If you’ve already gone through the post, know your stuff about making biscuits from scratch, or are just in a rush then click here to go straight to the ingredients and recipe.
I’ll be getting to breaking down whole chickens and all that good stuff in due time, but I wanted to start with a simple biscuit recipe because 1) I had leftover buttermilk I needed to use this week and 2) biscuits are a great confidence builder. My first time making biscuits from scratch left me with a eureka moment where I realized that I could become a good scratch cook if I learned from the right people.
For Americans, biscuits are a buttery, flaky, and sometimes guilty comfort food that you can smother in sausage gravy for breakfast or have alongside hearty family dinners. But many of us associate “homemade biscuits” with a can or tube of pre-shaped dough like these.
The main draw for these produced biscuits is that they’re soooooo easy, but a biscuit recipe made from scratch can be whipped up while the oven is pre-heating anyway… and you can build on a scratch recipe to make some savory cheese biscuits or other types when you can only top the canned ones or steal the dough for something else.
Understanding What’s Happening in the Recipe – Key Steps to Making Great Buttermilk Biscuits From Scratch
While biscuits are pretty easy, they’re not foolproof. Why does this recipe result in light, flaky, golden brown biscuits and not dense, beige, hockey pucks? There are a few factors at play…
The Importance of Buttermilk
Many people assume buttermilk has a lot of fat which results in it’s thick and creamy appearance vs whole milk, but buttermilk actually has the same amount or less fat and calories compared to whole milk. The thickness comes instead from the Streptococcus lactis probiotic culture added to milk, and the lactic acid that the culture produces. This is what is thickening and giving buttermilk that tangy flavor.
But why is that important? Well, the main reason is that we need that acid in order to produce a good rise in our biscuits. As you’re probably aware, many doughs use yeast in order to produce a leavened (or risen) finished product. Yeast eats sugar and produces carbon dioxide, which creates bubbles in the dough. This causes the dough to rise and, in the oven, the bubbles expand even further.
You’ll notice there is no yeast in this recipe, and the same holds true for many baked goods like muffins, cakes, pancakes, scones, cookies, etc. But all of these still rise… why? Chemistry.
Full disclosure – I failed gen-chem in college. Couldn’t remember an element, bond, or reaction to save my life. Chemistry in cooking and baking is fun for me, but I’m not going to go into the nitty-gritty of it most of the time. Okay, back to the explanation.
The key ingredients in our recipe that are doing the work of the yeast for us are baking powder and baking soda. These, by themselves, won’t produce much of a rise – but when they mix with an acid they produce carbon dioxide much like the yeast does for bread. And since baking soda/powder is much more predictable and faster working than yeast, it’s great for these types of recipes.
Now we’re putting it together. Buttermilk = acid, which in turn reacts with the baking powder/soda. This reaction causes carbon dioxide bubbles which make the dough or batter light, and then expand/rise in the oven.
What Happens if You Don’t Have Buttermilk?
So you don’t have buttermilk and going out and getting some sounds too hard. Hopefully, you have milk, some sort of acid, or plain yogurt on hand.
Mix a tablespoon (0.5 ounces) of lemon juice or white vinegar with a cup of milk. You don’t need to let this stand for 5-10 minutes as others might suggest. The milk will thicken/curdle some, but the main thing you’re doing here is adding acid to the milk for the baking powder/soda to react to. This is great if you don’t want to buy a whole carton of buttermilk.
You can also substitute using one cup of plain yogurt, but I would suggest doing the milk/acid mixture in most cases as the dough will come together in a more familiar fashion vs dealing with the much thicker yogurt.
Easy Ways to Cut in Butter (without actually cutting in butter)
Many recipes for biscuits will ask you to mix the dry ingredients, then cut in the butter before adding the wet (aka buttermilk). But if you’ve never done it, cutting butter into flour can really suck. I’ve tried with two knives, the fork method, and I still have one of these things which I’m still trying to figure out (so far I’ve determined that they’re great for making egg salad, and a huge mess).
You’ll see that we’re doing something a little different to get around the common hurdles of cutting in butter. The recipe uses one method which I’ll go into more detail here, and I’ll provide another easier method than the ones alluded to above.
- Place one cup of buttermilk in your freezer
- While preparing the dry ingredients and preheating the oven, melt one stick (half cup) of butter in a saucepan or microwave.
- After you’ve gotten the oven preheating, all of the ingredients ready, and mixed the dry ingredients together your butter should be melted and the buttermilk cold (mine had started solidifying around the edges). We’re going to pour the hot melted butter into the chilled buttermilk:
- Then we’re going to mix-mix-mix with a small rubber spatula (or fork… spoon… it doesn’t really matter)
- …until you have something that looks like a bowl of Kellogs Corn Pops left out all morning
Then you’ll mix the butter/buttermilk mixture into the mixed dry ingredients as detailed in the recipe. The cold buttermilk shocks the melted butter and causes it to clump into tiny pieces… DOING ALL OF THE CUTTING FOR YOU. If you haven’t cut butter, you don’t know how cool this is.
Another way is to freeze the stick of butter then grate it with a cheese grater. You’ll probably need to freeze the grated butter again for a few minutes as your hands will melt some of it. I’d post a picture of this… but I’m not sure how that would make it more clear (it’s literally frozen, grated, butter).
If you use this method, don’t mix the grated butter with the buttermilk. Gently toss/mix the frozen, grated butter with the dry ingredients until evenly incorporated (the grated pieces should be evenly coated with flour but still individual pieces).
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?!
I realize I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on the proper way to handle the butter, but it’s important! Because…
Individual pieces of butter in your dough is what is going to make your biscuits flaky… and taste pretty darn good too. This happens because the pieces of butter are going to melt when they get in the oven, leaving a hole where the dough hasn’t come together. The butter also gives off steam as it’s melting which helps the biscuits rise. This results in a light, pull apart, and flaky biscuit.
If you were to just mix in the melted butter, or use liquid shortening or oil, the biscuits would be much denser and be missing the classic layers.
Let’s jump into the recipe now. It’s super simple, only needing seven ingredients and about 30-45 minutes of time.