The Dough Also Rises Transcript

The Plantation

GUEST: Banjo Player

    The American North and South have always stood toe-to-toe like great cultural tectonic plates forever held in check. Factory versus plantation. Yankee ingenuity versus Southern hospitality. Leonard Bernstein versus Lynyrd Skynyrd. Everything symmetrically balanced.
    Until it comes to biscuits. See, the Northern biscuit has a distinctly nautical heritage. The word biscuit, after all, is from an old French phrase, biscuit [bis-KWEE], it means 'twice baked' and it refers to the method that was necessary to keep ocean-going sailor wafers from going stale at sea. These were nutritious little gut bombs but they had they had the texture of a rock and only half the flavor.
    Now, Southern biscuits, on the other hand, hail directly from English scones and they are so light, so fluffy, so just down-and-out delicious that I wouldn't be surprised if Sherman's march to the sea was nothing more than a biscuit-run run amuck. Maybe he just didn't like banjos. Nah.
    The Southern biscuit is much more than mere social icon. The cook who attains biscuithood, well, they receive the keys to quick bread city. Dumplings, scones, soda bread, shortcake, all fall within easy grasp. In short, the biscuit is a powerful tool, not to mention seriously good eats.

Kroger - 10:45 am

GUEST: Woman Purchasing Lard

    Making biscuits is like playing rock 'n roll. You only need three chords and a lot of volume.

    Now, the biscuit chords are flour, fat and moisture.

Flour - Fat - Moisture

    Now, first the flour. Among flours alone we've got, well, all purpose flour. There's self rising flour. We've got bread flour. Um, unbleached all purpose flour. Let's see, there's cake flour and, well, dozens of others.

All Purpose
Self Rising

    Now, with the exception of the self rising which contains chemical leaveners, the main difference between all these flours is, well, mostly protein content. And that depends a great deal on wheat.

    Now about 75 percent of the wheat grown in America is hard wheat, meaning that it's high in protein. Now, flour made from this kind of wheat is often marketed as bread flour because it forms the kind of plastic structure that French baguettes and crusty sour dough rolls depend on.

"Hard" Wheat
High Protein
Bread Flour

    Soft wheat, because it contains less protein, is more suited for softer baking goods like cakes, pastries and biscuits. These kind of soft flours are traditional in Southern baking because before modern transportation that's what they had.

"Soft" Wheat
Low Protein
Cakes, Pastry, Biscuits

    Now, just as some traditional Northern hard flours have become available in the South, some Southern flours, often labeled as better for biscuits, are starting to show up on Northern shelves.

    All purpose flour, by the way, is usually a mixture of hard and soft flours. 'AP' as it's called, is fine for most baking chores but just as you'll never make a great baguette with it, biscuits, too, will elude you.

All Purpose =
Hard + Soft

   Now in a pinch, you can concoct your own biscuit flour by mixing three parts of all purpose flour with one part of cake flour. It'll get you close.

3 pt All Purpose
1 pt Cake Flour

AB: Nothing like lard for a flaky pie crust, huh?
 W: Oh, this? Oh, this isn't for me.
AB: No.
 W: No. I would never cook with this. This is for ... um ... oh, one of those contests with the greased watermelon. Yeah.
AB: The greasy watermelon contest.
 W: Yeah, the greasy watermelon contest.
AB: Got it.

    Whether fat-phobics like it or not, fat, especially fats that are solid at room temperature, play a crucial role in the texture of baked goods.
    Now, take this vegetable shortening. Not only will it tenderize and moisten our biscuits by surrounding all the starch granules, even a very small amount will create a dramatic increase in dough volume.

    Now, any solid fat can be used in biscuits. Butter lends great taste but iffy texture while lard produces a very tender crumb but has a touch of gaminess. Vegetable shortening is neutral in flavor, produces a light texture, has a long shelf life and is easy to work with. Now, I like to use shortening for texture along with a little bit of butter just for flavor.

Butter = Flavor
Lard = Tender
Shortening = Best

Vegetable shortening is produced by hydrogenizing
soy bean and cotton seed oils.

    To bring the other ingredients together and supply the moisture needed for a good rise, the last of the biscuit power chords is liquid, usually in the form of milk, cream or, better yet, buttermilk.

