The great biscuit

The great biscuit bake-off
This week at my house it’s been all biscuits, all the time. By biscuit I don’t mean a British cookie, I mean the scone-like quickbread that is associated with the southern US but which is also known in Canada as a ‘tea biscuit’.

Until last week I didn’t know anything existed beyond the basic tea biscuit recipe, which is almost identical to a scone and made with flour, butter, milk and a bit of sugar. That’s what I thought all American biscuits were like too, including those from down south. So when I decided to put two American biscuit recipes head to head, I thought I’d be comparing apples and apples. Little did I know!

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Both baking books that I got for my birthday included a biscuit recipe, which is where I got my plan for the Battle of the Biscuits. The idea came to me before the New York Times ran this article on commercially made biscuits, but the article got me even more interested in looking for the ultimate recipe.

Dorie Greenspan’s Basic Biscuits are just like the ones I’m familiar with; a scone-like dough patted down, cut into shapes and baked on a tray or in a pan. Dorie says the secret to a great biscuit is not to overwork the dough; when you’re cutting the butter into the flour, don’t overdo it! There should be fat flecks of butter left, as well as razor thin ones and everthing in between. It shouldn’t be one uniform mass.

Meanwhile Shirley Corriher says that the secret handed down from her grandmother is a very, very wet dough. Her “Touch of Grace” Southern Biscuits make a dough that is so wet it’s supposed to look like cottage cheese and you don’t think it will form into balls. What you do is pinch off a piece of very wet dough and flour it all over with your hands before nestling it into a pan. She says that the wet dough in a hot oven creates steam, which makes the biscuits light and fluffy.

This is what Dorie’s and Shirley’s biscuits looked like going into the oven side by side:

And here they are after baking:

Dorie’s biscuits had a lovely, buttery taste and their flaky, scone-like texture was comfortingly familiar to me. But they didn’t rise nearly as tall as I had hoped and they seemed kind of, well, average. I’ve had better scones, and I was expecting something a bit extra from a biscuit.

Shirley’s biscuits were beautifully large, light and puffy. But they were also like nothing I’d eaten before and I didn’t know what to make of them, or if I even liked them. The texture was simultaneously very light and strangely bready. These are made with shortening and to me they lacked flavour and were too sweet, despite having cut the sugar down by half. (Shirley Corriher has an insane sweet tooth.)

I was confused. So, I thought, why not devise a hybrid biscuit which would combine the buttery flavour and scone-like texture of Dorie’s version with the puffiness and slight buttermilk tanginess of Shirley’s?

From Shirley’s recipe I took self-raising, low protein flour (all self-respecting Southerners use White Lily but any cake and pastry flour will do), some buttermilk and the technique of forming balls rather than cutting rounds. From Dorie’s I took butter, some milk and a small amount of sugar. I decided on a dough that was somewhere between the two in terms of wetness.

I forgot to take a photo before they were popped in the oven but here’s what they looked like after:

While I should have smoothed the tops down a bit more to improve their presentation, what I produced was pretty close to what had been in my head: a puffy biscuit with a slight sweetness, slight tanginess and a texture somewhere in between the others. Something slightly different than a scone but not too much like bread. When I improvise this much with a recipe and don’t totally muck up, it can only be considered an unqualified success!

Since biscuits are often served alongside savoury dishes, I decided to make little dinnertime breakfast sandwiches with mine.

You can find Dorie Greenspan’s Basic Biscuits recipe here.

You can find Shirley Corriher’s Touch of Grace Southern Biscuits recipe here.

Have you got a favourite biscuit recipe? I’d love it if you’d share it with me.

Hilary’s Hybrid Biscuits

Makes about 12 biscuits

2 cups self-raising, low protein flour, like White Lily or any cake and pastry flour (if this isn’t available then use any self-raising, all purpose flour)
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
6 Tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup buttermilk
all purpose (plain) flour for shaping

Preheat the oven to 425F / 220C. Grease an 8-inch round cake pan.

In a large bowl whisk the flour, sugar and salt together very well. Drop in the butter pieces and toss to coat them with flour. With your fingertips or a pastry cutter, cut and rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is crumbly. You’ll have some very fine bits, some large-ish pieces of butter and everything in between. You don’t need to overwork the mixture.

Combine the milk and buttermilk in a measuring cup and pour over the dry ingredients. With a fork, very gently turn the mixture until you have a soft dough. With your hands, reach in and give the dough a couple of squeezes or kneads, just to bring it together.

Now clean your hands and dust them generously with flour. Pinch a ball off the dough (eyeball it to about 1/12th of the dough) and gently shape with your hands into a ball. Place the ball in the pan. Repeat with the remaining dough, cleaning and dusting your hands whenever they get too sticky. Crowd all the balls together in the pan, touching each other.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until the biscuits are puffy and golden. You may want to check before this, based on the size of your biscuits. Serve them warm from the pan or transfer to a basket.