Years ago, I developed a mild obsession with buttermilk biscuits—not eating them, but baking them. I was charmed by stories of Southern cooks who baked biscuits from memory rather than from recipes, their experienced hands knowing just when the butter was cut to the right-size to produce the proper flake and how much buttermilk would bring the dough together, down to the last drop. After reading about Edna Lewis, I decided that I, too, wanted to bake the most tender, lofty, light-as-air biscuits from scratch.
I researched dozens of cookbooks, trying my hand at countless recipes and techniques, always aiming for the celebrated light touch. I'd learned that a heavy hand was considered the enemy of a light biscuit, sure to produce something heavy and tough. (Interesting side note: A cookbook author once told me that it's less about the light touch, but instead the temperature of the baker's hands, that makes the best biscuits. Warm hands cause the butter to melt, upsetting the delicate balance and taking the biscuit from light to leaden in no time.)
I experimented with different types of flour; one that kept coming up in my biscuit research was "self-rising," so I made sure to stock it. Whenever I visited my husband's family in Tennessee, I made a point of bringing back a few bags of White Lily self-rising flour, long a staple of Southern kitchens. I baked lots of biscuits and "tea cakes" (sugar cookies) with White Lily, and, in my memory, they were distinctly delicious. But despite all my research, I never thought much about what went into self-rising flour.
What Is Self-Rising Flour?
Turns out that self-rising flour is simply all-purpose flour mixed with baking powder and salt. It was developed in England in the 1840s by Henry Jones, an inventor who hoped to market it to the British navy as a way to improve the quality of their baked goods. (Until then, sailors subsisted largely on "hard tack," a simple, long-lasting cracker which is about as appealing as it sounds.) Jones eventually patented the mixture in the United States as well, ushering in the era of boxed cake mixes, Bisquick, and the like.
How to Make Self-Rising Flour
Present-day commercial blends may include slightly different proportions, but the general ratio for self-rising flour (and one you can make at home) is 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon fine salt to 1 cup all-purpose flour.
These days, I have far less time for obsessive culinary research, and less room on my kitchen shelves for single-use ingredients. (I'm also more apt to stock so-called "alt flours" now, often swapping in buckwheat or spelt flour for up to half the all-purpose in cookie or scone recipes.) Over the years, I've come to rely on one quick and simple recipe when the urge strikes to bake biscuits for my kids on any given morning. My go-to, which uses all-purpose flour is this recipe for Quick Buttermilk Biscuits.
A Side-by-Side Comparison
Thinking back on those earlier baking experiments, I wonder whether having a bag of self-rising flour on hand was really worth the shelf space. The other day, I decided to test it out. I found a very simple biscuit formula: 2 cups self-rising flour, ½ stick of unsalted butter, and 2/3 cup buttermilk. My local grocery had Gold Medal flour in both forms—all-purpose and self-rising. I added baking soda and salt to the all-purpose flour in the ratio above, but kept everything else the same, cutting the butter into cubes and freezing it first, and taking care not too mix too much once the buttermilk was added.
The result? The biscuits baked with the packaged self-rising flour were ever so slightly higher. Oddly, they also browned a bit more slowly than the ones baked with all-purpose, so they looked more white than golden once they were baked through. My family didn't taste much difference between the two. They liked both equally well, whether sandwiched with butter and strawberry jam, or with scrambled eggs and cheese. (And they definitely liked them more than the things I bake with whole-grain flours added in, truth be told.)
Why Buy Self-Rising Flour?
One advantage to the self-rising flour was having fewer things to measure (though admittedly, only two). Maybe if I were renting a vacation house and bringing a bunch of ingredients along (a practice I put into place every summer), I might pack self-rising flour in a large zip-top bag, and write the recipe on the front of it with a marker, so that I only had to add butter and buttermilk. Or as a treat to my Southern-raised husband, I might buy a small bag of White Lily some time and surprise him with a memorable batch of biscuits. But in the meantime, I'll probably rely on making my own self-rising flour.