Milk, Cream, Buttermilk

    Now I accidentally put some of this in my cereal when I was about three and I got to tell you, I never got over it. But when it comes to biscuits, there's just no substituting the sour twang of buttermilk. Now, either low-fat or fat-free will do fine. And since it's basically spoiled already, it keeps for a long time in the fridge. Just don't confuse it with skim come Saturday morning.

The Kitchen

GUEST: Mae Skelton

    Here at Good Eats we make a habit of trafficking in cultural icons. And what could be more culturally iconoclastic than the American grandmother. That's right. This is not a TV grandmother. This is my real grandmother. I call her Ma Mae.

AB: Hey, Ma Mae. Did you get those weights moved up to the attic?
MAE SKELTON: You're as mean as a snake.

    This is going to be great. Ma Mae fed me my first biscuit back when I was about yay tall and I've been studying how to make them at her knee like Luke Skywalker at Yoda's place for decades now. So, the first step to making biscuits is to preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

AB: Right?
MS: 475.

    Heh, heh. 475. I say 400. Next, we make biscuits.

Today's buttermilk is made by adding special
bacterias to low fat or nonfat milk.

Battle Biscuit

The Kitchen

GUEST: Ma Mae, Grandmother

    The battle line has been drawn. We are at battleground biscuit. Now, although Ma Mae taught me how to make biscuits and every biscuit that I've ever had has basically tried to live up to hers, over the years my methodology has definitely spread into a different direction, especially when it comes to measuring and measuring is really kind of the first place that you can go wrong in biscuiting. Now, when you've made biscuits for like a 175 years like Ma Mae has, then you know what things should look like and feel like. But for the beginning biscuit maker and even for me I still measure everything.
    So, we have the differences in methodology here. Ma Mae using artifacts found in burial ground from like the 5th century.

AB: What is that?
MS: That is a biscuit cutter.
AB: That's not original material there.
MS: Well, they brought that over on the Mayflower.
AB: [laugh]  Good to know you've still got a sense of humor about that.

    Okay, so we're both going to be starting with a soft, winter wheat flour. We're not going to name brands but, Ma Mae prefers to use self rising flour that already has the leavening ingredients added in. I have to admit I very often use it as well but for the sake of argument, I'm going to be using all purpose flour today and I'm going to add the baking powder and the baking soda separately. And we're going to come back to more of those later.

AB: You ready to start?
MS: Ready to start.

    Okay, we're going to start with phase one: measuring. I do it. She doesn't. Here we go.


    She'll be spooning out her flour while I'll be precisely measuring my ingredients. I use a digital scale that has what's called a tare weight on it which means I can slap a bowl on there and then basically subtract the weight of the bowl.

    Now, Ma Mae goes with two cups of flour and I basically do to only that my two cups of flour generally weighs out to about ten ounces. You'll also notice that she sifts her flour.

AB: Why do you do that?
MS: Make it lighter.

    She says it makes it lighter, I'm not so sure. We'll have to be the judge later on. I've got ten ounces of flour. And I suspect that because she sifts her flour, she's probably using a little less than I am because the grains in her flour are going to be kind of lifted away from each other while mine are more compact.

2 Cups Flour

10 oz Flour

    Okay, I'm going to go ahead and add four teaspoons of baking powder, which is the same as one teaspoon plus one tablespoon. Now baking powder is interesting stuff because it's balanced. It holds both acid and alkalines so it will, ... it can rise all by itself without any other chemical agents.  

4 tsp Baking Powder

    And I'm going to add about a quarter teaspoon of baking soda, a tiny, tiny little amount. It's going to give us a little bit better of a rise especially with the acid that's in the buttermilk we're using. But the reason I also use a very small amount is that it will flavor things. It's got a lot of sodium in it. And if you use a lot, you'll taste it.

AB: You having a hard time with that thing there?
MS: Um, hm.


1/4 tsp Baking Soda

AB: Okay, we're done with the measuring part, right? The dry stuff?
MS: Yes.
AB: Okay, so you're ready to go. Give me a second. Let me stir this up.

    Oh, salt. Her flour already has salt worked into it. And you've got to have salt for any kind of bread or it just tastes ... I don't know.

