So, here I am again. First, I must say thank you, truly, to all of you who left comments yesterday and helped me to feel like I am on the Right Track and that this blog is meeting the needs of some folks. Yay! So, here’ s the inspiration. First, I’m gonna tell you what to do (but nicely, so you don’t get Huffy), then how to do it and then why we do it that way. How fun is that? I guess that could take the form of a recipe, with what being the name of the dish and the ingredient list, how being the procedure and then why being a discussion of said procedure/s. ‘Cept I don’t want to start with a recipe, so I’m not going to. Let’s start with a mixing method that we haven’t discussed since Way Back When I Started, you know, back before I had Readers and Such: The Biscuit Method. Here’s what I had to say about it Long Ago. And now, here’s the rest of the story: This Method is also called the pastry method, because it’s basically the same method whether you’re making biscuits or pie crusts. So, here we go.
What? The Biscuit Method
Ingredients that are generally included:
- salt (duh)
Other ingredients that generally go into biscuits:
- sugar (maybe)
- chemical leavener
- dairy (cream, buttermilk, etc)
Other ingredients that generally go into pie crust:
- egg (maybe)
- sugar (maybe)
- a wee bit of liquid, usually ice water
How? Like This:
- Have all your ingredients Really Really Cold.
- Whisk dry ingredients together Really Really well. This means flour(s), salt, (sugar), any dry flavorings, such as spices.
- Cut up the cold fat into chunks about 1/2″-3/4″ (this is just a guideline. Kindly put the ruler down). Or, cut up the fat and then chill it.
- Toss the fat in with the dry ingredients.
- Cut or rub in the fat with your fingers or Another Implement.
- Once the fat is the size that you want it (more on that later), stop. Seems obvious, doesn’t it?
- Add in the liquid until you have the desired consistency. Stir minimally.
- And there you go.
Why? Well, since you asked…
This will go by numbers, so any discussion of Step 1 under “How” will be covered under “1” down here. Keen, huh?!
- Your ingredients need to be cold to keep the fat from melting. The beauty of biscuits and pie crust is that, your can manipulate the flakiness or tenderness of a product without changing the ingredients. If you rub all of your fat into your flour (which yields a very sticky and sad-looking dough), your dough will be very tender, but it won’t so much hold together. You’ll end up with shortbread, because you will have done some crazy creaming of fat and flour and mucked up your biscuits/pie crust. Keeping everything cold helps you from getting carried away in the later steps.
- You want your dry ingredients to be all evenly distributed with no lumps (baking soda and brown sugar are especially notorious for being clumpy). If not, you’ll have sections that are too salty (or not salty enough), too sweet (or not sweet enough), or with too much leavening (or not enough). You get the idea. Even distribution at the beginning makes for even mixing down the line. And that makes for a consistent end product. A secondary reason for whisking the dry ingredients is aeration. Yup, you will probably achieve the wee-est bit more rise if you’ve properly whisked your dry ingredients.
- Cutting the fat into even pieces has a lot to do with even distribution. It also has to do with the speed with which you can throw your biscuits or pie crust together. If you leave it in one lump, it will take a lot of manipulation, and if you are doing it by hand, it will also mean a lot of heat transfer from your 98.6F-ish hands to the fat that is Supposed To Be Chilled. Plus, it will take longer to bust it into wee pieces. So, do yourself a favor and pre-cut your fat before cutting it into the rest of the ingredients. You’ll be able to work more quickly and your fat will stay nice and cold. Everybody wins.
- No discussion here–just toss it in. I recommend an Underhand Toss.
