Make Perfect Biscuits and Gravy Part One: The Biscuit
There are more recipes for biscuits and gravy in the world than there are boob jobs in Beverly Hills. Many of them are passable, at best. Frustrated by the lack of a truly exceptional guide that takes into account all three aspects of the dish- making the sausage, coaxing it into rich, spreadable gravy, and, perhaps most important, crafting a biscuit that is at once tender but also sturdy enough to carry the sauce- I spent months developing the results you see here.
Quality of ingredients matters. When you reach the recipe section of this post, you’ll see that I am very specific in naming brands. This is not arbitrary; I tested and retested combinations of ingredients until I achieved an exact balance of flavor and texture. Change something and you’ll have a different result. As the saying goes, you can cheat, but you’ll only be cheating yourself.
The same axiom applies to technique. Good biscuits and gravy cannot be whipped up as quickly as the frothy libido of a teenager. Don’t skip steps! That being said, the morning-of process doesn’t take long if you’ve planned ahead. Finally, precision is key. Invest thy coffee coinage for a week in a good kitchen scale. The importance of weight measurements cannot be stressed enough, although I’ve given volume as well, for the truly obstinate among you.
Biscuits. These splendid American kissing cousins to their English counterparts, scones, fall into one of two camps: fluffy or flaky. God-fearing biscuit beaters the country over will argue blue-faced about why their preferred biscuit is best because it’s either fluffy or flaky. My goal is to appease the polarities here and create a biscuit with equal parts of both qualities, you know, because police create hippies create police:
It’s necessary to focus on what makes fluff and what makes flake. The quality of fluff in non-yeasted baking is achieved with a combination of several things: flour that is low protein and finely milled, the right leavening agent(s), and an understanding of how temperature affects “oven spring”. Oven spring is a concept discussed primarily with bread-making that refers to the final height boost dough gets when it first encounters the high heat of the oven. With biscuit-making, the best way to maximize oven spring and produce a fluffy crumb is to place extremely cold biscuits into an extremely hot oven. I cook my biscuits at 450° which is higher than most, for this very reason.
Why is White Lily Flour Best?
Without going into excruciating detail here, wheat-based flour is categorized based on two variables. One is how much gluten-forming-protein it contains, and the other is how finely it is milled. Yeast breads benefit from high-gluten flour because yeast loves gluten and gluten adds toughness. “Tough” is not a quality many people want applied to their biscuits, so you can understand why lower protein flour makes a better biscuit. Flour made from soft winter wheat is best, and the best-of-the-best is White Lily.
White Lily is milled much finer than other all-purpose flour, which lends tenderness. It’s also sifted more than other domestic flours, which makes it lighter per cup, again necessitating measure by weight rather than volume. You might argue that another low-protein, finely milled cake flour would do, but White Lily has yet a further distinction which makes it trump those flours: it’s bleached with chlorine as are cake flours, but not to the same degree. Over-bleaching gives cake flour a subtly acidic taste that plenty of chocolate and mix-ins can cover up, but since biscuits have so few ingredients, the flour is truly the star of the sheet pan. The obvious choice is White Lily. Guess what? There’s a thing called the internet. On it, you can order just about any flour your pretty little heart desires. Walk your fingers over to the Amazon website, click Do Me Baby, and your White Lily will be here by the weekend.
Non-yeasted breads are usually leavened by baking powder, baking soda, cream of tartar (which aids the chemical reaction of baking soda) or a combination thereof. The best baking powder is made from baking soda and acid (usually cream of tartar, not the fun LSD kind) with a little cornstarch mixed in to absorb moisture and ensure that no reactions take place in the box. The worst baking powder is based on different alchemy involving the addition of aluminum. Aluminum tastes janky and it’s super bad for you. Therefore I recommend using aluminum-free baking powder such as Bob’s Red Mill. It’s best to use as little as possible to prevent off-flavors. 2.5 teaspoons per two cups of flour is enough to provide spring while still being undetectable.
But there’s more to getting all Sir-Mix-Alot-Sprung with your biscuits, and the proof is in the pudding. The creamy, springy eggy pudding, that is. Adding an egg to a batch of biscuits has as many benefits as Angelina Jolie has babies. First, eggs help biscuits soar to the highest heights. Since the egg is part of the liquid portion of the recipe, it gets mixed with buttermilk. But before that, a girl’s gotta Whip it, Whip it Good. The more the egg is aerated, the more light-in-the-loafers the biscuits will be. Eggs also help biscuits become baby bronze bombshells instead of pallid albino blobs. It’s not like you needed another reason to put an egg in it, but they also contribute tenderness, structure, protein and richness. Egg biscuits are the brioche of the biscuit world and brioche is Top of the Pops, so just do it, mkay?