AB: What does it taste like when you don't have any salt in it?
MS: It's just flat.
AB: Flat. Dead. Flat. So I'm going to add about, that's about a teaspoon of salt. You don't have to use kosher salt but it's pretty much the only kind I use.


Big Pinch Kosher Salt

    Now, Ma Mae has moved on, pulling in front into the cutting-in of the fat. Again, renegade as she is, no measuring, just diving right in there. And she's going to cut it in ...

AB: Why do you use a spoon?
MS: I guess because I liked it.
AB: Your mom didn't use a spoon, I know. I remember.
MS: No, she used her hands.

    My great grandmother used her hands. It was good enough for her. It's good enough for me.

AB: You just ... it's all the fancy jewelry you're wearing, I suspect.
MS: Sure, that's it.

Cutting in the Fat

    I'm going to weigh mine and what I like to do. And what I  like to do is I like to have my fat cold when I cut it in. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to go ahead and measure out my buttermilk. And I like to use a cup of buttermilk. And since a pint is a pound the world around, eight ounces fluid measure equals eight ounces of weight. So I can just look at my scale and I've got eight ounces, which is the same as a cup.  

8 oz Buttermilk

    And I'm going to put in two ounces, actually more like an ounce of butter. And I'm just going to add it straight to this until I get one ounce which is there.  

1 oz Butter

    I'm going to hit the tare weight again. She's already smoking me. Slow down, you make me look bad.

AB: That ... How old is that bowl? That's the only one I've ever seen you make biscuits in.
MS: Well, it's older than you are.
AB: Well, a lot of things are, thank goodness that we're still at that point.

    I'm going to add, also, two ounces of shortening. She likes all shortening. I like to use a little bit of both.

AB: Shortening is going to give you a little bit better texture, right? You think?
MS: Right.
AB: It's just a lighter kind of thing?
MS: Um, hm.
AB: Now you remember using lard for biscuits, don't you?
MS: Yes. In my early years of life, I did use lard.
AB: Yeah, like around the time of Gone With the Wind.


2 oz Shortening

    I like to use a combination. You're going to get a tender tooth, a tender crumb out of the biscuit, from shortening. You're going to get a little bit of flavor if you use butter.

AB: You don't wait on me. You keep going. I'll catch up.

    Now where she cuts hers in with a spoon, I like to use my fingers. But when you do this, try to use just your fingertips. I know it looks messy but don't worry. And just kind of work it in. What we're wanting is something like looks kind of like corn meal. Just break it up and work it in. This is a lot more fun than her method. All right. She's already going on the buttermilk.

AB: How much do you think you use?
MS: I never measure it. I just put in there what I think it needs and stir it till it's good.
AB: To stir it till it's ...

    But she and I both like a very loose dough. One of the great secrets which she's taught me is the secret, really, to biscuit making is a very, very wet dough that you don't work very much.

AB: Right?
MS: Right.

    Just stir it until it comes together into a kind of sticky mass. If it looks sticky and nasty you're going to right way.

Wet Dough
Mix Don't Knead

    She likes to do this on parchment paper which makes for a slightly neater kitchen. I don't really get too worked up about that. Now that I've got the fat worked in it just looks crumb-y. It kind of looks like bread crumbs almost.
    I'm going to make a well, kind of right in the middle, and I'm going to add my buttermilk.

AB: I lost my spoon, Ma Mae. Can I use yours? Can I use your sacred spoon?
MS: You make fun of my spoon.
AB: The spoon. It's a wonderful spoon. Weighted perfectly for biscuit making.

    Aw, she's ahead of me already. This is looking pretty bad for me. You see how gently she's working it. These are the hands of a master, right here. You don't see this kind of biscuit making much in America anymore. Barely patting it out. No rolling necessary.

AB: Can I put your spoon in the sink?
MS: If you want ... yes.
AB: Okay. What were you going to say?
MS: If you want to wash your rolling pin, you can roll it out.
AB: Rolling pins just aren't my cup of tea.

    Going to roll out enough flour to keep it from sticking on the board and then just turn out the whole thing. Oh, she's gone for her pan, her special biscuit pan. Circa 1853. Ulysses S. Grant.

