My husband gave me the look when I asked him to pick me up the 25-pound sack of flour from Costco. But there was never a need to doubt me. I will easily go through 25 pounds of flour the way I test recipes. Starting with biscuits.
Biscuits have a bad rap for being a labor-intensive or technically tricky recipe. It really couldn’t be further from the truth. While there is definitely a technical element to it, these leavened goodies are best when they are at their most effortless.
Part of the appearance of trickiness is simply the subjective and non-standard nature of biscuits. You may have what you think is the perfect recipe, but give that biscuit to someone else and they turn up their nose. There are many types out there, from bready-like-a-dinner-roll to flaky-like-a-croissant and everything in between. My favorite is the kind you can open like a book- fluffy and tender, with a little bit of crumb. Distinct and intact layers are a blank canvas for a spoonful of sticky jam or steamy butter.
Something we can all agree upon? Dense, chewy, and tough are not how you want ’em. Those aren’t biscuits. They’re dog treats.
And while I love the buttermilk kind- nobody I know has buttermilk lying around. Same goes for a food scale. Sometimes you want to be able to whip up some biscuits with what you have on hand. If that’s you, then hang on to this recipe for when the craving hits. I have tested dozens of batches to find the most practical and delicious way to get you from Point A to Point Biscuit.
So how do you prevent the puck and get soft fluffy layers piled high?
Let’s start with the ratio.
The magic of this dough is in the layers, and the layers are created when butter, trapped in a coating of flour, starts to heat up and release steam causing the dough to rise. Too much fat and the structured layers can’t hold. They’ll all end up a puddle. Too little fat and, well, they won’t taste as good. Oh, and fair warning, I prefer salted butter in my baked goods. Because…you know…the salty tooth thing. Give it a try- you won’t regret it.
The book Ratio by Michael Ruhlman is a great overview of this and other key kitchen ratios. Ruhlman recommends a 3-1-2 (or “Chicago”) ratio for biscuits: 3 parts flour to 1 part fat to 2 parts liquid (by weight). Working off this ratio, you’re really free to scale up or down as needed to feed a small crew or a crowd. The closest approximation to make 6 to 8 towering fluffy biscuits is shown below in standard cup measurements.
From there, it’s all preference in terms of flavor and texture. Use fine sea salt to disperse salty goodness throughout the entire dough, or use coarse sea salt for a more mild dough with big bursts of flavor as you bite (my preference!). If you do use unsalted butter, you may also want to adjust the salt accordingly. I’m sensitive to the alkaline taste of baking powder, so I use the maximum amount for leavening that still goes undetected. Feel free to toy with the amount of baking powder though, as you can get slightly even more rise if that’s what you’re after.
Sift the dry ingredients to lighten them up, or skip that step for a denser texture. Pat the dough lightly by hand until it comes together and immediately shape and cut for rustic, fall-apart biscuits. Or knead the dough a few times to develop some stretchy gluten and build more structure. Want all biscuits to be perfectly even and smooth on top? Run a rolling pin over the dough before cutting. Don’t care? Move right on ahead towards biscuit town!
Extra tips for reaching new heights:
- Aside from the magic of baking powder, my dad taught me the trick to towering biscuits is to nestle them close together while cooking. Not being able to expand outward, they go upward instead.
- If you’re using a biscuit cutter to get that desirable round shape, press straight down. A twisting motion will crimp the edges and keep them from reaching their pillowy potential.
- Cold buttery dough going into a roaring hot oven will give you the best chance at producing steam. If you’re using a cast iron pan, best to let it get roaring hot beforehand too.
- If you’re like me and want to start making biscuits NOW and don’t want to wait for butter to freeze like some recipes call for, go ahead and make your dough! You can just as easily put your biscuit rounds on a sheet pan and stick them in the fridge for 10 to 15 minutes and then pop them in the oven. Since the craving sometimes comes unannounced, this method works just as well.
So there you have it. A little attention to technique and your biscuits will be golden- literally. Especially if you top them off with a little brushed-on butter near the end of their cooking time.
I’ve summarized my favorite combination below, but feel free to do your own thing. Now, crank up the oven and get you some! Meanwhile, we’ve got another Costco trip to make.
Open Book Biscuits
My favorite and most practical style of biscuit- the kind you can open like a book. A book with fluffy, buttery, delicious pages.
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour about 12 ounces, plus more for dusting
- 1 Tablespoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter cold
- 1 cup whole milk cold
Place an oven rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sift flour into a large mixing bowl. Add baking powder, coarse sea salt and stir to combine.
Cut a stick of salted butter in two, and place it into the flour bowl. Using a pastry cutter, break the butter into very small pieces, about the size of peas. These should all be covered in a light coating of flour. Give the mixture one more stir to make sure the coarse sea salt hasn't all gone to the bottom of the bowl.
Slowly pour the milk into the flour mixture as you stir the mixture (I use a fork). Stop pouring when the dough starts coming together and lifts away from the sides of the bowl. It should be a little sticky, but not wet to the touch.
Dump the dough onto a floured surface, and gather loose pieces together. Knead one or two times until the small bits of dough are all included.
Shape the dough to maximize the number of biscuits you can make with your preferred biscuit cutter. Pat the top of the dough so that it's roughly one inch high all across.
Flour your biscuit cutter and press straight down into the dough to cut your biscuits. Lift the biscuit cutter back up (the dough will likely come with it), and gently tap the cutter in the palm of your hand until the dough releases. Flour the cutter again, and continue until you've used all the dough (reshaping as needed, but try to do this as little as possible). Place them on a rimmed sheet pan, right next to each other so that they're touching.
Place the sheet pan in the fridge for about 10 minutes.
Once the dough has chilled and the oven is holding steady at 450 degrees, place the pan on the middle rack and let bake for about 12 minutes. Brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter at the 12-minute mark if you like for added flavor. Remove from oven when the tops are golden brown, about 12 to 14 minutes total.
Double the recipe for a crowd, or for taller, bigger biscuits (just adjust cooking time to make sure they cook through!).