The method of rubbing or “cutting” fat into flour, then stirring in moisture before kneading is referred to as the “biscuit” method and is called for in the preparation of many baked goods, most notably scones, shortbread and pie crusts.
I never really thought I could beat my grandmother’s biscuits. Since she passed away, though, I’ve come close if for no other reason than that I realized that her arthritis was actually an ingredient. Her fingers hurt so much she couldn’t really bend them when she kneaded the dough. When I started imitating her movements, my biscuits got better.
The key to a good, light, Southern-style biscuit is “soft” flour — a flour that contains less protein than bread flour or even all-purpose flour. Some popular Southern flours are also milled to a finer grain consistency, which aids in fast mixing, another contributor to lightness. If you don’t have access to soft Southern flour (which you can now buy online), you can approximate it by mixing three parts all-purpose flour with one part cake flour.
- 12 ounces all-purpose flour (plus an additional 1/2 cup for dusting)
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 ounce unsalted butter (chilled*)
- 2 ounces shortening (chilled)
- 1 cup low-fat buttermilk (chilled)
- Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.
- Whisk together all the dry, powdery stuff (except the flour for dusting, of course) in a large mixing bowl.
- Using your fingertips, rub the butter and shortening into the dry goods until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
- Make a well in the middle of this mixture and pour in the buttermilk. Stir with a large spoon until the dough just comes together. Then knead in the bowl until all the flour has been taken up.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, then start folding the dough over on itself, gently kneading for 30 seconds, or until the dough is soft and smooth.
- Press the dough into a 1-inch-thick round. Using a 3-inch round cutter, cut out biscuits, being sure to push the cutter all the way through the dough to the work surface before twisting to “punch” out the biscuit. Make your cuts as close together as possible to limit waste.
- Place the biscuits on a half sheet pan (preferably aluminum, which is highly conductive) so that they just barely touch. Reroll scraps and punch out as many biscuits as possible.
- Use your thumb to create a shallow dimple in the top center of each biscuit**, and bake until the biscuits are tall and light gold on top, 15 to 20 minutes. Turn the biscuits out into a kitchen towel-lined basket and let cool for several minutes before buttering and devouring.
*If you’re “hot handed” you definitely want to chill the fats in the freezer before attempting to cut them in.
**This helps to ensure flat tops on the finished biscuit.