Buttermilk Biscuits: demonstrating a classic

Now, since this week deviated from my usual format of culinary history post, I thought my baking posts would deviate as well, so no signature take on scones this week. Instead, I’m going to share my absolute go-to recipe for buttermilk biscuits.

Quick funny story about this recipe: my first year in New Zealand, I became friends with a group of American expats who decided to celebrate a seasonally appropriate Thanksgiving, which for us southern hemisphere dwellers means late May. I was working pretty crazy hours at a restaurant, so I apologized for not being able to do more of the heavy lifting, but I promised the organizer I would bring a brussel sprout salad and some buttermilk biscuits – easy to prep ahead and finish at the last minute.

In our little expat group was a woman from North Carolina which, despite its name, is considered the South in the U.S. Her eyes lit up when I unwrapped the basket of biscuits. After tasting them, she declared them to be just like the ones from her favorite restaurant back home and, naturally, wanted to share that part of her childhood with her two year old daughter who was toddling around. Coaxing the little girl over with the words “do you want to try a biscuit?”, the girl eagerly reached out her hand, took a bite, and then her face immediately crumpled into a grimace and she threw the remaining biscuit to the ground. My friend was mortified but I started laughing because I realized that this little Amerikiwi – who had been born and raised in New Zealand – was expecting a sweet, crunchy cookie and had gotten something very different. What a nasty trick we’d played by accident!

Anyway, this has been my go-to recipe anytime I’m living outside the U.S. (because when I’m in the U.S., I just find a local diner) and the ingredients are usually pretty accessible wherever you live.

First, you need buttermilk. If you can’t find buttermilk, I have “made” a decent substitute by heating the same amount of milk called for in the recipe to about 20C (68F), then stirring in either a tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice, or a teaspoon of citric acid. Let it sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes to fully curdle the milk before using. You’ll also need sour cream – if you can’t find this, I would recommend kefir or unsweetened yogurt with a teaspoon or two of water mixed in to loosen it up. These make up your wets.

Otherwise, it’s a basic quick bread recipe – mixing your dries together first, rubbing in the butter, then adding the wets and bringing it all together into a solid lump.

Now, however, to get those flaky layers we want, this recipe calls for a series of folds to be carried out twice, before the final roll out. 

Then into a hot oven for a quick bake – should take no more than 15 minutes! 

Here’s the recipe!

Preheat your oven to 220C (425F). 

In a small bowl, stir together the buttermilk and sour cream.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and mix well. 

Chop up the butter and toss in the flour, then rub in until the mixture has the texture of coarse meal.

Make a well in the dries and add the wets, stirring with a fork to bring everything together into a mass of dough. Tip out onto a well-floured counter.

With a rolling pin, roll the dough out into a square, approximately 30cm x 30cm (12in x 12in). Fold the right third over the middle third, then the left third over those two. Then fold the top third of the remaining rectangle over the middle third, and bring the bottom third up. You should now have a thick square. Squash this down with a rolling pin, roll out to 30x30cm (12x12in) again, and repeat the folding. Then roll the dough out to your desired thickness – 15cmx15cm should give you the best thickness, but as I was going to be serving these alongside all my scones, I wanted to make them a similar height, so I rolled them out quite thinly but, really, you could leave them about 2-3cm thick (about 1 inch) for the most authentic results.

Then either cut them in squares (no re-rolling!) or into rounds. Transfer them to either a baking tray or cast iron skillet, brush the tops with melted butter, and slide into the oven for about 12-15 minutes, making sure to rotate the baking tray or pan halfway through. 

Let them cool for about 5 minutes before serving with honey butter, molasses, plain butter, under gravy, or whatever you want. 

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