A fresh, warm biscuit instantly doubles the coziness quotient of practically anything you serve it with: chicken stew, vegetable soup, fried eggs, or—my favorite accompaniment—another fresh, warm biscuit. But mastering the traditional biscuit-making technique takes some practice.
First, you combine flour with salt, baking powder, and maybe a bit of sugar (a highly contentious addition—more about that later) and then toss in cubes of cold butter, which you crumble and flatten until precisely the right amount of tiny butter flakes are strewn evenly throughout the flour. Next, you stir in cold milk or buttermilk—masters of the art emphasize that everything must remain frigid—until the mixture forms a shaggy dough. Finally, you transfer the mass of dough to the counter, gently roll or pat it out, and cut out rounds with a sharp biscuit cutter before transferring them to the oven and baking them for about 15 minutes.
It's not difficult, but there are rules that must be followed, and all that mashing of the butter and rolling and cutting can get messy. Happily, there are shortcuts.
Want to skip cutting in the butter? Make cream biscuits: Replace both the butter and the milk with heavy cream. Thanks to the cream's generous butterfat content, the biscuits will be plenty rich and tender. This formula makes a pretty stiff dough, so you'll still have to roll and cut.
Want to skip rolling and cutting? Make drop biscuits: Start by cutting the butter into the dry ingredients in the traditional way, but add extra buttermilk or milk so that the dough has a wetter consistency. Simply drop scoops of the soft dough onto the baking sheet and bake.
Cream biscuits tend to be more uniform and have a subtly layered structure, while drop biscuits are more craggy, with a beautifully tender, cake-like crumb. Why couldn't I have the benefits of both styles and make a dropped cream biscuit, aka “dream biscuit”? As that nickname suggests, it would be the easiest biscuit ever.
I wondered if things could be as simple as adding more cream to a cream biscuit dough until it was loose enough to drop.
I whisked together 3 cups of all-purpose flour, a tablespoon of baking powder, and a teaspoon of salt and then experimented with adding enough cream to make a scoopable dough, which turned out to be 3 cups—¾ cup more than the usual amount called for. I then deposited scoops of the dough on a parchment-lined baking sheet and baked them in a 400-degree oven.
Sounds so easy that it makes you wonder why cookbooks aren't bursting with dropped-cream-biscuit recipes, right? Here's why: It didn't work. The dough mounds spread as they baked and came out looking like bland, lumpy cookies. They had a pleasantly milky flavor, a tender crumb, and a crisp exterior, but they left thick, greasy spots on the parchment and a slick on my fingers.
Clearly, the additional moisture and fat from the extra cream were the source of these problems. But I couldn't reduce the amount of cream—that would bring me right back where I'd started, with a dough that was too dry to drop. Maybe I was asking for the impossible: a dough that was moist and scoopable before baking but that acted like a drier, less fatty dough in the oven, rising instead of spreading out. And I was expecting that a single ingredient, cream, would perform this miracle.
That was when I had a revelation. Cream isn't a single ingredient, it's two: water (with a little protein and sugar mixed in) and solid fat. The fat particles in cream are so minute that we don't perceive them as solid, and they were stowing away in the cream only to melt in the heat of the oven, making the biscuits greasy and, in combination with the water in the cream, causing them to spread.
A new thunderbolt struck: What if I melted the fat by warming the cream before I mixed it into the dough? That sound you just heard was the collective gasp of generations of horrified Southern bakers, but hear me out: Maybe heating the cream would increase its fluidity enough to enable me to make a scoopable dough with less of it. If so, that could potentially fix both the spreading and the greasiness.
My first attempt failed pretty spectacularly. I heated 2 cups of cream to 160 degrees, and as I stirred it into the dry ingredients, its heat and moisture activated the baking powder, causing the dough to expand so boisterously that it defied my frantic attempts to shovel it into the ⅓-cup measuring cup. By the time the dough mounds went into the oven, the baking powder was spent, so the biscuits didn't rise. But they didn't spread either, and they weren't objectionably fatty.
A bit of research revealed that the fat in cream liquefies at between 90 and 95 degrees and the acids in baking powder are activated at about 140 degrees. Maybe all I had to do was make sure the cream was above 95 but below 140.
I cautiously heated the cream only to body temperature and then stirred it into the dry ingredients. The dough came together easily, neither too dry nor too wet, and with no riotous inflation. I scooped and I baked. And I prevailed. Mostly.
These biscuits held their shape beautifully; were fluffy, not flat; and were pleasantly rich without being greasy. Their flavor, however, was a bit bland. Having already flouted the most sacred law of biscuit making by introducing a warm ingredient, I took a firm stand on the side of sugar and added a little to the dry ingredients. I also added a bit of baking soda, not for lift but for its slightly mineral-y tang.
You can serve biscuits with almost anything, and with a recipe this quick and easy, why wouldn't you?