Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Perfect Buttermilk Biscuits and Sausage Gravy

Originally Published Wednesday, December 24, 2008

In the United States we are often known for culinary contributions of dubious distinction.  Deep fried macaroni and cheese can be spotted on a menu along with the glorious juicy burger.  The juicy burger must share its place with the aspirin sized pseudo-burgers found in our favorite fast food establishments.  At least one fast food establishment (yes, I mean McDonald’s) is both home to the aspirin sized burger and the most delicious fries I have ever tasted.  I mean, c’mon, can anyone tell me they have truly had a fry that is even in the same league ?  If you have, can you consistently get it in any of 15 to 20 locations within an hour drive from your home ?  Let’s give credit where credit is due !

Yes, we Americans have contributed our share of entries into the world of food, and some regions are just known as the quintessential home of many of these foods.  New England has its Lobster Rolls.  New Orleans has its Red Beans and Rice.  California has its Duck Pizza.  None of these, however, puts me in a region of this magnificent nation we live in quite like the Southern Buttermilk Biscuit.  To me, a good old American biscuit just screams “The South” like nothing else does.  Slathered with butter and jam, covered in an artery clogging sausage flavored goop, or housing delicate slices of delicious Kurobuta Ham...it does not matter to me.  This regal king of quick-breads belongs to the states south of the Mason-Dixon line.  God Bless America !!!!

There was a time in America where you had to travel to “The South” to get a decent biscuit.  Sure, you could get a scone in a fancy hotel or tea room, and scones are indeed the great grandaddy of all biscuits, but the difference between a scone and a biscuit is like the difference between meat loaf and meat terrine.  Sure, they are essentially the same thing, but they are also quite different, and that is why they continue to exist in two separate worlds.

Biscuits, however, have made it onto nearly every breakfast menu found in the USA, as well as onto eclectic catering menus and into our kitchens.  With the introduction of Bisquick in the grocery store, the fine art of biscuit making has been transformed to a “just add water” event, and the biscuits are actually not bad !  I, however,  am not satisfied with food that is merely “not bad”.  I have this obsession with finding the best, and will stop at nothing until I do.  So my quest for the perfect biscuit led me to countless years of experimentation until one day I stumbled upon an absolutely fantastic recipe at the “Cooks Illustrated” website.  I decided to give it a try, and there it was...THE PERFECT BISCUIT !!!

...with a little modification, of course.

Of course I had to modify it to my taste!  I altered the fats a bit, because their recipe called for shortening (perish the thought!), and I prefer my technique.  I feel I can safely call this my own recipe (but I give credit where it is due).

I must first take a moment to describe what I mean by “Perfect Biscuit”.  Perfectly prepared biscuits must be very light in texture, must melt in your mouth (yet not crumble when you try to make a little sandwich with one), and must be so delicious you simply cannot eat just one.  They must also look so appetizing you begin drooling the moment you set eyes on them, much like an ex-convict who is taken to a burlesque show does...well, you know what I mean.  They must immediately come to mind every time you think of biscuits, see biscuits, or see pictures of plantation owners in white hats.  Anything else just will not cut it.

Now that I have hopefully peaked your curiosity, I am going to tell you how to make these wonderful pillows of gravy sopping ecstasy.  Read on.

Lets start with the ingredient list.  For a dozen biscuits, about the width of the rim of a drinking glass, you will need the following ingredients:

Perfect Biscuits
Yield: 12 Biscuits

2 cups  Unbleached All-Purpose Flour (I like King Arthur, available at Trader Joe’s) or 50/50 All-Purpose and Whole Wheat Flour
1 Tablespoon  Baking Powder
½ teaspoon  Baking Soda
1 Tablespoon  Granulated Sugar
1 teaspoon  Salt (I do not use iodized salt)
2 Tablespoon  Unsalted Butter (chilled and cubed)
2 Tablespoons  Lard or Bacon Fat (chilled and cubed)
1½ cup  Buttermilk (chilled)

Let me discuss the ingredients for a moment.  I use Unbleached Flour because bleaching flour changes both the taste and texture of the flour, and since biscuits are little more than fat and flour we want to retain as much character as we can.  You can also use a 50/50 blend of whole wheat and white flour if you want a slightly wheaten biscuit. You will need some extra flour for the biscuit preparation surface as well.

I do not use iodized salt because I can taste the iodine, and it is not pleasant.  I like using plain sea salt.

Then there is the fat.  Some of you may decide to use margarine and shortening instead of Butter and Lard or Bacon Fat (Bacon Fat and Lard are essentially the same thing).  Do not do it !!!  Butter and Lard not only contribute fantastic flavor to the biscuits, but the texture is completely different.  Both Butter and Lard melt at body temperature, giving you that melt in the mouth feeling you simply love.  Margarine and shortening, on the other hand, do not fully melt at mouth temperatures.  They essentially soften and coat the mouth with a film of fat.  Side by side, you can immediately tell the difference.  For the health conscious out there, remember that Butter and Lard or Bacon Fat are natural products, and margarine/shortening are not.  There was a time when we all believed manmade fat products were better for us, and science has now decided they are not.  I am a firm believer that, in moderation, we are better off eating fats that God has given us.

