya.

Well, we've hoped you picked up a few pointers about the quintessential quick bread that is the biscuit. It's powerful medicine, to be sure, but it's well within your reach. Just remember. Use soft, winter wheat, southern flour, work in the fat thoroughly, mix it quick and bake in a hot oven, at least 400 degrees.

AB: Right?
MS: 475.
AB: Ma Mae, your oven hasn't seen 475 since the Ice Age.
MS: Honey, you don't know a thing about an oven. My oven will out-cook yours any day.

See you next time on Good Eats.