Classic buttermilk biscuits are a staple in my household. Quick, easy, and light as a feather, they can be served for breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner and even dessert! The technique is simple (hint: freeze the butter and use a light touch) but the results are spectacular.
I've been making these buttermilk biscuits for over 20 years now. They're so much a part of who I am that I can almost go all grandma-style and make them without measuring! On several occasions, I've multiplied the recipe x10 to serve to 60 people for breakfast. They're based on a recipe from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant but really, most buttermilk biscuits recipes are very similar. Let's take a quick look at the various elements of buttermilk biscuits.
I use all-purpose flour for my biscuits, although lately I've liked the flavor and texture of substituting 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour for 1/2 cup of white. The butter is always unsalted — if you do use salted butter, be sure to eliminate the salt in the dry ingredients. If you want to make these biscuits and there's no buttermilk on hand, don't despair. I've had excellent results thinning plain yogurt with milk until it reaches buttermilk consistency.
One of the most important tricks to making fantastic biscuits is for the butter to be super cold. I always start this recipe by cutting up my butter and placing it in the freezer. Even just 5 minutes in the freezer will give it that extra chill.
I have found, though, that completely frozen butter is a little hard to work with, especially if you are mixing by hand. Those nuggets of butter just want to stay in hard lumps and won't cut in without a lot more work. If your butter is completely frozen, you might try grating it on a cheese grater.
A very hot oven is also key to good biscuits. My oven tends to run hot, so I put the temperate at 425° F, but if your oven is cool, you can go up to 450° F.
Use a Light Touch with the Dough
The recipe below gives instructions for making the dough in a food processor but don't worry if you don't have one. They can easily be made in a bowl the old-fashioned way (see recipe notes.) I use the processor because it's the best way to blend the butter and buttermilk into the dry ingredients without overmixing. But I've also made this recipe dozens of times without the machine, so it's not a requirement.
The one thing that's even more important than temperature when making biscuits is to not overwork the dough. You do not want to create a cohesive dough in the food processor — it should look like rough gravel when you tip it out onto the floured counter. When you bring it together into a rectangle, use a light touch and go quickly, gently pressing and gathering the gravel into a mass. The movement is more like patting and less like kneading.
The recipe calls for cutting the dough into thirds and restacking it, pressing gently to bring everything together. This is to help encourage flakey layers in the biscuits. Again, you don't want to overwork the dough: just cut, stack, press gently and quickly a few times with the heel of your hand and repeat.
When I roll out my dough, I only use a few quick strokes. Maybe six in all. Sometimes it is even possible to forgo the rolling and just pat the dough into a rectangle.
Square vs. Round Biscuits
I like to make square biscuits because it means that I'm handling the dough less and there are no scraps leftover. Of course you can make round biscuits but do not re-roll the scraps more than once or you will have tough biscuits.
The flour should be studded with bits of butter, with no piece bigger than a pea.
How To Make Classic Buttermilk Biscuits
Makes 6 large or 8 medium biscuits
What You Need
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted butter
2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus a little more for dusting
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup buttermilk plus a little more for brushing (see Recipe Note)
Measuring cups or a kitchen scale
Food processor or mixing bowl
Chef's knife or bench scraper
Freeze the butter: Cut the butter into small chunks and place in the freezer. Preheat oven to 425°F. Get out equipment and ingredients, leaving the butter in the freezer and the buttermilk in the refrigerator.
Blend the dry ingredients: Place flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Cover and pulse 4 or 5 times to mix. Alternatively, whisk in a medium-sized mixing bowl.
Add the butter: Remove the butter from the freezer and add it to the flour mixture. Cover and pulse 6 to 8 times or until the mixture is crumbly and the largest pieces of butter are no bigger than a pea. Alternatively, work the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter, a fork, or your finger tips.
Add the buttermilk. Pour in the buttermilk, cover, and pulse 4 or 5 times or until the mixture just comes together. It should not be completely blended but look like gravel. Alternatively, stir until the liquid is just barely incorporated and a rough mass is formed.
Shape the dough: Sprinkle your counter with a little flour and dump the contents of the food processor out on top. Working quickly, gather the shaggy mass together, pressing it lightly to form a rectangle. Cut into 3 even sections and pile each section on top of the other. Using the heel of your hand, quickly and firmly press the sections together. Repeat once.
Roll and cut the dough: Roll the dough into a thick rectangle, about 1/2" thick. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into 6 pieces for larger biscuits or 8 pieces for smaller biscuits.
Bake: Place the biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet. Paint the top of the biscuits with a little buttermilk. Bake for 12 minutes or until puffed and golden-brown.
Cool: Remove from oven and place on wire rack to cool. Serve fresh from the oven, if possible.
You can replace 1/2 cup of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour.
For a sweet dough to use for shortcake and other desserts, add 2 tablespoons of sugar to the dry ingredients.