- Cutting in and rubbing in sound so Mysterious, don’t they? I know that I always thought there was some magic involved. Here’s the deal: cutting/rubbing in of fat=making bigger pieces of fat into smaller pieces of fat. Seriously–that’s really all it means. If you cut it in, you’re most likely using forks, a pastry cutter or a couple of knives (although the knife thing takes Forever). If you’re rubbing in, you’re probably using your fingers. I prefer rubbing in, because I can literally feel the texture/consistency/temperature of the dough that I’m making. Of course, rubbing in means introducing your hot little fingers to all of the cold ingredients, so you have to work fast. If you’re new at this, I’d stick with a pastry blender or a couple of forks just to begin with, until you get a feel for it. Or, you can also Pay Attention to the temperature of your dough and throw it in the fridge for fifteen minutes or so if your fat starts getting greasy and soft-feeling. So far, this particular discussion is still about the how of cutting/rubbing in. But, I figure that the how is Vital, especially because it seems so mysterious. How to cut in
Press the pastry cutter or a pair of forks down through the fat and flour until you reach the bottom of the bowl. Twist, and bring it back up again. Repeat until the pieces of fat are of Appropriate Size: usually anywhere from lima-bean sized to pea-sized to meal-sized, depending on what you’re making. The twisting motion will help to rub some of the fat into the flour, giving you a certain amount of tenderness. Eventually, some flour/fat stuff will get all goobered up in the pastry cutter/fork tines. Just use your finger to swipe them back down into the bowl.How to rub in
First of all, let me just say that I know that heading sounds Very Rude. Ignore the giggling middle school student inside and focus. If you’re using your fingers to rub in, use both hands and take a Piece of Fat in each hand, pinching/rubbing between your thumb and forefinger (and maybe your middle finger, too) to break the piece into two. The rubbing action works some of the fat into the flour for tenderness while the pinching turns big pieces into small pieces, preserving some wee chunks of butter for flakiness.Now, on to the whys:
I’ve been talking about this mysterious tenderness/flakiness balance. Here’s the deal. The more you coat your flour with fat, the more tender the end product because you’re retarding gluten formation in the flour. The more you leave pieces of fat whole (visible as pebbly guys), the flakier. If you turn your flour/fat mixture into Pla-Doh, you’ve ended up more or less completely coating your flour with fat, so gluten production will be almost nil (see #1 under why). If you leave the flour mixture generally pretty sandy and, well, floury, you’re leaving enough naked, non-fat-coated flour to allow some gluten to form, lending your dough structural integrity. The leftover bits of fat that are left pebbly melt in the oven, leaving fun little buttery pockets and helping to provide some rise (from steam). If you finish your dough by lightly folding it a few times, you are, in effect, layering in pieces of fat, and this lends to flakiness.I sense another why here. If you take your finished dough (after you add the liquid and mix a little) and fold it over a few times, you’ll have strata of relatively gluten-rich (tougher) dough, relatively gluten-free (tender-er) dough and small pieces of fat. As you fold, the layers get thinner, and then when the fat melts and the water turns to steam in the oven, this helps push the tougher layers apart, leading to flakes. Get it?!
- Given the same amounts of flour and fat, leaving larger pieces of fat equals more gluten formation and, therefore, flakiness. Leaving smaller pieces of fat equals less gluten formation and, therefore, tenderness. It’s up to you to decide when to stop. If you’re making regular biscuits, go until everything is mealy. If you’re making flakey biscuits, leave the fat in larger pieces. If you’re making a crumbly pie dough, go mealy. If you want a flakier crust, go with pea-to-lima-bean sized pieces. I think I’ve answered the rest of that why in #5.
- Biscuits will have more liquid than pie dough. The consistency should be anywhere from wet to sticky (depending on the recipe). Actually, one of the secrets to Ridiculously Light Biscuits is to have a very wet dough–so wet that you need heavily floured hands to shape it into vague biscuit shapes before dropping them onto a baking sheet. But hey, doesn’t this cause more gluten formation? Not if you don’t mix like a crazy person–all that extra liquid=a bunch of extra steam=extra lift in the oven. Alton taught me that–it was the way his grandmother made biscuits. Thanks, Alton and Alton’s grandma. Pie crust should look like it doesn’t contain enough water–it should still be relatively sandy and only hold together when you press it. For a good discussion of this (if I do say so myself), see my post on pie crust.
- Upon consideration, the “and there you go,” might beg further explanation. In the case of wet biscuits, do as I described in why #7, or you’ll just make a Fat Mess. If you’re making biscuits with a slightly more sturdy dough, a couple of gentle turns/kneads might be in order, then just pat it into a vague rectangle and cut biscuits the size you want. And here, might I just exhort you to eschew Circular Biscuits, please? Cutting circles leaves scraps which then must be re-rolled. These scrap-made biscuits are never as light as the first roll. Also, they don’t rise as much. Just say no. The why for this part is you’ve made more gluten form by working the dough into the shape you wanted it. Gluten is tricky stuff. Stick with rectangular or square biscuits, and you won’t have any scraps to worry about re-rolling. Genius Lightbulb Moment!If you’re making pie dough, I suggest you roll the dough between two sheets of parchment and then refrigerate it to firm up and allow the flour to fully hydrate. And doesn’t that sound all crazy and mysterious?! When you first add the water, the outside of the flour gets wet, but it takes a bit for the water to soak all the way through each wee granule of flour. This refrigerated rest gives it time for that to happen. And incidentally, this is why you should stop adding water before the dough comes together. After that hydration rest, your perfect dough will be too wet. Trust me; I’ve been there. I use parchment because that means I don’t need to add extra flour. And that means that I don’t get extra gluten formation. Hooray.
Okay, I think that about covers it. And how are we feeling about biscuits and pie crust now? More comfortable, I hope? If you still have questions, shoot them my way, either in an email or in the comments.
And after all of that, I guess there’s nothing left but The Biscuit Method Certification. Congratulations, students, and thank you for coming. 🙂
No, it’s not my picture up there: