A Southern Essential – Perfect Buttermilk Biscuits

My Granny was an amazing country cook. She lived most of her life on farms and was a great saver and planner and user of what she had. I remember summers in her ungodly hot house with a box fan in the window blowing over a pan of water while she, mom and my Aunt Ginnie would work in the kitchen “putting up” the bounty from her garden. It wasn’t a huge garden but I’m pretty sure she and PaPa never bought veggies until they were too feeble to manage a big garden plot.

ingredients square
Everything you need for perfect biscuits.

I have a lot of food memories surrounding my Granny. She made the best peach cobbler (I always ate just the buttery crust and never the peaches). She’d pull roots – I assume sassafras – to make tea for me. We had ridiculously fresh fried chicken (after seeing where real chicken comes from, it’s a wonder I’m not a vegetarian). And good lord, she and my great Aunt Era used to force me (FORCE ME I TELL YOU!) to sit on the porch steps and shell peas for hours and hours upon end. At least it seemed like hours and hours. Now that I have a kid of my own, I suspect it was, in reality, about 30 minutes.

mix dry ingredients with lard
Blend dry ingredients. Mix in lard by hand until mixture resembles oatmeal. Make a well. in the middle.

Granny was not exactly a thin woman. She loved her starches, she loved her sweets and she loved her salty, cured meats – I am clearly her grandbaby. PaPa, on the other hand, loved his vegetables. He basically would eat a plate full of vegetables with a big hunk of cornbread or one of my Granny’s delicious biscuits. If he’d known what a vegetarian was, I’m not sure he’d cop to being one but that’s pretty much how he ate. Remember that nursery rhyme about Jack Sprat and his wife? Well, those were my grandparents.

Mix in Buttermilk by hand
Pour buttermilk into well. Fold flour over and over buttermilk to make a very wet, shaggy dough.

Anyway, Granny had this (coveted) beautiful old wooden biscuit bowl in which she stored all of her dry ingredients for biscuits. She used powdered milk (child of the depression, my granny) so she kept it mixed right in with the flour in her big mahogany sideboard. She’d simply add her “Crisco” and some water and mix it up with her hands. My cousin, Randy, and I were the best apprentice biscuit makers, I think because he and I figured out that it wasn’t so much the measurements as it was a sensory thing. When the biscuit dough felt done, it was done. That was all. And she taught us not to mess with the dough too much.

Roll first time
Flour board and rolling pin VERY generously (and have extra flour if you need it). Knead dough just a couple of times just until smooth. Pat into rough square shape. Roll out to about 1/2 inch.

Now, Granny’s recipe, because she really didn’t measure anything except with her hands, was kind of a mystery. Until a couple of years ago that is. You see, my sister, JC, has pretty closely imitated Granny’s Thanksgiving dressing recipe for years and years. Granny used a mixture of day old biscuits and day old cornbread in her dressing. I know it sounds weird but it was delicious. My sister worked at it for years and got really close but it was never quite right. She tried different ratios of biscuit to cornbread. She experimented with different pans trying to get that cool “skin” on the outside edges of the dressing. It was delicious, but just not quite the same. That is, until the year that I hosted my family for a Lowcountry Thanksgiving.

spread with butter
Gently spread butter over dough. Fold once and roll again lightly. Fold at least one more time, rolling lightly after each fold until 1/2 to 1 inch thick.

My mom, my sister and my aunt, C-Belle, were all here while JC was prepping the dressing. She was to the point in the biscuit making when she needed to add the shortening. Well, I didn’t actually have shortening. I did however, have a big 3 pound tub of lard (of course I did). So because it was late the day before Thanksgiving and nobody wanted to fight the supermarket crowds, JC made do with the lard. Lo and behold, the biscuits were PERFECT.

cut out biscuits
Flour cutter. Cut out biscuits and place on parchment lined baking sheet with sides touching.

C-Belle took one bite of those hot biscuits and said “Mama lied!” All those years. Those delicious biscuits. That perfect cornbread. The Thanksgiving dressing. EVERYTHING. So delicious. All because she was switching out lard for the shortening. We don’t know how she did it but it explains a LOT about many of the recipes that no one has ever been able to duplicate.

Out of the oven
Remove biscuits from oven and immediately brush with melted butter.

So my sister and I set out to actually write down a recipe for the biscuits. It took us a while to figure out the ratios, and our recipes still differ slightly. I took some liberties in that I wanted to use fresh buttermilk and not powdered “sweet” milk in mine. JC uses regular whole milk. But you can be damn sure that I’m using the lard.

biscuits in basket close

 
Perfect Buttermilk Biscuits
(Makes 18-24 biscuits depending on size of cutter – see notes below)
 3 C self rising flour (plus more for rolling)
1 t coarse kosher salt
3/4 C lard*
1 1/2 C buttermilk
2 T butter, room temperature
Melted butter for brushing (about 2 T)
Preheat oven to 400.
Whisk together flour and salt in a large, deep bowl. Add lard to bowl and begin to mix it in gradually with your fingers. This is going to get messy. Break it up, squishing it into the flour into smaller and smaller bits until it looks a bit like oatmeal (you don’t want chunks of lard any larger than peas). Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture and add the buttermilk. Begin to fold the flour over and over the buttermilk. You will eventually have a slightly wet shaggy dough. You may find that you need slightly more or less buttermilk based on how humid it is. 
Turn dough onto a well floured butcher block, cutting board or counter and very gently knead just a couple of times (kneading in additional flour and adding more to the board as needed) until it’s smoother and much less wet. Pat into a kind of square shape. Flour a rolling pin well and roll out to about 1/2 inch thick. Smear dough lightly with soft butter. Fold dough in half and roll lightly. Fold again and roll lightly. Reshape and fold and roll one more time if you like. It should be about 1 – 1 1/2 inches thick.
Use a round cutter to cut into whatever size you want (my Granny didn’t have a cookie cutter – she used an old, cleaned cornstarch can). When you finish cutting the first batch, you can gently knead the dough scraps together to make a second round of cuts. Place biscuits, sides touching (this will make them taller), on a parchment lined cookie sheet or cake pan (Granny greased a cake pan – with lard, I’m sure). Bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown.
Remove from oven and brush immediately with melted butter – they’ll soak it right up. Serve hot.
 
split biscuit
The fold during the rolling process makes the biscuits split apart after baking.

As mentioned above, that this will make a LOT of biscuits. You don’t have to cook them all right now. If you roll them out, cut them and then freeze the uncooked biscuits in one layer in a freezer bag, you can pull out however many you want whenever you want them and bake for about 25 minutes in a preheated 375 oven. You don’t even have to thaw them out first. Biscuits for one, anyone?

 

ready for the freezer

 

*A note for my kosher friends: you can absolutely use shortening, or even a mixture of shortening and butter (what JC does at home). The taste won’t be quite the same but they will still be fluffy and delicious and perfect.

 

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