The Secret of Biscuits

I make fantastic biscuits.

There, I said it.

I worked hard at learning how to make fantastic biscuits; there was no hand-me-down recipe that works partially due to nostalgia. In fact, the recipe isn’t the important part at all. Sometimes I make butter flake biscuits, sometimes buttermilk. Right now I’m on a cream biscuit kick because they’re fast and I can even mix buttermilk powder in for extra goodness. Sometimes I make scones, sweet and with orange zest. The recipe isn’t what’s important. (At some point I should make cheddar and sour cream biscuits to demonstrate this.) The technique is what matters.

When I was a kid, I used to make Bisquick drop biscuits. They were okay, they were a welcome addition to family dinner. But as I grew up, I became less satisfied with my work. I wanted biscuits that looked like the ones you got from a can, or at restaurants. So I started making them from scratch.

I read everything I could, too. And they all agreed: technique mattered. Biscuits are simple, recipe-wise. Flour, baking powder, fat, liquid, salt. If it’s a solid fat, you cut the fat into the dry stuff and then add the liquid. Otherwise, if you’re using cream, just add the liquid to the dry stuff. Stir just until it comes together into a soggy pile of crumbs. Then flip it out onto a surface to finish it off.

And then it gets tricky.

See, every recipe discussing biscuit technique says DO NOT KNEAD TOO MUCH. Kneading is the enemy of tenderness. Kneading is the mouthfeel killer. Also, have cold hands, don’t melt the butter if you want lots of butter flakes, and so on.

Kneading. That’s when you fold the dough and smush it flat and fold it again. Kneading in bread develops gluten. Gluten is the actual enemy of tenderness, because it makes the dough stretchy and stretchy means tough. (Tough is good for many kinds of bread, like pizza dough).

Well, I reasoned, if kneading is bad, it develops gluten, oh no! Clearly we should knead as little as possible. Just sort of punch the pile of crumbs until it holds together.

And this produces great food! Tender, flaky, melt in your mouth biscuits.

They also look like at worst, cooked piles of crumbs, and at best, flat discs. They are not the soaring pillars of biscuity goodness I dreamt of making.

I was puzzled by this. I experimented with the liquid. I experimented with the baking powder. I experimented with the flours. I made a lot of other kinds of bread in the process.

And finally, I came back to kneading. Or rather, folding and smushing. See, when you make certain kinds of buttery pastry, you fold it and smush it and fold it and smush it (sometimes with extra butter between the layers) and the folding isn’t about creating gluten, it’s about creating tiny little layers that poof up when they bake, as each layer releases little jets of steam that lift the layer above them.

And I’d solved it. If I folded and smushed the dough a few times after it was an actual dough, my biscuits rose into beautiful things.


Now, since no biscuit advice I’d ever read did say ‘yes, knead the dough, it is more than just a fun tradition in bread making, it produces lift and layers and flakiness just as much as the baking soda/butter does’ I assume nobody else in the history of biscuit making has tried to follow DO NOT KNEAD TOO MUCH by all but abandoning kneading. Still, just in case, I’m putting what I’ve learned out there.

You don’t need to fold and smush too much, by the way. 3 folds is probably fine. That produces quite a few layers.




PS: I’ve had this experience with other fields, too, including writing. Maybe some time I’ll post about what I’ve learned there?



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