Saturday, March 8, 2014
This is the first part in a series on the art of biscuit making.
For years, making biscuits has been a hit and miss affair for me until recently. I love southern food and the hallmark of a good southern cook is his or her biscuits. Yet to cook in true southern style—even one who lives in the cold far north--one has to be able to produce those high-rising, feather light biscuits effortlessly.
I know that you can’t throw the dough around like a pizza ball. You must have a gentle touch, like stroking a newborn kitty. And there are other tricks of the trade, too.
But what’s really important is the flour. Our hard winter wheat is anathema (to a southerner at least) to the notion of pillowy soft, flakey biscuits.
Most recipes in southern cookbooks call for “southern flour” for biscuit making.They're lower in protein and gluten, factors that affect a biscuit's fluffy, flakey texture. The soft-wheat flours common in the south are White Lily, Martha White and Southern Biscuit--three brands that are nearly impossible to find except down south.
Lots of choices in the types of flour to use
On occasion I’ve ordered them mail order. They’re not expensive per se; in fact they’re less than other milled flours up north. But the shipping charges can add $25 to a 10-pound box of flour, making it a ridiculously expensive purchase.
Right after the holidays I decided that I was going to stock my pantry with all the right southern flours. While researching I came upon a blog post that rated the three major brands. They were all deemed excellent, but Southern Biscuit had a slight edge with the best flavor.
That clinched it for me. I called up Southern Biscuit to discuss their various flours with the customer-service agent. I was told that I could use the all-purpose flour for all baking needs, except bread. But that I should also try their various self-rising flours.
“So much easier,” the representative said, “and just as good, honey,” she cooed in her irresistible southern drawl. Then she recommended that I try their Formula L Complete Biscuit Mix, where all you have to do is add the buttermilk.
“Y’all love it, dear,” she said.
I was hooked.
I ordered the whole kit and caboodle, and a 40 pound package arrived yesterday with 10 pounds of all-purpose, 10 pounds of self-rising and another 10 pounds of the biscuit mix. And for the heck of it I got some self-rising white cornmeal.
I must admit to a few misgivings, however. The flour is not organic—nothing artisanal or heritage, not a trace of highfaluting precious batches of wheat. But if these flours can make my biscuits the stuff of legend I’ll forgo the politically correct moves for now.
First results: I prepared the Formula L Biscuit Mix recipe according to package directions. The dough was so wet that I couldn’t handle it without adding a lot more flour. Perhaps I measured incorrectly (I don’t think so). I played around with it, adding more all-purpose (southern) flour and managed to get the gooey wet biscuits into the baking dish.
Fifteen minutes later, piping hot from the oven, they looked good.. In fact, these were incredible biscuits, with a texture that I’d not ever experienced. I’m curious about the dough, though, and will experiment more and confer with the biscuit company for guidance.
These came out surprisingly well, even with a few traces of flour on top
Next week: more biscuits, more tips and more southern—and northern—flours.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.