Now, I’m not going to bother with telling you why you should use buttermilk for biscuit-making (the cultured tang improves texture and flavor) because if you’ve read this far you already know. What I am going to urge is that you pay attention to what kind of buttermilk you use because it’s important. In most supermarkets you’ll find lowfat buttermilk and Bulgarian buttermilk. Bulgarian-style is thicker and tangier because it’s made from yogurt cultures rather than cream cultures. It makes for a richer, browner biscuit. Put it this way: lowfat buttermilk is Christopher Walken in Gigli whereas Bulgarian buttermilk is him in the cantaloupe scene with Dennis Hopper in True Romance, which is widely recognized as the single greatest dialogue in all cinematographic history. This recipe is calibrated with Bulgarian buttermilk. If you substitute the tepid, old-man-sperm kind, you’ll wind up with runnier dough that will lead to a denser biscuit.
While fluff is important, flake is equally so. The pastry chef and food writer Shuna Fish Lydon put it thus, “We tend to associate a high rise with excellence. It’s why much of our baked goods are way too big. My feeling has always been that I want to achieve a wonderful crumb, but not to the detriment of taste. Call it comfort alongside fashion, if you will.”
So I set out to make a biscuit flakier than Paris Hilton’s driver’s ed attendance record, not just one as fluffy as her ego. And the first step is to shout the L Word loud and proud. Go ahead, I’ll wait:
LARD. LARD. LARD.
Throw a bitches on the end if you’re really shucking and jiving: LARD, BITCHES.
There you go. Use shortening if you have an inverted penis. Use lard if horses get jealous when you strut by. But not all lard, only part. The other part should be really good butter, preferably European-style, like Lurpak or Plugra. Kerrygold is probably the most widely available in the United States and it is as good as the gold it’s packaged in. Flavor is the main reason for using butter, although if you use too much, biscuits become tough because of its density. Lard, on the other hand, lightens them up for a flakier crumb. There is a fine line between flavor, flake and texture, and it hovers right around 50/50 for the lard/butter ratio.
Not all lard is created equal. They sell lard in grocery stores that is “shelf-stable.” This translates to: the sebaceous secretions of a manatee porn star packaged for posterity in a supermarket tub. Would you use sea cow smegma in your biscuits? I didn’t think so. Incidentally, that kind of lard has also been hydrogenated, bleached, deodorized and treated with BHT. Not cool.
Instead, look for leaf lard. There are two places to get large quantities of lard from a pig, one is the back, and the other is from the viscera around the kidneys and loin of the pig. Back fat, or fatback as it’s usually called, is hard and no good for biscuits, but it is GREAT for breakfast sausage, which I’ve given you a recipe for here. Leaf lard on the other hand, is soft and creamy. Many people would suggest you use leaf lard, but my personal secret is to use it unrendered. You can find unrendered leaf lard at most butchers-give them a call in advance and if they don’t have it they can easily order you some.
Why don’t you render the fat, Linda?
I had a theory about leaf lard that I tested several times with respect to biscuits. If you’ve ever rendered lard, you’ll understand where I’m going with this right away. During the process of rendering, lard spits and splutters out of the pan like a dying, drunken prawn. I decided that if I cut my whole leaf lard into eensy pieces and let it spit and splutter right in the biscuit during baking, it would create pleasing little pockets of air encapsulated by fat. Sure enough, the unrendered lard biscuits rose higher and had better flake to their crumb than their rendered lard compadres. Admittedly, this is nitpicking. If you use unrendered lard, you need to chop it extremely fine or grate it on a microplane, however, as you don’t want chunks of lard visible in the finished biscuit.
Let’s talk about technique. Biscuits with Lamborghini leaf lard, platinum eggs, and buttermilk from Sophia Loren’s bosom are still going to fall flat if you don’t come correct with skills.
Remember way back at the beginning of this diatribe when I talked about oven spring? You need to put a cold biscuit into a hot oven to get it. First, put your mixing bowl in the freezer. I like to do this with the flour, baking soda and salt pre-sifted inside. Sifting is important. It ensures an even mix. So is using good salt. I like Murray River Pink Salt. If you substitute crappy table salt, which you won’t because you’re not a jive turkey, you will have way salty biscuits since crap salt is dense like cramped thighs after precarious shower sex.
