published Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Side Orders: The bane of making biscuits

What is it about making biscuits that can bring some cooks to their knees, covered in flour and resulting in nothing more than a doughy mess or biscuits hard as tack?

Biscuits are the bane of many cooks' existence simply because, after all the trials, they come out flat and hard and instead of light and fluffy like Grandma used to make. And because of today's busy lifestyles, they're becoming a lost culinary art form, says baking expert and White Lily spokeswoman Linda Carman.

Personally, I can make gorgeous cakes, pies and all sorts of confections, even good breads. But when it comes to biscuits, I'm a huge failure. What about you?

"Learning to cook or learning to make great biscuits is just that ... a learning process," says Phyllis McCraw Cabe, biscuit expert and owner of The Big Biscuit Barn in Rossville. "We didn't learn to walk the first time we stood up. All of us learn at different speeds. Biscuit making is in itself an art to me. So many things affect the final product."

There are two primary factors that ruins biscuits, Cabe says:

• Poor measuring of the flour -- that's the biggest mistake.

• Overworking the dough by adding more flour is mistake No. 2.

Now that you know the primary hazards of biscuit making, here are Cabe's guidelines that may change your luck:

• Use good flour (Cabe uses White Lily).

• Measure correctly.

• Handle the dough correctly. Don't overwork it.

• Proof the dough correctly. In layman's terms, let it rise in a warm place.

• Get the oven temperature right, usually starting at 450 degrees.

"Biscuit making is not brain surgery," she says. "Many people fear learning something new and hold themselves back from many of life's treasures because of that fear."

And to many of us, homemade biscuits are one of life's treasures. With just a little butter and honey, you have manna from heaven.

But you say you simply don't have the time or patience to make homemade biscuits? White Lily's Carman suggests trying your hand at making drop biscuits. They save time without sacrificing taste, she says.

"The beauty of drop biscuits is that they have a wonderfully crisp crust with a soft, classic biscuit texture on the inside," she says.

Drop biscuits are so named because the dough is soft enough to drop from a spoon onto the baking sheet. They need no kneading, rolling or cutting. Just mix, drop and bake.

Here is Carman's classic recipe for her drop biscuits, along with notes for adding ingredients to give them a new taste.

Drop Biscuits

2 cups self-rising flour

1/4 cup vegetable shortening

2/3 to 3/4 cup milk or buttermilk, plus additional as needed

Heat oven to 500 degrees. Spray baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.

Place flour in large bowl. Cut in shortening with pastry blender or 2 knives until crumbs are the size of peas.

Blend in just enough milk with a fork until dough leaves sides of bowl. If needed, add more milk to form soft dough. Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto baking sheet. Bake 8 to 12 minutes or until lightly browned. Makes 12 biscuits.

• Tip: Cooled biscuits can be frozen up to one month in plastic food storage bags. Reheat by placing in oven 5 to 10 minutes or microwave about 1 minute.

Blueberry biscuits: Add 1/3 cup sugar to the flour, cut in the shortening and gently stir in 1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries. Add milk and bake as directed.

Bacon-cheddar biscuits: Add 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper to the flour, cut in the shortening and stir in 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese and 1/2 cup chopped, cooked bacon. Add milk and bake as directed. Remove from oven and brush warm biscuits with 2 tablespoons melted butter.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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