My memories of making biscuits by my grandmother’s side are purely sensory – the feel (and taste) of the raw dough, the magic of watching them rise in the oven, and the smell of the fresh biscuit as it was heading towards my mouth. She would patiently coach me on the rolling technique and scold me when I’d eat too much raw biscuit dough (even though she would sneak a little too).
The recipe was recorded in her hands, which knew exactly how much flour to start with, exactly how crumbly the mixture should look when the fat was added, and exactly how much buttermilk was needed to achieve perfectly tender dough that was easy to roll and would rise just right. My many attempts over the years would inevitably meet one mark but fall short on the others. The dough would feel right but wouldn’t rise. The smell wafting out of the oven would be just right but the texture would be off. And sometimes everything was just plain wrong. So after eschewing grains almost completely, I totally forgot about my seemingly impossible quest…
…until I found myself with too much leftover ham.
You see, the ham biscuit is one of those combinations that far surpasses the sum of its parts – and when your parts are delicious Christmas ham and homemade biscuits, the end result is nothing short of miraculous. So, armed with renewed determination, I gave the humble yet cosmic biscuit game one last chance. My nourishing pantry no longer includes ingredients like Crisco and store-bought buttermilk, so I crossed my fingers and substituted coconut oil and kefir. I cheated on the flour a bit and just used King Arthur’s white whole wheat.
Please note that you will not get amazing biscuits if you use straight whole wheat flour. But you can inch closer to whole grain perfection by substituting whole wheat pastry flour for half of the more “refined” flour. Experimenting with spelt/kamut would be interesting too. I am no gluten free expert, but if you are I encourage you to give these a shot – and share your flour blend secret!
I am working on finding a source/method for sprouted flour, which one day I hope to use in this recipe. Soaking the flour is possible, although tricky – you would have to add the baking powder the next day, which would involve a bit of heavy handed dough handling to ensure proper incorporation. My plan is to experiment with this, but until then sprouted flour is your best bet for maximum nutrition.
The trick a tender, flaky end result is that the structure should be as delicate as possible (hence all of this flour talk). If start out with flour that is too heavy for the baking powder or you overwork the dough, you will end up with some hybrid cookie/hockey puck. No good. So lay off the hippie flour in favor of a compromise 😉
Then all you need is good fat. Crisco was my grandmother’s choice (but she was a victim of the times). Her mother most certainly used rendered leaf lard for her biscuits, as did her mother’s mother and so on. I have access to leaf lard at the grocery store, but I am not sure of its origin so I don’t use it often. Instead, my go to “shortening” is coconut oil. So far, it has passed every test – and here it exceeded expectations. If you live in an area where coconut oil is liquid at room temperature, stick it in the fridge to solidify before using here – and send me a plane ticket so I can come visit your tropical paradise.
With all of the nourishing food makeover stuff out of the way, the only secret left to tell you is to handle the dough as little as possible. You must use your hands to mix in the buttermilk, pulling flour from the sides of the bowl into the well of liquid in the middle like you are just doing it for fun and don’t care if the mixture comes together at all. Once almost all of the flour is incorporated, I like to add just a bit of extra buttermilk (or water) if necessary to get the last bit of flour incorporated. Then it’s a matter of massaging it on a floured surface just a few times to create a smooth and easily rollable dough. Kneading would be too rough and tumble for these refined Southern belles.
Why did I just take seven hundred words to describe what I will now tell you is one of the easiest bread products you can make? Because any old biscuit will be edible, but a sensationally simple biscuit represents the expert touch of generations of cooks who needed something reliable, cheap, nutritious, and delicious to feed their families. For those generations of experience, seven hundred words seems short.
Inspired by a time-tested recipe but restored to its original glory with whole food ingredients. Only something so simple could be so amazing.
Makes 1 dozen (or a baker’s dozen if you’re lucky)
- 3 c flour I used white whole wheat, a mix of that and whole wheat pastry flour could work
- 4 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 3/4 cup rendered lard or coconut oil
- 1 cup buttermilk or kefir
- Preheat the oven to 475 F and lightly grease a cookie sheet with a bit of fat.
- In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt together. Using your fingers, incorporate the lard until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Make a well in the center. Add buttermilk and mix with your hands just until the ingredients are just combined. Add a teeny bit of buttermilk or cold water if you can’t incorporate all of the flour. Then turn out onto a floured surface and knead a few times so the dough is fully incorporated. Do not overwork the dough unless you need a dozen extra hockey pucks!
- Roll the dough out to about 1/2 inch thick. Using whatever’s handy (glass/mason jar/biscuit cutter/?), cut as many biscuits out as you can and place them on the cookie sheet. If you have leftover dough, re-roll it to make more biscuits. Bake for 8 – 10 minutes until the tops are golden and the biscuits sound hollow when you tap the bottoms. Serve right away for maximum warm delicious flakiness.