Bread is mostly flour mixed with a liquid. However, because of the complex chemistry of the starches and gluten in the flour, small changes in handling techniques and additional ingredients can make a big difference in the texture of the final product. A few weeks ago I posted my updated recipe for light and flaky biscuits. I had been making these biscuits for years, so throwing them together was second nature. However, when I tried to make these biscuits as I had written the recipe they came out tough and dense.
In the recipes on my blog, I try to go into detailed step by step directions on making any particular dish. Partly this is from my struggle to decipher the condensed instructions on my mother’s 3 x 5 recipe cards. The other influence is my instructional design training that makes me need to break any task down into discrete steps.
There are three ways that I write up my recipes. The first is that, I will spend the week researching a dish and writing up how I think I will make it. As I make the dish I will take notes on the printed recipe as I make changes in the creative moment.
The second way is that, I will go into the kitchen and spontaneously throw some things together to make a dish. Soon after, I write down what I did from memory. Preferably I will do this right after the meal, but occasionally it will be within a day or two.
The final way is that, starting from a written recipe I will try to capture the cooking process in exact detail, step by step. It takes a lot of focus to pay complete attention to not only, “What am I doing?” but “Exactly how am I doing it?” I had thought I had done this with my biscuit recipe, but when I tried to follow my own recipe—for Andouille biscuits and gravy—the biscuits came out heavy and dense.
Now let me say that, these were not “bad” biscuits—they were the texture of a good sandwich bread—but they were definitely not light and flakey. What did I do wrong? What was I doing on mental-autopilot that I was not doing when I thought I was focusing on each steps of the task. Of course, the opposite could also be true, what was I doing when I was over-thinking the tasks, that I did not do on the fly?
One key is in the kneading. As you knead the dough you are mixing the ingredients around and forcing the enzymes glutenin and gliadin in the flour into contact. When these proteins combine they form gluten—a stretchy protein. As you continue to knead you force the strands of gluten together and they stick to each other to make a mesh.
The more you knead, the stronger the gluten net becomes until it form a strong sheet. This is important for yeasted breads, because the gluten sheets will capture the gasses released by the yeast and make your bread rise. For a light biscuit you actually want to inhibit this process—too much gluten makes a tough biscuit.
It is a careful balance between kneading the dough enough to form enough gluten to give your biscuit some structure, but not so much that the chemical leaveners—which produce less gas then yeast—cannot push to strands of protein apart enough to form a light biscuit.
As I made a new batch of biscuits, I noticed that I did not knead the dough as much as I wrote down in the recipe—only 7-8 kneads, not 10-15. I also noticed that I did not really let the dough rest after kneading. On autopilot I went straight to rolling the dough out to double letter-fold it. Both of these differences meant that less gluten was formed as I worked the dough.
This week I made some dinner rolls and the recipe I was adapting used potato flour—usually sold as potato starch. This starch does not contain glutenin and gliadin—which are only found in some grass seed flours. This flour acts as a barrier and prevents some of the enzymes from forming gluten. The less gluten the more tender the biscuit.
Note: I have edited the direction in the first posting to include these changes.
Karl’s Biscuits II
2½ cups flour, AP
2 Tbs. potato flour (starch)
1 Tbs. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
2+ Tbs. Karl’s Orange Infused Sugar, separate uses
6 Tbs. unsalted butter, semi-frozen
1 large egg
1+ cup whole milk, separate uses (I use lactose free)
Other things needed (order of use)
Large mixing bowl (I use a heavy Pyrex bowl 12 inches wide and four deep)
Pastry board, marble (optional)
Rolling pin (I use an 8” Chinese jiaozi roller)
2 inch round Biscuit cutter
10×14 inch lipped baking sheet
Note: About 15 minutes before you are ready to start baking, pre-heat your oven to 400º F.
1. Put a stick of butter (8 tablespoons) in the freezer for 20-30 minutes, until it is semi-frozen.
Tip: Putting a whole stick of butter in the freezer gives me a handle to keep my fingers away from the grater blades as I shave off six tablespoons.
Note: You do not want the butter to be frozen solid, because it then becomes hard to grate.
2. Sift the flour, potato starch, baking powder, salt, and sugar several times into a large bowl.
Tip: Repeated sifting helps distribute the ingredients evenly through the mix.
Note: If you have not blended your sugar to break up the bits of zest, you may need to add the sugar after sifting, as the zest will get caught in the flour sifter.
