Is The Power Of The Flour Really The Secret To Baking The Perfect Biscuit?
Cheryl Day makes hundreds of biscuits a day, churning them out by hand at Back In The Day Bakery in Savannah, Ga. Tall and golden, with flaky layers and a lightly crunchy exterior, people come from miles around to eat them each morning, slathered with pepper jelly, stuffed with eggs and bacon, or simply smeared with a little butter.
"Biscuits are the croissants of the South," says Day, an award-winning baker and cookbook author. "They're more complicated than you think, and they keep me busy every day."
Once upon a time, Day would've asserted that the best biscuits are made with White Lily Flour, her grandmother's favorite. The fans of White Lily, a silky low-protein, low-gluten flour made with soft red winter wheat, are legion, declaring that it is nigh impossible to bake a good biscuit without it.
The argument was recently bolstered by a 2018 article in The Atlantic that lamented the lack of good biscuits north of the Mason-Dixon Line, suggesting that a bag of the storied flour, which is not widely available across the U.S. except online, is the key to success.
Robert Dixon Phillips, a retired professor of food science at the University of Georgia, tells The Atlantic that soft wheat flour "has less gluten protein and the gluten is weaker, which allows the chemical leavening — the baking powder — to generate carbon dioxide and make it rise up in the oven."
But the flour isn't actually that critical, according to Day — even though she loves White Lily Flour. "I used to swear by it," she says, "but then I realized that lots of people don't have White Lily at their local grocery store." Even at her own bakery, Day's husband, Griff, now makes their own blend of pastry flour and all-purpose flour. For many biscuit bakers, the brand of flour is not the defining factor; it's about the other ingredients — such as buttermilk and fat — and plain old technique.
Chef Carla Hall (full disclosure, I work for her as a culinary producer) jumped off the soft wheat flour bandwagon in 2016 when she was running her former restaurant, Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Biscuits and fried chicken were two signature items on the menu, requiring two different kinds of flour: soft wheat for the biscuits and hard wheat — the high-protein kind found in common all-purpose flour — for coating the chicken.
"The staff kept mixing up the flours," recalls Hall, "so we decided one day to just do a taste test." They made biscuits and chicken with each type of flour and, surprisingly, the hard wheat flour won for both. "The biscuit had a darker color, it had more structure, it was more crunchy, but still soft with layers inside," says Hall. "It was everything I like in a biscuit, plus I only had to purchase one kind of flour for the restaurant, which was more cost-effective."
For Chadwick Boyd, a recipe developer and brand consultant who also organizes the annual International Biscuit Festival in Knoxville, Tenn., flour is simply not the key ingredient. "A home cook is going to have three or four different varieties at the grocery store to choose from," Boyd says. "The notion that if you pick one over the other is going to determine the success or failure of your biscuits is just wrong."
So, if it's okay to use any all-purpose flour off the shelf, then how do you make a good biscuit, especially if you didn't grow up in a household where Granny was making them for every Sunday dinner for 50 years?
For Boyd, Day and Hall, a good biscuit is born from practice. "We can teach you how to make a biscuit," says Boyd, "It's just a few ingredients. I believe that peoples' issues with baking unsuccessfully is because it's something they don't do regularly, so when they do it, they're excited. They keep opening the door to the oven, they pull the biscuits out too early. Just bring it all together and let the ingredients do the work."
In order to help the biscuits rise, all the experts agree that the fat — whether butter, shortening or margarine — needs to be cold, and there should still be visible chunks of that fat in the dough. Don't overmix. If the fat is fully integrated into the dough, then fewer air bubbles will form, leading to a flatter biscuit.
"Keeping fat cold is key," says Megan Meyer, director of science communication at the International Food Information Council Foundation, a nutrition science and education nonprofit. "When fat melts in the oven, an air pocket is created. Air pockets are then expanded by the leavening agents that are already in the dough, like baking soda and baking powder, leading to a fluffy texture."
Fat is also important because it adds tenderness to the dough; full-fat buttermilk and European-style butter can help with texture, but "full-fat" is the critical point — sour cream, olive oil, and nut milks can all be used to create successful biscuits, provided they have a high-fat content. Then technique takes center stage, where a light hand in mixing and shaping helps keep the dough soft; overworking the dough develops too much gluten, resulting in a tough biscuit.
"Biscuit dough comes together very quickly," Hall says, "unlike a bread dough." Mix the dough, shape it into a rectangle on the counter, fold it like a letter to create layers, then pat it out and repeat two more times before cutting. The texture should be soft, barely sticky, somewhat akin to lumpy mashed potatoes, she says.
Also, when cutting the biscuits, be careful not to twist the cutter because that pinches the edges of the biscuit and can inhibit the rise. Just press down and pull straight up. Pop those beauties in a hot oven — usually at 425 or 450 degrees — and then resist the urge to open the door until the biscuits are risen and golden, which usually takes 12 to 15 minutes.
"I have been to small towns throughout the American South, the most remote areas where they don't have access to high quality ingredients," says Boyd, "and I've had people make me delicious biscuits from whatever they had on hand. "
So don't worry about what kind of flour you've got. Just roll up your sleeves and start baking those biscuits. Practice makes perfect.
Kristen Hartke is a food writer based in Washington, D.C. who also works with chef Carla Hall.
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