Our recipe for biscuits is really very simple, with flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, unsalted butter and buttermilk. And it took a leap into high quality when we decided to fold and roll the biscuit dough, like you do when making croissants. Otherwise, it is much like hundreds of other recipes.
If you add salt, why do you use unsalted butter? Because unsalted butter has much less water in it than salted butter and works much better for pastry.
There have been a spate of articles in the past few months about why Northerners can’t make biscuits as good as Southerners do (and here we mean the Southern and Northern United States.) See also “Why Most of America is Terrible at Making Biscuits.”
One such article “Here’s why Southern Biscuits are Better” explains that southern cooks use a soft wheat flour like White Lily which has a much lower protein (and gluten) content, about 8-9 %, while an all purpose flour like King Arthur can be 11.7%. King Arthur All Purpose flour is close to bread flour which is 12.7%, while White Lily has the texture of cake flour, which is 6.9% to 7.1% for various brands.
Well, the authors of the two articles above point out that Southern biscuit makers use the low protein White Lily Flour, which is only available in the southern U.S., despite being distributed by Smuckers. You can, of course, buy it on line for a premium price and we did, to see what the difference really is.
[If you want to create a substitute for White Lily flour, you can mix ½ cake flour (7%) with ½ Gold Medal All Purpose (10.5%), which gives you a flour that is 8.75 % protein.]
Our Northern Recipe
We made our biscuits using our normal recipe:
- 2 cups flour
- 3 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp baking soda
- ½ tsp salt
- Unsalted butter, 1/3 cup or 2/3 stick or 76 g
- About 1 cup of buttermilk
In our recipe, we mix all the dry ingredients, and then cut in the butter using a pastry blender (or two forks). Then, we add the buttermilk and mix it in with a fork and roll out the dough. We recently found that we had a pastry marble, which helps keep the butter cold, and we rolled out the dough on the marble. Then, and this is significant, we folded the dough into thirds and rolled it out again. We repeated that twice more, thus making more buttery layers within the biscuits. The resulting biscuits are excellent.
White Lily Flour is commonly sold as Self-Rising, which means that every cup of flour has 1 ½ tsp baking powder and ½ tsp salt already added. White Lily is also bleached, which weakens the gluten a bit more, so this could also change the biscuit characteristics. (You can buy the non-leavened version as well.)
The recipes we looked at simply vary in the quantity of flour and shortenings. This one is pretty typical.
- 2 ½ cups self-rising flour
- 4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter, frozen
- 1 cup chilled buttermilk.
The one difference is that the butter is frozen and you shred it in a box grater or a food processor. We found that it took so much kinetic energy to shred the butter in the box grater, that the it began to soften, so we switched to the food processor instead.
As before, we mixed the butter in with the pastry blender and added the buttermilk. One cup is a bit stingy, and we added a bit more buttermilk to make a workable dough. We rolled out the dough as before, (on our pastry marble) and folded it into thirds and rolled it out 3 times as before. Some recipe writers claim that you should cut out the biscuits without twisting your biscuit cutter, so we did that too for both batches. This may be just an old custom without a lot of science behind it, though.
We baked both biscuits for 10 minutes at 450˚ F. The White Lily ones were a bit taller since there was more flour in the dough recipe and thus the dough was a bit thicker when rolled out on the marble. So we baked these Southern biscuits a bit longer until they began to brown.
How are the biscuits different?
The King Arthur biscuits are a little darker and the White Lily a little lighter, because the White Lily flour is bleached. But the taste and texture of the two are very similar. Since we had to cook the taller White Lily biscuits a bit longer, the bottoms were a bit thicker and crunchier than those from King Arthur flour. However, see below on this point.
The crumb and texture of the two biscuits are very similar and both quite tasty. (See the picture at the top of the article, as well.) We just didn’t find much difference. The secret seems to be the layers of butter from folding and rolling, and both biscuits have that nice buttery flavor.
We also tried making the White Lily biscuits using the recipe on the flour package, which commenters on the existing recipes said worked perfectly. It differs only in that the butter is replaced by Crisco. The biscuits are very pretty, but pretty tasteless. The recipe suggests that you brush the biscuits with melted butter as shown. It doesn’t improve them much.
To reduce the number of biscuits to the number we could roll out, we made the recipe again using just 2 cups of White Lily flour and 2/3 stick of shredded frozen butter. These were very good, but, frankly, no better than the King Arthur flour recipe.
Finally, we made the White Lily biscuits using cold, but not frozen butter, much as we made the King Arthur biscuits. These biscuits were not as tall or “layery.” Apparently the lower gluten flour affects this layering and you need frozen butter to achieve this effect with White Lily.
Our conclusion is, if you live in the South where you can buy White Lily Flour for about $2.50 for 5 pounds, go for it. But in the rest of the country, use All Purpose Flour and unsalted butter, and you will be very happy with the results.