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.
Take a bite of biscuit
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??
Child Friendly, Freezable, Pre-preparable, Serve Cold, Serve Hot
Buttermilk biscuits are a traditional American comfort food and meal staple. Little thing can make a difference between flat and tasteless and high and delicious when you are baking biscuits.
- 2 cups flour (not self-rising)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 4 tablespoons butter (or half butter and half lard)
- 3/4 cups buttermilk
||Whisk or sift together all dry ingredients. |
||Cut, or squeeze in with fingertips, the butter into the flour mixture, until largest clumps are the size of peas. (See note) |
||Make a well in center and pour in buttermilk. Mix with spoon lightly until you can handle with hands. |
||Right in the bowl, fold over, turn a quarter turn, fold again. Repeat a dozen times. Do not overmix. |
||Pat dough out on lightly floured surface to 1/2" thick. (A wooden ruler comes in handy at times like this.) |
||Before working the dough, turn on the oven to 450 degrees. Place an oven proof small dish in oven with 2-3 Tablespoons of butter to melt, or melt it in a microwave. |
||Remove the melted butter from the oven and let it cool as you mix the dough. Lightly grease a cookie sheet. As you cut biscuits with a biscuit cutter or glass, do not twist the cutter! Dip one side of each biscuit in the melted butter. Put them on the baking sheet buttered side up. Place the biscuits close together so they will raise up--not outwards. |
||Bake 15 minutes. Watch carefully the last five minutes so they do not over brown. Serve with butter and jam, or just settle for the buttery goodness just as they come out of the oven. |
Everyone has a favorite method when it comes to making biscuits, but one thing everyone agrees on. Keep the butter and buttermilk COLD until you use it. In fact, I picked up a tip to dip your hands in ice water before you start mixing the dough. I rubbed an ice cube around my hands and I do think it made a difference. You don't want the biscuit dough to get greasy--you want each grain of fat to be surrounded by flour.
I describe mixing the biscuit dough by hand in the bowl rather than kneading, and patting out rather than rolling, in order to minimize handling. See some other methods in the accompanying article.
Be sure to mix those dry ingredients thoroughly, because otherwise, you'll take random bites where you can taste the baking powder, and you'll get brown freckles on the biscuits.
It is very important to work quickly between the time you add the liquid and the biscuits go in the oven, so do your prep work before you start measuring flour, etc.
Cut butter in small bits and put back in the refrigerator until you need it.
Get out the pan and the biscuit cutter, and flour the surface on which you will pat out the dough.
Preheat the oven.
Melt the butter that you are going to dip the biscuits in and give it time to cool--have it sitting near the board where you will pat them out.
All of these steps will help you seamlessly get the biscuits in the oven quickly, so they don't lose their "oomph."