Some weeks ago, thanks to cheap-as-hell flights bound for San Francisco, I found myself sitting at SPQR at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning. The $34, three-course pasta tasting available during brunch included squid ink mezze, parsnip ravioli with smoked honshimeji mushrooms, and red beet farroto, but what really impressed was the tall, sea salt-speckled biscuit. So after returning home, I fanned out my cookbooks, scoured the blogs and YouTube looking for simple, fool-proof recipes. Yet even my most reliable sources — Alton Brown, James Beard, The Joy of Cooking, Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything — let me down.
I picked up some basics in the early stages:
- Keep the butter and buttermilk icy cold.
- Don’t overwork the dough.
- Whisk the flour well to aerate it if you can’t sift
- Don’t twist the biscuit cutter. It will seal up the edges and prevent them from rising.
Still, as Blue Collar’s Danny Serfer pointed out, my biscuits looked (and tasted) like “little rocks.” At the behest of Food For Thought’s David Rosendorf I tried Andrew Carmellini’s biscuit recipe, which calls for folding and rerolling the dough seven times to produce the flaky layers I wanted. A few New Times staffers gobbled them up on a recent Thursday with a mixed bag of compliments and eye-rolling. Leftovers ended up in the garbage.
Cursing myself and wishing I had instead decided to perfect a squid-ink pasta recipe I sought the help of professional. South Miami’s Whisk Gourmet Food & Catering has long been loved for their lunchtime fried chicken and biscuits. Pastry chef Lorena Inostroza agreed to meet me at 6 a.m., two hours after the start of her day, to get things straight.
Before diving into the recipe it’s important to note that Whisk’s biscuits, and many others around town, are drop biscuits. The dough isn’t rolled out and cut. It’s mixed into a gloppy mass then dispensed onto a sheet pan with an ice cream scooper and baked.
If you’re going to attempt biscuits at home go with the drops. Why? Because they will prevent you, the overly ambitious home cook, from overworking your dough. Second is they’re quick to make, which is convenient and guarantees your biscuits along with the butter contained within to remain ice cold, allowing it to melt in the oven and billow into the savory, buttery little pockets you’re looking for.
Inostraza’s recipe calls for the following
- 240 grams of all purpose flour
- 3 ounces of high-fat butter (or bacon fat, as the restaurant uses)
- 1.5 cups of lowfat buttermilk
- 1 tablespoon of sugar
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 teaspoon of pepper
Before anything, pop your butter and buttermilk into the freezer for 15 minutes to help chill them further and start preheating your oven. Now is the first place where biscuits become unavoidably aggravating. Inostroza sets her oven to 400 degrees, but said home ovens would work best at 350 to 375. "You're going to have to play with it until you figure out what works best in your oven," she says.
Now, in order to get those buttery hideaways inside your biscuits you’re going to need some sizable chunks of fat. That means when you first cut it into the dry ingredients you can’t mash it down into pebbles as some recipes suggest. Squeeze the butter together with the flour until most of the pieces are about the size of a dime.
Did you measure out your buttermilk beforehand? Good job. You’re a master of mis-en-place. If you didn’t, pop your flour into the freezer and dole yourself out some of the dairy. Here, again, the biscuits become difficult. Inosotroza mixes the dough by feel, adding about a third a cup of buttermilk at a time until it become a gloppy mass, almost like a very thick batter or a well-mayoed tuna fish salad.
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Inostroza made three massive biscuits, though you can portion it out to as many as six. Pop in the oven for 10 minutes, then rotate to cook until golden for another 10 minutes.
Though this seems confusing and labor intensive, using drop biscuits drastically cuts down on the mess and time it takes to produce a single batch. That means you can practice it over and over until you get it right. Or, you can just go to Whisk and let them do the work.