I wake up yesterday to the LA Times and right there staring me in the face were biscuits. The Food Section was celebrating the arrival of biscuits to Los Angeles. I stared at the photo and thought to myself “must have biscuits– now.” So I made biscuits. Gouda, Black Pepper, Bacon Biscuits. They were (are) delicious. But I have to admit they brought up a lot of issues. You see, biscuits have baggage.
It doesn’t seem like they should. After all biscuits are made with simple ingredients and technically they’re not hard to make. Flour. Fat. Liquid. Which isn’t to say that you can just jump in willy-nilly either. Biscuits require a certain understanding of baking and they require really good execution. You need to make them right or not make them at all.
However “making them right” is hard to put into words. Most recipes will tell you explicitly not to overwork, to be gentle, or most particularly warn you that you should never (ever) over-mix. But even with all these caveats it’s hard to not look over your shoulder and and hear the admonishments of those people who will tell you to your face that however you’re making biscuits– you’re making them wrong.
I’ve spent some time in the kitchens of old-school Southern bakers. They are particularly vocal when it come to what is and what isn’t a biscuit.
Some people insist that biscuits should be mixed in a wooden bowl, preferably handed down from some (better) baker from some long past generation. I had an aunt in college (who wasn’t really my aunt) who dropped her biscuits by the ladleful onto a cooking sheet rather than cutting them out. “Your hands should never touch the dough”, she’d say.
Let’s start with the flour. In the South it’s common to find soft wheat flour brands like White Lily (often called cake flour). These low-protein flours will generate less gluten. Making a soft crumbly biscuit. Where I come from there is no controversy or baggage concerning the flour. It must be White Lily. If you can’t find this type of flour you can try adding 2 tablespoons of corn starch to a scant cup of all-purpose flour.
But fat is another question. Which fat is proper? Should that fat be flavorful, such as bacon or chicken fat? Is butter the only acceptable choice? Some people use lard because of the delicate, silken texture it produces. I like lard because it has an almost imperceptible meatiness. I don’t usually tell people I use lard though. Folks can be downright finicky about lard.
Some like my ‘aunt’ will tell you that a biscuit must be huge. Others will say, “if you can’t finish it in 2 bites it’s too big.” Round is the traditional shape. But there is less waste if you cut your biscuits into squares. I’m sure you’ve noticed that gathering the scraps and re-rolling them producers a less satisfactory biscuit. Still, Aunt Rose liked round, so I make my biscuits round.
Lastly the liquid. Water would work. But typically you’ll find liquids like cream, half-and-half, or milk that help create a soft texture. I’ve seen recipes that call for flat beer or cola. Like my Aunt Rose would say, “why waste when you can baste?” She wasn’t talking about biscuits, but I bet her philosophy would be the same.
Still, when it comes to biscuits buttermilk is best. It adds a certain tanginess. If you can find full fat buttermilk you’ll notice flecks of fat in the final product. Delicious. Buttermilk also helps your biscuits rise high because the acid in buttermilk activates the leavening action in baking soda.
So there you go. Bacon Biscuits done right, and by right I mean my way! GREG