The secret behind great biscuits is fat. That's not really a secret as many bakers know, but how fats are treated in a recipe with leavening, greatly dictates your end result.
When fats are used in combination with chemical leaveners, their responsibility is to melt, leaving behind small air pockets. These air pockets are used by the chemical leaveners to release their gases, creating lift in your final product. Knowing how to handle your fats will lead to perfect biscuits every time, no matter what your recipe is!
• Example 1: In the Buttermilk Biscuit recipe, we freeze our butter and grate or pulse it in our food processor so it makes small, hard little balls of fat. These miniature chunks of butter, allow for these small pockets to be created, thus making the interior texture one that has lift, but is full of air pockets when broken open.
• Example 2: On the other hand, in the 15 minute Cream Biscuits, all the fat comes from the thick cream added to the dough, binding all the dry ingredients together. Because there aren't any "pockets" the gases are released throughout the dough, making the interior still biscuit-y but with holes that are super, super tiny and evenly spread, almost like quick breads such as muffins or banana breads. Their lack of other ingredients doesn't make them taste like that, instead they're silky smooth and waiting to mop up the tail end of the soup left in your dinner bowl.
• Example 3: For biscuits that have tender flaky layers that can be peeled apart, piece by piece, the fats are cold lards, shortenings and butters. They are folded and rolled to create lift and layers. Instead of having small pieces or chunks to create holes, by rolling and pressing the dough (like you would make a puff pastry) you create long thin sheets of fat between the rest of your dry ingredients. As they melt away and the leavening happens in their place, flaky layers magically appear.
The same rules apply in baked goods across the board. Think about your favorite brownie recipe? Many call for melted butter, allowing for an even lift with smaller holes making for a dense, fudgy end result. Though cakes and cupcakes use a whipped butter to create more lift, adding in extra air to bulk up the fat, so upon melting the holes are larger in size.
Baking doesn't have to be a mystery with the help of a little science! Even after trying a recipe that left you feeling a little flat, hopefully you'll be able to use these tips on leavening and fat application to make it again next time with superstar results!
• Related: Baking Soda and Baking Powder: Why Use Both?
(Image: Sarah Rae Trover)