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How to Make Good Biscuits — From the COOKS.COM Culinary Archive.
What is a good biscuit? In the American sense of the word, biscuit is a shortened bread, to be eaten hot. It should be baked in small portions, delicately browned, but not hardened on the outside, moist and light from the steam so suddenly developed in it from the quick baking, rather thick with a very soft, fine-grained crumb, but flaky and tender rather than porous and elastic like bread. Many cooks fail to realize this difference and vigorously knead their biscuit, not knowing that as soon as flour is wet it develops a sticky, elastic substance called gluten, which becomes more rubbery the more it is worked. For the same reason that one does knead bread, one does not knead biscuit.
The secret of baking good biscuit is to have the dough as soft as one can handle it, but not to handle it a bit more than is necessary after the wetting has been added to the flour, and to bake it in a quick oven.
Cookery experts have experimented with every possible variation of the cookery recipe until they have not only established the standard recipe; but have ascertained exactly the result of varying it in any given detail. But it is not enough to follow the standard rule; there is something in one's technique. Experience proves that a cup of flour will make five large fat biscuits, or ten or twelve smaller ones, but that the smaller ones are a little superior; that a proper degree of lightness is secured by two teaspoons of baking powder to the cup of flour; that half a teaspoon of salt will take away the flat taste of the dough without giving an appreciably salty flavor; that there should be about half as much wetting as flour; that two tablespoons of fat is enough shortening to make a tender, flaky crust, but that more makes it too rich, more like pie crust, and therefore apt to give a greasy, heavy crumb.
One's results depend largely upon the way the fat is mixed with the flour, the quantity of the liquid added and the method of adding it, and the subsequent handling of the dough. Whether one chops the fat into the flour with knives, feeling that this is cleanlier than to rub it in with the hands, or that the heat of the hands tends to make the mixture waxy, or whether one feels confident in the cleanliness of one's hands and finds that if the materials are properly cold one can be surer of the right results when guided by the sense of touch, the point to be aimed at is a mixture in which there are no fatty lumps and no unshortened flour; it should feel slightly mealy.
Whether the liquid to be added is water or milk, it should be cold, and the quantity should be half that of the flour used. This makes a dough too soft to handle. Stir it lightly just enough to wet the flour, and turn it out on a thickly floured board. By this method the dough should all come away clean from the pan. The top will be too soft and sticky to touch, but if you sprinkle it thickly with flour you can easily flatten it out with the hand or spatula and shape it up so it can be cut advantageously. The inside is still to wet to handle, so dip the cutter in flour to keep the dough from sticking to it. You may have to use a spatula to transfer the biscuits to the pan.
Make 2-inch rounds, and put them in a pan which has been dusted with flour to prevent sticking. Never grease the pan, nor the outside of the biscuit.
Lay the rounds so that they do not crowd each other too much, or as they rise they will become misshapen and too thick. Experiment has shown that they are much better when cooked twelve or fifteen minutes in the top of a quick oven, than twenty or thirty minutes lower down in a slow oven. Overcooking does not produce the ideal biscuit.
Does the kind of shortening matter? Not greatly, though, of course, butter is more expensive than other fats, and gives a characteristic yellow color, as well as a characteristic flavor which many people think too pronounced for a hot bread to be eaten with butter. Many cooking fats and compounds contain cottonseed oil, which in its changed form is not in the least objectionable, but unchanged cottonseed oil gives off a strong, offensive odor and is therefore highly objectionable. If you use sour cream, of course, use less shortening — how much less depends on the quantity and richness of the cream.
Of course, the measurements given here mean precise, level measurements. Accuracy in biscuit making, as in all other forms of cookery, makes all the difference between the unreliable products, the occasional brilliant successes and the frequent failures; of the hit-and-miss cook, and the consistently good products of the cook who knows not only the rule, but the principle by which she works. To summarize:
1 cup flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons fat, 1/2 cup liquid
with as much more flour as may be necessary to handle the sticky dough. Vary this recipe sometimes for specially dainty occasions, by pressing down into the top of each biscuit a cube of sugar dipped in orange juice. But remember that the melting sugar makes the tops brown more quickly than they ordinarily would, so be careful to avoid overcooking. Sometimes a cube of canned pineapple may be substituted for the orange-dipped sugar, or you may find something among your own preserves more to your individual taste. The sugar and juice make a little well of sweetness in the top of the biscuit, and they do not split like ordinary biscuit. Put a little butter on the top, serve very hot and eat with a fork.