Paying attention to each step of the process leads to a perfect a biscuit. Photo: Jeff O’Heir
For Lisa Donovan, making biscuits is a special process, one that embraces the essence of home, tradition, and comfort. As if to dispel any doubt, she uses words like “lovely” to describe the raw dough or “magical” when marveling over a perfectly baked, crunchy exterior. “Beautiful” pops up quite a bit, too.
But “delicious” and “wow” were the words most frequently heard during a biscuit demonstration Donovan recently gave in New York City, during a stop in a series of biscuit-making classes she was giving at different cities across the country.
An acclaimed baker and freelance chef, Donovan had worked for several years as the pastry chef at the highly regarded Husk in her hometown of Nashville. She left the job last November to devote more time to her family and writing (check out her Buttermilk Road blog). A cookbook is in the wings.
One of Donovan’s most shared recipes is for biscuits. Not that much of a recipe is needed. Most recipes rooted in traditional southern cooking were verbally shared, opposed to written down. Constantly fluctuating humidity in the south can greatly affect the baking process, from measurements to oven temperatures to cooking times, Donovan said. Touch, smell, and intuition serve as better guides than set directions.
“Intuitive baking is easy to learn,” Donovan said. “Understanding your ingredients is huge. Learn the temperament of your ingredients. All ingredients have characteristics. If you know them, you’ll be fine.”
No electric mixer or rolling pin needed. Hand-mixing and gentle kneading gives you a better feel for the characteristics of the ingredients. Photo: Jeff O’Heir
When Donovan talks about the baking process, it’s as if she’s nurturing a baby into maturity. The gentle kneading of the dough and reverence toward the ingredients brings each step to life. “You have to pay attention to the process,” she said. “You have to be really involved in every step.”
Here are a few tips Donovan shared with the group while she made a fresh batch of biscuits:
- Use your hands, not an electric mixer, to gently combine the ingredients. Let the flour do its job of naturally absorbing the buttermilk. “Don’t feel you have to vigorously mix it,” she said. “If you work it too much, the gluten gets tight and you’ll end up with hockey pucks.” Gently knead the dough into the shape that will fit the pan. No rolling pin is needed.
- Most recipes suggest combining and mixing the ingredients until the dough takes on a “ragged” texture, meaning slightly dry and easy to pull apart. Donovan adds just a little extra buttermilk, until the dough feels slightly tacky. That creates a bit more steam during the cooking process and yields a moist interior.
- Keep the butter very cold. The chunks create pockets in the dough and result in a better rise and flakier texture. “The heat will shock the butter for a full, beautiful bloom,” she said.
- After you’ve perfected the basic biscuit, share what you’ve learned. “Biscuits are easy,” Donovan said. “The real trick is to be shown how to do it by someone who makes them real good.”
Watch Donovan in action. Video: Breville, YouTube
Black Pepper Buttermilk Biscuits by Lisa Donovan
I bake these biscuits in cast iron skillets with plenty of melted butter in the bottom. This provides a really lovely crisp bottom while still maintaining a fluffy buttermilk-y center.
3 cups King Arthur All Purpose Flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon coarse kosher sea salt
1+ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 ounces cold, cubed unsalted butter
1¼ cup cold buttermilk
Preheat oven to 450°F. Place cast-iron skillet in oven to get hot while it is preheating.
Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl. Chop butter in small and medium cubes, about 1½-inches, a rough chop is fine. Add 1 cup of the buttermilk and toss to let the flour absorb it. Add remaining buttermilk, discerning at this point whether you need more. Once evenly combined, turn out onto a floured surface and, with floured hands, pat down to a thickness you’d like for your biscuits. With a floured biscuit cutter, cut all biscuits, turning the dough only once. Once you have all them all cut, set them aside and put about 3 ounces of butter in hot cast-iron to melt. Once melted, place biscuits in pan and put directly in oven. Bake for 12-15 minutes until biscuits are done.
One biscuit is never enough
What’s your secret biscuit ingredient?