Biscuits To Die For

Greg Atkinson is a great guy, and he makes fantastic biscuits – He also happens to be a real deal big time Chef. From the Friday Harbor House on San Juan island, to Canlis in Seattle, and now Restaurant Marché on Bainbridge, (his current masterpiece), Greg has been seminal to the development of Pacific Northwest cuisine as a genuine force to be reckoned with. He’s won a James Beard M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing award, and authored a handful of excellent northwest cookbooks. And, he posts pictures of those lovely little things pretty much every week, which instantly makes you crave biscuits – Biscuits to die for.

The incomparable Greg Atkinson
The incomparable Greg Atkinson

When we say ‘Biscuit,’ we really do have to define what we’re talking about, because it’s a broad definition indeed – Pilot bread is a biscuit, as is a saltine cracker, actually – And those are a far cry from the golden, flaky little gems that just got pulled outta my oven. The version I make owe their origin story to tthe American south, (as do rolled or beaten biscuits). These days, you can find them everywhere, as it should be.

This form of biscuit is essentially a quick bread, a combination of flour, leavening, milk, fat, and a little salt. Of course, every cook has their preferences for most of those constituents – Milk or buttermilk, butter or lard, soft southern flour, or harder northern varieties – Fact is, they’ll all make great biscuits if you handle things right.

So, what is it we’re after then, if we’re looking to make a great southern style biscuit? The terms that get bandied about most are tender and flaky, but the fact is, those two words really mean quite different things. Down South, folks prefer their biscuits tender, and that means they’re made from a fairly wet dough, what’s often called a drop biscuit – That produces a fairly dense crumb, quite like a muffin. Flaky, on the other hand, implies defined layers in the finished product, and while they’re still quite light when done right, they’re definitely a bit chewier than their southern cousins – And generally, that’s how northern folks, (where I’m from), like ’em – This is the dough Greg uses, and gave me the insight into, and is what I make now – One day last spring, he posted a bare bones recipe, which is just what I like. I’ve been working on this for about 6 months, getting the process and ingredients just right – I can reproduce this pretty much anywhere, which means you can too.

Now, I’ve no illusions that what I’m about to share is totally unique, ’cause it’s not. For one thing, it’s Greg’s recipe, tweaked a little, which is pretty much how all recipes are passed along. It’s the process steps he shared and I’ve adopted that are the real trick to the game. Greg’s offering was, in fact, slightly cryptic. He mentions shortening and butter in the very brief narrative, but then doesn’t list shortening in the ingredients. He said that the dough is ‘never really mixed or kneaded in the conventional sense,’ and nothing else about working it. He baked in a ‘very hot oven,’ – Now, I don’t think he was being purposefully difficult – It was literally a couple of pictures and a paragraph he’d posted in response to somebody who’d pestered him for a recipe. While it took a few months to figure things out, it was enough for me to work with.

This version of biscuit dough isn’t a short dough, though many folks think that it is – Short, in the baking context, refers to a high ratio of fat to flour, as well as the presence of sugar. While biscuits are rich, they’re not particularly fatty, and there’s no sugar at all in the mix, (at least not in my recipe) – The recipe I’ll share has 12 ounces of fat to 5 cups of flour, or slightly under a 1:4 ratio – Compare that to shortbread, where the fat to flour ratio is 1:2, and you get the picture.

So, what is the magic then? The best way I can describe the overarching principle is this – It’s like pie crust, which means that, the more you fuck with the dough, the less you succeed. Now, that’s a simple enough statement, but it doesn’t really do much towards explaining the details of what you should and shouldn’t do. There is a series of seemingly minor but vital steps to take, and as with all doughs, batters, etc, how you handle them is absolutely as critical to success as the stuff they’re made of.

