The Eternal Biscuit Dilemma
Biscuits are relatively easy to make. Well, relatively as compared to traditional leavened bread. I’ve found this out the hard way since, after years of working on “regular” cooking, I decided to try my hand at some baking.
I was not prepared for how tremendously difficult it was to make simple white bread. Two-rise recipes, kneading, steaming… my goodness. I frequently fail at my first, second and third attempts at recipes. However, by the fourth try I’m pretty good and can put out a totally edible and convincing rendition of whatever I was trying to make. With baking, this is not the case. I’ve tried to make bread now a total of 6 or 7 times, and the results range from mediocre to appalling to a downright fiasco. Sure, some of them might be described as “edible”, but if forced to identify what came out of my oven in a lineup, my creation would surely not be picked out as a viable bread.
Enter biscuits. No kneading, no yeast. Perfect, no?
For the most part, it takes a great deal more incompetence to screw up a biscuit than it does to mess up a bread. I’ve made biscuits about a dozen times now and every iteration has been edible. Some could be described as downright good. However, like just about any other recipe, it’s infinitely nuanced.
I understand nuanced, but when it comes to baking, everything is measured carefully. This provides a great deal of comfort to someone just starting out. Things happen slowly in baking. The pace is decidedly unhurried, and the measurements are rigorous. If you read Michael Ruhlman’s awesome Ratio, you take even more comfort in the fact that no matter how many variations, the fundamentals are immutable. Or so I thought.
The Ratio Problem
One thing is to change the fat from lard to butter to vegetable shortening (or if you want to make your life more complicated, use Alton Brown’s recipe and use half shortening, half butter), another is to see significant variations in the fat component of the mixture. It is alarming. I also found it disturbing how different the amounts of baking powder can be between recipes.
Event though I’ve followed Ruhlman’s suggestion and bought a scale, I usually end up using Alton Brown’s recipe as a template: 2 cups of soft flour (I use White Lily), 1 cup of cold buttermilk (or milk when I can’t get buttermilk) and 4 tbs. of fat (usually 2 of shortening, 2 of butter.) Imagine my horror when I figured out how out of whack this is with Ruhlman’s ratio.
It turns out that 2 cups of white lily weighs 273 grams. 4 tbsp. of butter is a stunningly low 57 g and of course, 1 cup (8oz.) of milk (I don’t have buttermilk this morning) is ~227 grams. I am woe. This diverges significantly from Ruhlman’s 3:1:2 ratio. And I love the idea of that ratio. It’s the simple swapping of the liquids and fats of classic pie dough, from 3:2:1 to 3:1:2. Perfect. If we follow this ratio, the correct amounts of fat and liquid should have been 91g of fat and 182g of liquid.
At least Alton admitted he likes a wet dough.
My biscuits have been turning out pretty nicely. They’re certainly better than most store-bought ones and I love the rusticity implicit in their making. This is exactly why I don’t try to make them look identical and I enjoy the occasional tilted one (pictured above.) But now I have to try to go by Ruhlman. Some anecdotal evidence in my tweakings in the amount of butter leads me to believe that I’ve been drastically depriving my biscuits, and this explains a lot. From day one I’ve believed that my biscuits need to be far butterier and flakier than I’ve been producing.
The Folding / Rolling Conundrum
A lot has been said about not overworking the biscuit dough, in fact, touching it as little as possible. Alton himself went to great lengths to impress upon us the evils of overworking, he didn’t use anything remotely resembling a rolling pin and he even said how the last couple of biscuits are never as good because the remaining dough has to be reformed into a solid piece. Properly warned and slightly paranoid, I went overboard with this and produced a dough that was too clumpy and gave my biscuits really weird looking tops. I was sternly warned against rolling out the dough, which I have reason to believe, but many writers and cooks roll out the dough at some point. Their biscuits don’t look that bad. In fact, their biscuits look nicer than most of my little minions. So is working the dough and rolling it as big a deal as breaking the ratio? Inquiring minds want to know
I wanted my first attempt at biscuit making to be the best possible, so I took no shortcuts. I bought buttermilk, used both shortening and butter, chilled both to within an inch of their lives. I’d love to tell you that the difference between buttermilk and regular milk is huge, but I can’t. Maybe after correcting ratios it’ll make a difference, but so far, dare I say that I’ve had better luck with my milk biscuits than my buttermilk? That would be heresy, and I’m not ready to call that.
So what started out as a way to cheat my way into baking has turned into a full-blown quest for understanding. How can I make my biscuits fluffier and butterier? How do I get better browning on my tops without overbrowning my bottoms? Do the biscuits have to be placed touching each other on the sheet or not? When will I have enough confidence in my biscuit-baking ability to add rosemary, or cheese?
Tonight I’ll make another batch and report back the differences between this morning’s Alton Brown style biscuits and the more (seemingly elegant) 3:1:2 Michael Rulhman recipe.