3. Using a box grater, grate ¾ of the stick of frozen butter into the flour mixture.
Tip: Half way through, stir the butter shreds into the flour, so that they do not clump together.
4. Use a pastry cutter, to break the butter shreds into tiny bits.
Tip: Many recipes have you cut the butter into large lumps and then you break them up with the pastry cutter. While this eventually works, the heat created by the repeated chopping starts to warm the butter. With the frozen butter shreds you only have to chop the butter a few times to get a thorough mix.
5. Preheat the oven to 400º F.
Note: I used to bake these biscuits at 425º F, but I found that the tops over-browned before the center was cooked through. Lower and slower works for me.
6. Put the egg in a large measuring cup and lightly scramble it.
Tip: I use a fork.
7. Measure one cup of milk and add some of it to the egg.
8. Scramble the milk/egg mixture well.
Tip: This allows you to scramble the egg well, without splashing it all over.
9. Add the rest of the milk and mix it in.
10. Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the milk mixture.
Tip: I have found that it is easier to add more flour to dry out a “wet” dough than to add liquid to a “overly dry” dough.
Note: Keep the measuring cup close to hand. You will add some more milk to it to brush on to the tops of the biscuits.
11. Use a spatula to combine the milk and flour mixtures, until most of the dry flour has been incorporated into the dough.
Tip: Unless you have cold hands—like my wife—you want to handle the dough as little as possible. Warm hands—like mine—will melt the butter.
12. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead 7-8 times, until there is no visible dry flour.
Tip: Flour your hands and the kneading board well.
Note: If necessary, add a bit more flour to make a soft dough.
13. Form the dough into a ball and roll the dough out into a 14 X 14 inch square.
Tip: Flour your rolling pin well, so that it does not stick and cause tears in the dough sheet.
Note: The dough sheet will be less than ¼ inch thick when you have it all rolled out.
14. Starting at the edge closest to you, fold one third of the dough sheet over the middle third.
Tip: You may need to use a bread board scraper to free the dough from your kneading surface.
Note: This is called a letter-fold.
15. Take the edge that is farthest from you and fold that third over the first two layers.
Note: You will now have a rectangular piece of dough, three layers thick.
16. Letter-fold the outer edges of this rectangle in to the center.
Note: This will produce a thick five inch square of dough nine layers thick.
17. Let the dough rest for two minutes.
Tip: This gives the gluten bonds time to relax and makes it easier to roll out again.
18. While the dough is resting, line a large lipped baking sheet with parchment paper.
Tip: I used to grease my baking sheets, but the biscuits tended to stick and burn. The parchment paper needs no grease.
19. Re-flour your board and turn the square over,
Tip: So that the open fold is on the bottom. As I roll out the dough, I add flour and flip the dough as I am rolling to evenly roll out the dough.
20. Roll the dough square into another 14 x 14 inch square.
Note: Within each layer of dough, the cold butter will be squished into thin flakes, trapped in a gluten web.
21. Letter-fold the dough sheet again.
Tip: First the top and bottom edges and then the sides.
Note: You will now have a five inch square of dough with 91 layers.
22. Roll the dough out to one half inch thick.
Tip: Turn the square over, so that the open fold in on the bottom.
Note: This will be about an nine inch square of dough.
23. Cut the biscuits out with a 2¾ inch biscuit cutter.
Tip: I get about seven biscuits from this first cut.
24. Place the biscuits on the baking sheet about an inch apart.
25. Gather up the remaining scraps and form them, into dough ball.
26. Role flat again and cut out 2-3 more biscuits.
Tip: I roll out this dough ball and letter fold it to create more layers.
Note: At the end of this process I am usually left with about a biscuits worth of dough that it is hard to cut into an even biscuit. I like cinnamon rolls but the wife will not let me make them as being too tempting. I turn this last bit of dough into a cinnamon bun. I roll it into a round and place a pat of butter, a tablespoon of sugar, and a good sprinkling of cinnamon in the center. pinching in the edges, I seal the filling into the bun. If you wish you may roll out all of the biscuits and make them into cinnamon buns.
27. Brush the tops of the biscuits with milk.
Tip: Use the original measuring cup and the pastry brush.
28. Sprinkle half a teaspoon of orange sugar over the top of each biscuit.
29. Bake the biscuits at 400° F, on the middle rack, for 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Tip: Rotate the baking sheet after 10 minutes.
30. Transfer the biscuits to a wire rack for 5 minutes to cool.
31. Serve warm with butter and jam/marmalade.