Biscuits are one of those classic southern staples that every good southern cook has in their recipe box. Each chef has his or her own recipe that has been passed down for generations and each will fight tooth and nail on what are acceptable and what are NOT acceptable ingredients. For example, this recipe includes cheese, an unacceptable ingredient to some. These biscuits can be made without cheese, but I prefer the added flavor, especially if eating them with a savory meal at dinner. I even sometimes add garlic! When I make my sausage gravy and biscuits, I omit the cheese and the biscuits turn out just as fluffy and moist, which are the only important characteristics of a southern biscuit. There is one truth to all homemade biscuits-- they are always better than store bought. Most people have the ingredients already in their pantry, so why settle for that preservative-filled dough? Don't be intimidated by all my tips; they are super easy. It's all about technique, not ingredients, and you will see that if you follow my instructions below!
First things first: biscuits rise and take on the fluffy texture they are known for due to the flour and leavener mixture. A lot of southern biscuit recipes require self-rising flour, which uses baking soda as a leavener. I personally am not a fan of the tangy flavor that the baking soda adds to my biscuit. I prefer to add my own leavening agent, in this case baking powder. I add it directly to the flour with the salt and sugar. I will talk more about leavening agents when we get to the liquid addition below.
Notes on Butter: I keep my butter in the freezer for 15-30 minutes before using so it is extra firm. When you add the butter to the flour you are going to "cut" the butter into dry flour. To cut means to crumble the butter into the flour so it is evenly spread while staying cold. The colder the butter, the better the biscuit.
Cutting is something that you either have to use a pastry “cutter” for or you have to do by hand. Some people use a grater or food processor as well. I was always taught, and therefore prefer, to use my fingers, which enables me to easily judge the final texture. The butter melts fast so if using your hands you will need to work quickly. You want the butter as cold as possible to produce the flakiest biscuits. Take a cube of butter coated in flour and begin to “smoosh” between your fingers until it breaks up into smaller pieces. Continue to pick up pieces of butter and crumble them in your fingers until the flour and butter mixture is coarse like oatmeal and the largest chunk of butter is smaller than a dime. When the texture is where you need it you are going to add in the cheese.
At this point you will use the same technique you did on the butter with the cheese. "Cut" cheese into the flour/butter mixture until the final product is coarse like oatmeal.
Your mixture is now ready for the liquid.
Notes On Liquid:
This is the most important step and is what affects your biscuits the most. Leaveners, such as the baking powder in this recipe, are triggered to release carbon dioxide when moistened. The air bubbles that have been mixed into your dough are expanded by this carbon dioxide and become trapped due to the gluten structure in the flour. When heated in the oven, the double-acting baking powder releases a second wave of gasses that further expand the already present air bubbles, creating the rise in your biscuit. When adding the milk, if you mix the dough too hard or for too long, you will press out the air and decrease the amount of bubbles that are trapped and expanded, resulting in flat, tough biscuits. When you add the milk you want to very gently fold it into the dough, just until all flour is moistened. The easiest way to do this is to create a well in the center of the flour bowl where you are going to pour the milk. This simplifies the folding process, allowing you to easily drag the sides of flour into the milk well.
Cutting and Baking The Biscuits: When you are finished mixing, you will turn the dough out onto a floured surface and lightly press into a flattened rectangle two inches thick. You can either use your fingers or a rolling pin. Again, be gentle with the dough. The more you work it, the flatter your biscuits will become. If needed, flour can be sprinkled on the top of dough if too sticky. Make sure to flour the cutter before pressing into dough so the biscuit will easily lift out onto the pan. For these, I used my great-grandmother's old biscuit cutter. She was the queen of the southern biscuit. You can use whatever round thing you happen to have lying around--a cookie cutter, a cup, the top 2 inches of a soup can, I have used it all.
There is one small step before placing cut biscuits into oven. Since I used my fingers to mix, the butter has been warmed to a higher temperature than preferred due to the heat in my hand. To make sure everything is nice and cold, I set the pan of cut biscuits in the refrigerator for 10 minutes before placing in a hot oven. If the butter and milk are extremely cold when they are put into the heat of the oven, it will take them longer to melt. This gives the carbon dioxide in the baking powder a little more room to react, expanding and tenderizing the glutens in the flour. The result is the most tender, delicious biscuits you will ever try, no more store bought!