What we’ve got is fat, (butter and oil), suspended in flour and liquid, (milk). The first challenge a biscuit maker faces is how to get the butter well distributed through the flour-milk paste. The primary enemy here is heat, and what do most cooks do to distribute butter? Cut it into cubes and then work it by hand into the infamous ‘Pea sized’ thing we read in all the cook books – Trouble is, our hands melt the butter and warm the flour, and that’s pretty much counter-productive. The way to counteract this is to have everything except the oil as cold as possible, and to keep your paws, for the most part, out of the mix. More on that shortly.

Another old saw about the formation of doughs worth visiting is the supposition that what we’re forming is tiny pockets of flour, coated with fat, but the fact is that has it absolutely ass backwards – What really happens is that is that the flour/liquid slurry coats tiny little pockets of fat – Now, think about that for a sec, and when you do, a light comes on, ’cause that makes a hell of a lot more sense. While the degree of mixing will always vary, the fact that the flour/liquid mix encapsulates the fat helps us understand why that whole business with the butter is a great idea – That and the fact that it just plain works.

Now, for the final bit of science, with an apology to all of you who aren’t food science geeks, (but it’s actually important). Harken back to where we discussed the two primary types of American biscuits, the tender and the flaky – Turns out that the key to these is predominantly determined by… (Wait for it…), how we handle the dough. The former, the southern biscuit, requires enough manipulation to construct layers of the flour/liquid slurry and fat, AKA, working that dough enough for gluten to develop to a significant degree, while the latter, the flaky northern version, absolutely demands minimal handling in order to keep gluten from developing at all – And that’s saying a mouthful. In other words, to build these biscuits we’re talking about here, you really cannot do anything more than reasonably combine the ingredients, period – And fact is, that is exactly what Greg was talking about when he wrote that these biscuits are, ‘never really mixed or kneaded in the conventional sense,’ AKA, full circle, eh?

So on to the finale – marching orders. As always, you reap what you sew, so use ingredients as fresh and local as you can – In something this simple, ingredient quality is everything, and subpar or old stuff truly won’t taste very good – One more word to the wise, as we’ve covered here before, leaving agents like yeast, baking soda or powder do have expiration dates, and old stuff will not work well, if at all, so check yours and get fresh before you get started.

Biscuits to die for - Its all in the proper prep
Biscuits to die for – Its all in the proper prep

Genuinely Flaky Biscuits

5 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Cups Whole Milk
6 Ounces Butter
6 Ounces Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

At least a day before you build, pop a pound of butter into the freezer and leave it there – It can be your go-to stash for baking.

Add flour, baking powder, and salt to a mixing bowl and whisk to incorporate thoroughly.

Put the bowl and contents into the freezer for at least an hour prior to mixing, and longer if you like – Overnight is fine.

When you’re ready to mix, pull a stick of frozen butter and use the medium shred on a box grater to process 6 ounces. Toss the butter into the mixing bowl with your dry ingredients and return it to the freezer for 15 minutes after grating.

Preheat your oven to 450° F.

Grab something nice and thick and heavy to bake in or on – I use a pizza stone, but a cast iron pan works just fine too.

Pre-measure 6 ounces of avocado oil and set aside at your prep area.

Pull your chilled bowl, and add the milk and oil to the other ingredients.

Now, when it’s mixing time, that means, in this instance, absolutely minimal – Think of something like Belgian waffles, where you need to fold beaten egg whites into the rest of the batter – You work carefully, delicately, so that you don’t smoosh all the air out of those whites you’ve just worked so hard to beat – That’s the concept here – Carefully and slowly fold everything with a wooden spoon or the side of a spatula, just enough to reasonably incorporate all the ingredients, and no more.

Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a cutting board, and gently pat it into a round, about 1″ thick.

Use a glass, can, whatever works for you that will let you cut biscuit rounds out of the block.

Place biscuits on your stone/pan – Ideally, you’d like about a half inch or so between each.

When you get to the scraps of your dough, just gently hand form the last biscuit or two.

Bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Devour with abandon.

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