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 biscuit 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.
I've been measuring my ingredients using a scale these days, so I've given that option here for the butter and flour.
Cold Butter and a Hot Oven
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 temperature 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 flaky 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.
How To Make Classic Buttermilk Biscuits
Makes 6 large or 8 medium biscuits
What You Need
(3 ounces) cold unsalted butter
unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
cold buttermilk, plus more for brushing
Measuring cups and spoons
Food processor or mixing bowl
Chef's knife or bench scraper
Freeze the butter and heat the oven. Cut the butter into small chunks and place in the freezer. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 425°F.
Blend the dry ingredients. Place the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Pulse until combined, 4 to 5 pulses. (Alternatively, whisk together in a medium bowl.)
Work in the butter. Remove the butter from the freezer and scatter it over the flour mixture. Pulse until the mixture is crumbly and the largest pieces of butter are no bigger than a pea, 6 to 8 pulses. (Alternatively, work the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter, fork, or finger tips.)
Add the buttermilk. Pour in the buttermilk and pulse until the mixture just comes together, 4 or 5 pulses. It should not be completely blended but look like gravel. (Alternatively, stir until the buttermilk is just barely incorporated and a rough mass is formed.)
Fold and shape the dough. Sprinkle a work surface with a little flour and transfer the dough onto it. Working quickly, gather the shaggy mass together, pressing it lightly to form a rectangle. Cut crosswise into 3 even sections. Stack each section on top of the other. Using the heel of your hand, quickly and firmly press the sections together. Repeat, cutting, stacking, and pressing together once more.
Roll and cut the dough. Roll the dough into a 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 for 12 minutes. Place the biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet. Brush the tops of the biscuits with a little buttermilk. Bake until puffed and golden-brown, about 12 minutes.
Cool. Remove from oven and place on wire rack to cool slightly. Serve fresh from the oven, if possible.
Using whole-wheat flour: You can replace 1/2 cup of the all-purpose flour with whole-wheat flour.
Sweet biscuits: For a sweet dough to use for shortcake and other desserts, add 2 tablespoons of sugar to the dry ingredients.
Buttermilk substitute: Out of buttermilk? Here's how to make quick substitute: How to Make Buttermilk from Plain Milk with Lemon Juice or Vinegar
Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.