AB: I don't even know where I put my biscuit pan.
MS: I wish.
AB: I've got to run for a biscuit pan.

Restaurant Solutions - 1:22 pm

    Like many of our favorite kitchen tools, you probably won't find the ideal biscuit pan at the mall. But if you town has more than three restaurants, there's probably a restaurant supply store that's open to the public and that's where I promise you will find sheet pans, standard issue for the commercial American bake shop. Unfortunately it's a little large for home use. But fear not. It comes in a half size called ... yep ... a half sheet pan. Forged from a single piece of heavy duty aluminum and more trustworthy than your dog, this pan is built to take it and dish it out.
    Now aluminum is an excellent conductor. So it heats quickly and it relays that heat nicely to whatever happens to be sitting on top. Now unlike non-stick or dark metal pans, this one won't burn biscuit bottoms before the rest of the biscuit has had time to cook. See this lip? Not only does it stop disastrous slides, it adds stability rendering the pan, well, virtually unwarpable. Show me a cookie sheet that can do that for under ten dollars. [takes all the pans]  Just in case.

Aluminum conducts heat half as good as copper and twice as good as steel.

The Kitchen

AB: ??? ... pulled out of a civil war battle field. They're like what General Grant baked biscuits on.
MS: Yeah, but you sure loved the ones that came off of it.
AB: Well, okay. That's true. But I don't remember you greasing the pan.
MS: I do always ...
AB: Well, I don't grease mine.
MS: ... lightly.

    You notice another thing that she does which is good. Straight down and then she gives a little bit of a twist. If you twist your way through biscuit dough you won't get a clean rise.

AB: Right?
MS: Right.
AB: What else will happen? Something bad.
MS: I don't know.
AB: They tear.
MS: Something you cooked up, I guess.
AB: Oof. I hate to hear that kind of talk.

Straight Down & Twist

    I use an aluminum pan. I don't like to use stainless steel and I don't like Teflon pans.

AB: Have you ever tried to bake biscuits on Teflon pans?
MS: No, I haven't.
AB: They turn black on the bottom. It's not a good thing.

    Biscuit cutter. Straight down, twist, pop out. Down, twist. The twist is okay but only if you've gone all he way through. Now you'll notice that both she and I like to put our biscuits shoulder to shoulder and that's because you'll get a better rise out of them if they're just touching. If you crowd them too much, the heat won't be able to get in between the biscuits.

Biscuits should just touch

AB: Right?
MS: Right.

    Okay, I'm right on something, finally. It's taken all of these years.

AB: So, if you have them too far apart they'll burn and they'll spread out, won't they, ...
MS: Sure.
AB: ... instead of going up.

    So if you just touch them next to each other they'll rise straight. Now she's rolling out her garbage, as we say, her trash. And you roll those together just as lightly as you can because the dough has already been worked perfectly. You don't want to go too far.
    Now as usual I have more trash on my board than she does but that's okay.

AB: How many do you usually get out of a batch? You always get the same number?
MS: About twelve.
AB: You always get a dozen, don't you?
MS: Um, hm.

    Mine are a little bigger so I'm not going to have quite as many. Down and twist.

MS: Well, I'll have one fat one and that used to be the one when you was a little boy that you wanted.
AB: Well, because it's big, right?
MS: Yes.
AB: But I liked them the best the next day when you split them open and buttered them and then you toasted them.
MS: Right.
AB: That's the way they were supposed to be.

    I've probably eaten 50,000 biscuits at Ma Mae's house.

AB: Now did your mom teach you to make these like this?
MS: No, not really.
AB: How did you adapt your biscuit making?
MS: Just by doing.
AB: Just by doing it, huh? You used to make them like every day, right?
MS: Sure. When I was first married, I made biscuits for breakfast every day.
AB: Every single day.
MS: Yes.
AB: Back then we worked, though, so nobody got fat off of them.
MS: That's true.
AB: Nowadays if I ate biscuits everyday I'd be like ...
MS: You'd have to get as ...
AB: Alfred Hitchcock cooking hour. It would be pretty bad.
MS: Stone Mountain.

