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Biscuits hold a special, fluffy, buttery place in Alton Brown’s heart. His grandmother made the best biscuits every day for more than 50 years, and re-creating those legendary biscuits took him 10 years of science projects, oven temperature readings and failed attempts.
So it’s only fitting that he kicked off this weekend’s International Biscuit Festival in Knoxville, Tenn., with a talk on all things biscuit, including how he finally cracked the recipe and what you should and shouldn’t (read: yogurt) mix into your biscuit dough.
“Biscuits aren’t food, they’re currency for the soul,” Alton says. That’s because they’re all about tradition. After trying literally everything — including mimicking the barometric pressure and humidity of his grandmother’s mountain home in his Atlanta-area residence — to re-create the family biscuits, Alton finally learned that a difference in technique was ruining batch after batch. His grandmother kneaded with her fingers straight, while he kneaded with bent hands. For this reason, he says, “You can only learn biscuits from a direct transfer of one to another.” (Watch Alton make biscuits with his grandmother.)
No biscuit-savvy grandmother in the family? Continue reading for some of Alton’s tips to baking better biscuits.
Flour: “Use soft winter wheat and you want it bleached. Self-rising flour is fine, too. Also, sift the flour to give your biscuits more loft. Alternatively, whiz it in the food processor for about a minute to add air.”
Fats: “Lard produces a flaky biscuit, but it’s hard to find good-quality product and the melting point can be unpredictable. Butter melts at 85 degrees F, so it’s too low to make a good biscuit, but you can add a little for flavor. Shortening has a higher melting point (117 degrees F), making it the ideal fat for biscuits.”
Buttermilk: “It’s essential. To get taller biscuits, make a wetter dough. The biggest mistake most cooks make is making the dough too dry; it should be so sticky you can barely handle it.”
Leavening: “Follow the recipe. Adding more leavening won’t lead to taller biscuits. You need both baking soda to react with the acid (buttermilk) and baking powder to create the right amount of lift.”
What’s your family’s secret to great biscuits? Tell us in the comments below.