I must admit that biscuits have been my Waterloo. Or in Genealogists terms–my Brick Wall.
And a warning to any British readers who may have wandered in–I’m talking about American biscuits, not the biscuits you eat that are actually COOKIES. Because early Americans used British argot, it is difficult to look up recipes for early biscuits. Those very early ancestors were calling cookies biscuits and weren’t really baking biscuits–but instead making scones.
My failure puzzles me, because I can make a perfect pie crust, while pie crusts scare many people. My meringues turn out fine. And I’m not afraid to tackle just about anything in the kitchen. But biscuits never seem to cooperate. My mother referred contemptuously to “Bride’s Biscuits” and I thought I was forever consigned to being a bride.
I realized, though, that since I was writing about the early 1800s, and soon will be discussing a wagon train trip across the country, I cannot escape biscuits. So I read and read and read and incorporated some slightly new-to-me techniques and finally got biscuits that rose nicely.
But alas, when I bit into them, I realized they were bitter. Too much soda taste. So I went back and tried again with a revised recipe, betting that there was a typo in the recipe I had tried. But it turns out it was my own fault, because I deviated slightly from the written recipe.
Lesson Learned: When you find a recipe that works for biscuits, don’t change it. Biscuits are terribly touchy about small deviations in the amount of shortening or leavening.
A Note About Leavening
I have ranted a bit before about recipes that claim to be traditional but use baking soda in recipes conceived back before baking soda or baking powder were in widespread use. And the 1840’s definitely was a time when baking soda would have been rare in Ohio. An earlier form of leavening consisted of beating the dough for a long period of time in order to incorporate air. That’s why you may have heard of “Beaten Biscuits.”
At the site called Homesick Texan, I found this description:
She goes on to say that the result was a biscuit that would rise a little bit, but was still pretty flat. If you follow the link to her site, you can learn her method of making beaten biscuits, which does use baking powder and cuts the beating down to two minutes.
A charming site about the adventures of some kids being home schooled, who attempt to live like Laura Ingalls Wilder, is called Little House Living. They discuss the saleratus that Laura needed to bake a cake.
If you are interested in the chemistry of saleratus vs baking soda vs. baking powder, I refer you to a site called Joe Pastry.
If you are more interested in historic cooking than chemistry (I don’t know how to break this to you, but cooking IS chemistry) he gives the formula for converting old time recipes with saleratus–1 1/4 tsp of baking soda substitutes for 1 tsp of saleratus. Joe Pastry is the site where I found the recipe that worked for me.
The Real Deal Recipe
I also found an authentic recipe from wagon train days at Chronicle of the Old West. It does list soda as an ingredient, so I have to assume this was closer to the 1860s.
Typically of old recipes, the amounts (enough milk to make…) and directions are vague. Moderate oven? We’re talking about wood-fired with a Dutch Oven sitting on the side, probably.
The Modernized Version of Great-Great Grandma’s Buttermilk Biscuits
Having read all that stuff about saleratus and beating biscuits for half an hour, I decided that a modern version using baking powder was just fine, and probably, honestly, more tasty than the biscuits turned out on the pioneer trails.
Yes, indeed, it is possible for me to make edible and pretty biscuits. The only mystery I have not explored is why they are spelled that way? Shouldn’t it be biskits??