I read an article devoted to making the best biscuits possible, and among the many points made by the author were some that bear repeating. The thing to remember about biscuits, I think, is that they can be made in many ways. Biscuits are a staple food, something that was made by campfire cooks in the wilderness just as much as housewives on the frontier or in a cozy home. Cooks used what they had at hand.
If you were a cook and you tried making biscuits with oil instead of a solid fat and they didn't turn out, you simply didn't make them that way again. There is no mystery to this. I decided not to use margarine or oil in cookies years ago, before I knew much about nutrition, because the texture of cookies changes with the use of anything except butter. And even aside from the flavor, if the cookies run all over the baking sheet and stick to each other, they don't come out well.
So with biscuits, it doesn't matter a whole lot if you use solid vegetable shortening, butter or lard. It is much more important to observe these points:
Use real buttermilk, the best you can find. In Tucson there are several dairy companies, and in the dairy section you can usually find fresh buttermilk. Take it home and chill it--an hour in the freezer is best, as long as you don't forget about it and let it freeze.
The same goes for the shortening or butter--chill it ice-cold. And while you are shopping, look for pastry flour. You can make biscuits with self-rising flour, but either cake or pastry flour is called for in biscuit recipes.
When you are ready to make biscuits, assemble the flour and whisk into it any other ingredients such as sugar or leavening (just follow your recipe). An easy way to do this is to place them into a blender or food processor and give it a pulse or two.
Next you add everything else, ice-cold remember, and process or blend in pulses until you have something that looks like coarse breadcrumbs. There is also a school of thought that says that you must let your biscuit dough rest in the refrigerator for an hour after this, so that what little gluten is in your flour will relax. I do this myself.
When you are ready to shape the biscuits, remember this: they will not have flaky layers, because we don't make them at home the way a food manufacturing company does. Handle them gently at this point, shaping them into the thickness called for in your recipe. Then cut them out in rounds, squares or whatever.
This is different from "drop biscuits," which are moister and may include ingredients such as cheese. You can tell by looking at them that the cheddar biscuits at Red Lobster in Tucson are drop biscuits, not rolled and cut out.
I got a hexagonal biscuit-cutting apparatus from an online merchant, and it makes pretty biscuits if I do say so myself. Round biscuits are kind of the classic, but it doesn't matter once they are ready.
You bake biscuits quickly at a higher-than-usual heat, and then you serve them warm. To get you started, here is a standard biscuit recipe. Check out the video as well.
2 cups organic pastry flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 Tablespoon granulated organic sugar
1/3 cup ice-cold organic butter, sliced
1 cup fresh organic buttermilk, also ice-cold
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Cut in the shortening until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Gently stir in the buttermilk until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl and forms a lump. At this point you may want to refrigerate the dough, covered, for an hour to relax the gluten.
Turn the dough out to a floured surface, and knead 15 to 20 times. Pat or roll dough out to 1 inch thick. Cut the biscuits with your biscuit cutter or a juice glass dipped in flour. Repeat until all dough is used. Brush off the excess flour, and place biscuits onto an ungreased baking sheet.
Bake for 13 to 15 minutes in the preheated oven, or until the edges are golden brown.
For a preparation like this, you may want to use a pastry cloth. This is a rectangle of plain fabric such as unbleached muslin, which you sprinkle with the flour required to knead the biscuits. Over time the pastry cloth becomes impregnated with flour. Don't use it for anything else.
Cut your cloth to any size suitable for your work surface--18 by 18 inches would work. If you sew, you could buy some muslin or plain white cotton, launder it in simple detergent, cut it to size and then hem the edges. Then put it away and use it only to roll out biscuits and pie dough.
A seasoned pastry cloth (one that has absorbed quite a bit of flour over some years) works better than any counter surface or plastic sheet that you lay over the counter. I remember that my mother had one. One of these days I may make myself one.
A lovely thing to do with biscuits is to brush them with melted butter just before serving.
The article also cautions us NEVER to use dried buttermilk to make biscuits. I'm abashed--okay, I'll never do it again.