    Okay, the very last touch, and for goodness sakes, don't skip this, note the indentation, the slight indentation. Now I do mine with the thumb. Ma Mae does hers with two fingers. Pushing down in the middle is going to help the biscuit to rise evenly since the heat hits the outside of the biscuit and works in. If you didn't punch it in you might end up with a domed biscuit.

AB: Right?
MS: Right.

Push Down Centers

AB: Okay, you're 400 ...
MS: You want my biscuits in the oven yet?
AB: Yes, well they're done aren't they? Why? Don't you want to sit around and, like, stare at them?
MS: You don't want them to rise until they get in the oven.

400 Oven

    So, the power chords are in place: Flour, fat, moisture. Now for the unifying element of good rock 'n roll and biscuits, volume.


Hot Air Balloon

    Baked goods get their volume from the lift of hot air. Or to be more exact, steam and carbon dioxide that's produced by yeast and chemical leaveners. Now as you no doubt remember from your fourth grade science class, if you combine an alkaline, say baking soda, with an acid like vinegar you get, well, a big case of gas. Now, this relationship like most has to be equal if it's really going to work and that's what's so great about baking powder. You see, it contains an equal ratio of an acid, cream of tartar, and baking soda. All you have to do is add liquid ...

Double acting baking powders react
once when wet, then again when hot.

... and instant gas. So, why does so many recipes call for both baking powder and baking soda? Well, it's got to do with an equal ratio. You see, a lot of ingredients—chocolate, sugar, eggs, even dairy products—can throw off the acid/alkaline relationship. So, we add just a little bit of baking soda to our biscuit dough to help counteract the acid in the buttermilk. [phone rings]  Excuse me.

AB: Hello? No, Ma Mae. I'm not doing anything dangerous. Yes, I'll tell them. Bye, bye.

    She wants me to remind you that chemical leaveners have a specific shelf life. So watch those expiration dates.

The Plantation

    Once you've got biscuits down, you can experiment with endless variations on the theme.

    Scones start with the same dry mixture as biscuits but with the addition of two tablespoons of sugar and an extra two tablespoons of butter. Substitute three quarters of a cup of cream for the buttermilk and add one beaten egg. A handful of currants or dried cranberries would be traditional but not mandatory.

2 Tbsp Sugar
2 Tbsp Butter
3/4 Cup Cream
1 Egg
Dried Cranberries or Currants

    Now, shortcake is even easier. Just add a third of a cup of sugar to the dry mix and you can replace the buttermilk with half & half if you want but I'd miss that buttermilk twang. It's up to you. Stir the dough until it just comes together then spoon it right out onto the pan. Brush thoroughly with melted butter, sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 400 until golden. Cool. Smother with berries and whipped cream. Eat. Repeat.

1/3 Cup Sugar
Sub Half & Half for Buttermilk

The southern biscuit's nearest living relative
is the "Soft" biscuit of N.E. Scotland

The Kitchen

    Now that's what I'm talking about. Perfect golden biscuits.

AB: How did yours out, Ma Mae?
MS: Perfect like always.
AB: So did mine.
MS: When did yours get to be perfect?
AB: So, what do we put on the perfect southern biscuit?
MS: You put butter.
AB: Well, I don't know. We've got some jam, some preserves, some sausage, bacon, ...
MS: Well, so what? Just ...
AB: Butter.
MS: Butter.
AB: I'm with ya.

    Well, we've hoped you picked up a few pointers about the quintessential quick bread that is the biscuit. It's powerful medicine, to be sure, but it's well within your reach. Just remember. Use soft, winter wheat, southern flour, work in the fat thoroughly, mix it quick and bake in a hot oven, at least 400 degrees.

AB: Right?
MS: 475.
AB: Ma Mae, your oven hasn't seen 475 since the Ice Age.
MS: Honey, you don't know a thing about an oven. My oven will out-cook yours any day.

    See you next time on Good Eats.

AB: Your oven. I've got more ovens in the garage than you've ever had in your life.
MS: Well, yeah, but you don't have a good one like mine.
AB: What's good about that oven? The thing runs on coal fumes.
MS: It's just a good one, that's all I can tell you.
AB: Well, you try one of my biscuits you'll have good.
MS: I don't want one of your biscuits.
AB: Well, nobody's going to eat those hockey pucks.

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010