But I digress...we are trying to make PERFECT BISCUITS, and for that you need Butter and what the hog has given us.  Now that we have that clarified all that, lets move on to the steps:

1. Preheat oven to 500° F  and set oven rack to the center of the oven.

2. Combine dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse to blend.  Add chilled Butter and Lard and pulse until the the mixture looks pebbly (do not over mix).
Dry Ingredients With Butter and Lard in Food Processor
Pulsed Mixture
3. Remove from the food processor and put this mixture in a bowl and gently stir in the Buttermilk (I use a fork) until just incorporated.  The dough will be very wet and sticky at this point.
4. Turn onto a generously floured board and generously flour the top, and fold over, flour, pat, fold, flour until workable but still a little tacky.  This should take about 5 folds.  Try not to add too much flour, as that will toughen the biscuits, and do not knead the dough, which would also toughen the biscuits.  Simply fold and pat out flat.  The final pat before cutting should leave your biscuit dough about 1/3 inch to 1/2 inch thick.
Wet Biscuit Dough On Floured Board 
Flattened Biscuit Dough 
Folded Biscuit Dough
5. Cut biscuits using a floured biscuit cutter or the floured rim of a drinking glass and put them on a baking pan prepared with a baking sheet or lightly greased or sprayed with nonstick coating, with the sides just kissing each other.
Cutting Biscuits 
Panned Biscuits
6. Put them in the oven, close the oven door, and turn the temperature down to 450° F.  Bake for 10-12 minutes.  If you have a convection oven, use the convection fan and cut the baking time down to 9-11 minutes.  The circulating air will create a taller and more evenly baked biscuit.  The tops of your biscuits should be a lovely brown, and the sides will be considerably lighter.   Remove these from the oven and serve them immediately.

Biscuit making is as much technique as it is ingredients, so let me give you some valuable pointers.  Make sure the initial oven temperature is fully at 500 degrees Fahrenheit.  You need the initial heat blast to get the gases moving the biscuits up before the dough cooks, otherwise you will end up with a dense biscuit which will resemble a hockey puck in taste and texture.  Make sure your fat and Buttermilk are as cold as possible for as long as possible.  You do not want the fat to become fully homogeneous with the dough.  Rather, you want a suspension of small fat particles dispersed throughout the dough, which will create flakes and pockets of lightness when the biscuits bake.  You want to avoid creating as much gluten as possible with biscuits.  Gluten is the protein part of the flour which, when combined with water and physically worked, creates that unique stretchiness found in bread doughs.  With a bread dough, you want gluten because you need to trap as much CO2 from the yeast as possible for as long as possible as you condition the dough (that is what you do when you let it rest and rise).  The yeast based conditioning and gluten give yeast breads the wonderful chewy texture we love about bread.  Biscuits do not go through any conditioning.  Once the Baking Powder and Baking Soda have release their gases, it is over.  We do not want chewiness in our biscuits.  We want enough firmness to bite through, and then we want them to melt away on our palates.   Once I have added the Buttermilk to the dry mix, I mix only to combine, and then I like to dump this mixture onto a generously floured (you want a solid 1/4 inch layer of flour on the surface) flexible plastic cutting board.  I then generously flour the top of the dough and pat it flat, and use the flexible cutting board to help me fold the dough.  Each fold gets as little flour added to it, which helps create a layered effect in the biscuits.  Once I have cut my biscuits (cut them as close to each other as you can) I gently reform the scraps and flatten the dough out again (avoid using flour at this point) and cut some additional biscuits.  Re-forming the dough once is okay if you initially do not overwork the dough.  Re-forming too many times will make the biscuits from the re-formed dough tough.

Some recipes call for brushing the tops of biscuits with molten fat before baking.  You can do this if you wish, but I do not.  You can, if you wish, add additional ingredients to your biscuit dough.  My favorite add-in is cheese and green onions (biscuits pictured above).  Chop 2 green onions (scallions) and 2 leaves of fresh sage or any other herb you like (optional) and add this to the initial dry mix along with 1/3 to 1/2 cup shredded cheese.  Prepare as above.  These are especially delicious served with baked ham or sausage gravy.

Green Onion and Sage Biscuits
Sausage Gravy
Yield: 1 1/2 cups
Note: This can be frozen and then reheated.

8 oz.  Breakfast Sausage (bulk, not links)
1/2 (approximately 1/4 cup)  Chopped Onion
1/2 teaspoon  Freshly Ground Pepper
Pinch of Garlic Powder
1 leaf  Fresh Sage (chopped) or 1/2 teaspoon Dried Sage
4 teaspoons  Flour
1 1/4 cups  Milk
Salt to taste

  1. Brown the Sausage in a small saucepan while breaking it up as it cooks
  2. Add the Onion, Pepper, Garlic Powder, and Sage and cook until the Onions are lightly browned.  DO NOT drain off the fat.
  3. Add the Flour and cook until the Flour is absorbed.
  4. Add the Milk and stir over medium heat until the mixture thickens and boils.  If it is too thick, add a little more Milk.
  5. Serve immediately over fresh biscuits, or as a side gravy with breakfast items.
Once you have made your own Perfect Biscuits, you will want to do it again and again, and you will get better at it the more you practice.

Enjoy in good health !


  1. Hi Mike,

    I'm a bit late to the party but wanted to let you know that unfortunately King Arthur Flour is no longer available at Trader Joe's - but it is available in supermarkets nationwide (find one at http://www.kingarthurflour.com/flours/where-to-buy.html) or online. Thanks - and happy baking! -Allison

  2. Indeed I know this is true. Sadly enough. Perhaps you can send me some :-)