If these are to become morning biscuits, go ahead and freeze the dry ingredients overnight. It makes the day-of steps that much easier. If you can’t be bothered with the pre-freeze step, you can do all your mixing with your bowl set in an ice bath, but it will get a bit squirrelly as you combine and fold. Freeze the leaf lard and butter as well. Then cut them into cubes as small as Mel Gibson’s penis, which is about 1/8”. I probably don’t need to say it again, but keep the fat very cold. Refreeze it, if you want to be a super ninja. Evenly incorporate the fat cubes with the dry ingredients quickly with a pastry blender, but there’s no need to be concerned with “cutting” in the cubes since they are already small. The end result looks like cocaine before it sees a razor blade.
The buttermilk/egg mixture should already be chillin’ like a Beastie Boy in the fridge. If it’s not, you’d better Check Your Head. It gets plopped into the flour crumbles gently and not all at once, and then folded in as needed to form dough that barely comes together. Depending on altitude (and your aptitude with a kitchen scale) you may not need to use quite all of the liquid.
Never knead biscuit dough. You’re not giving a sumo wrestler a massage, you’re making flaky biscuits. Flakes are layers, right? So when you turn the dough out onto a smooth and cold surface, layer it by folding it on itself several times. Don’t beat it, cup it, rolf it, or otherwise mutilate the sexy pile of dough you’ve worked so hard to create. Gently but quickly press it down to about ½”. Then cut it into rounds using something super sharp, like oh, say, a biscuit cutter. A fluted one works best because the little ridges it creates along the sides of the biscuits give them surface air pockets which help them to rise further. NEVER use a cup or anything dull for that matter, and NEVER turn the cutter because it will close up the nice little air pockets you just made with your clean cut and doom the biscuit to a life of dwarfdom.
Position the biscuits as close together as possible on an ungreased sheet pan. I experimented with cooking in cast iron, on silicone baking mats, and on greased and ungreased sheet pans and I like this method best. It produces a biscuit butt like this:
Immediately thrust the biscuits onto the upper rack of a preheated oven. If you have a pizza stone, set the sheet pan on that. It helps toast the biscuit butt. I reside fully in the no-eggwash camp of Biscuit Black Rock City. The egg, butter, lard and buttermilk will cause the biscuits to go as gold on top as Donald Trump’s mullet, so you don’t really need a wash to falsely accelerate nature’s own game.
After a quick quarter of an hour, the biscuits that emerge from your oven would placate Thomas Keller. Since this behemoth biscuit essay is over 2200 words long, I’m going to spare you the sausage making and gravy coaxing for Part Two, which you can read here. I promise it’s not quite as long, but you will need it if you want to nail biscuits and gravy the way my daddy nailed your mama last night.
Bulgarian Buttermilk and Egg Biscuits
Note: if you just skipped to the recipe, I highly recommend you read the explanation above. It will give you a greater understanding of the “why” behind this technique, and you’ll make a better biscuit.
Makes six 3″ biscuits
Active time: 15 minutes, plus chilling. Baking time: 15 minutes
- 10.5 oz White Lily flour (about 2 cups)
- 2.5 tsp Aluminum-free baking powder
- 1 tbsp Murray River Pink Salt (or other finishing salt. If you use table (god forbid!) or Kosher salt, use less)
- 2 oz Unrendered leaf lard, frozen (I like the stuff from Mangalitsa pigs)
- 2 oz European-style butter such as Kerrygold, frozen
- 1 large egg
- 6 oz Bulgarian buttermilk
- Preheat the oven to 450° F convection, and place a pizza stone on the upper middle rack. If you don’t have one, no biggie.
- Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together into a medium bowl. Put it in the freezer for at least 15 minutes. If you remember to do this the night before, your flour will be good and cold, plus your biscuits will come together swiftly.
- Cut the lard and butter into 1/8” cubes, or even grate it on a microplane- the smaller the better. Put it back in the freezer.
- Crack an egg into a bowl and whisk vigorously until well-aerated. Add the buttermilk and stir to combine. Put in refrigerator until you’re ready for it again.
- Add the fats to the flour mixture and, using a pastry blender, combine until it resembles coarse meal. Work quickly so nothing has a chance to heat up.
- Add the liquid mixture to the flour mixture and fold together with a spatula, taking care not to overmix. You may not need to add all of the liquid, so add it in stages until the dough just comes together. When the dough becomes a mass, turn it out onto a very lightly floured surface. You really shouldn’t need much flour as you want to add as little liquid as possible, otherwise your biscuits will be dense.
- Fold the dough on itself several times. Pat it down to ½” thickness. Using a biscuit cutter, cut biscuits out of the dough and place on an ungreased sheet pan very close together. NEVER turn the cutter when you cut, only go straight down. It’s important to space the biscuits so they’re touching their neighbors. This will give them more rise.
- Place the sheet pan on top of the pizza stone in the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes, turning once.