Thursday, April 2, 2009


Every two years I reread my favorite book, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. There are hundreds of passages in the book I eagerly anticipate. One moment occurs early in the book when McMurtry describes Augustus McCrae's breakfast routine:
The heart of his breakfast was a plenitude of sourdough biscuits, which he cooked in a Dutch oven out in the backyard. His pot dough had been perking along happily for over ten years, and the first thing he did upon rising was check it out. The rest of the breakfast was secondary, just a matter of whacking off a few slabs of bacon and frying a panful of pullet eggs. Bolivar could generally be trusted to deal with the coffee.

Augustus cooked his biscuits outside for three reasons. One was because the house was sure to heat up well enough anyway during the day, so there was no point in building any more of a fire than was necessary for bacon and eggs. Two was because biscuits cooked in a Dutch over tasted better than stove-cooked biscuits, and three was because he liked to be outside to catch the first light. A man that depended on an indoor cookstove would miss the sunrise, and if he missed sunrise in Lonesome Dove, he would have to wait out a long stretch of heat and dust before he got to see anything so pretty.
I love this passage. I aspire to bake biscuits in a Dutch oven over an open fire, just like Gus, but since I struggle to successfully bake biscuits indoors, I don't see myself baking biscuits as the sun rises over my shoulder any time soon. I tend to overwork the dough or I add too much flour. I've decided that the key to making great biscuits is experience, something I don't have. I need to bake a few hundred batches of biscuit to acquire the intuitive nature to know when all the variables are prime for perfect biscuits.

Recently I made a biscuit topping for a Guinness Beef Pot Pie, and I learned a few keys to making good biscuits:
  1. Using a little cake flour with all-purpose flour produces a lighter fluffier biscuit. Cake flour is ground finer and contains less protein, which results in a lighter texture. As you well know, Southerners tend to bake the best biscuits, and part of this is due to the flour they use. Southern flour, like White Lily, is milled from a softer variety of wheat and is similar to cake flour.
  2. Using a food processor helped me avoid overworking the dough. I know this is cheating, but I'm OK using this crutch until I gain more confidence.
  3. Somewhere I read that when cutting biscuits a baker shouldn't twist the cutter. Doing this will affect the rise of the biscuit. It's best to press straight down and stamp them out.
I know there are a lot of biscuit recipes out there, and I plan on trying more recipes until I find the perfect one for me. For now, I'll share the recipe that helped me take that first step to being the next Augustus McCrae of biscuit making:


  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cake flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes.
  • 3/4 cup cold buttermilk, plus 1 to 2 tablespoons if needed
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Pulse all of the dry ingredients in a food processor until well mixed. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. This will take about 10 pulses.
  3. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowls and add the buttermilk. Stir with a fork until the dough gathers into moist clumps. If it doesn't clump add a bit of buttermilk, until it comes together.
  4. Transfer dough to a floured work surface and form into a rough ball. Using a rolling pin, gently roll the dough out to 1/2-inch thickness. Using a 3-inch biscuit cutter and stamp out 8-12 rounds of dough.
  5. Place the biscuits on a cookie sheet and bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.


rebel said...

You're right, it just takes practice. Your's look great.

Nella said...

Those biscuits are beautiful. If they taste half as good as they've got it.