Ever since I read “The Secret Life of Bees,” I’ve been obsessed with biscuits and honey. When I was reading it, I would buy a can or bag of frozen biscuits and make one or two at a time to slather with honey. And while homemade biscuits taste better than the canned kind, mine never have visible layers like the ones from the can. Luckily, Cook’s Illustrated has got my back.
It turns out the key to flaky layers is how you cut and incorporate the butter — and how you fold the dough. Instead of cutting the butter into smaller pieces and then cutting it into the flour to make pea-like pieces, you cut the butter into slices and then press it between your fingers as you incorporate it into the flour, creating flat pieces about the size of a nickel.
After you have the butter (and some shortening, for extra flakiness) incorporated, you put the mixture in the freezer for about 15 minutes, to get it really cold. Then you add some buttermilk and roll it out…
But you don’t cut the biscuits yet. First, you need to fold the dough into thirds… like a business letter (assuming you know what that is).
Then you fold it in thirds again (the other direction), rotate the resulting rectangle 90 degrees, roll it out and do the whole thing again. THEN you cut out the biscuits.
See the layers in the unbaked biscuit?
The recipe actually says to cut out twice and throw the rest of the excess away. That was too wasteful to me, so I gathered the dough together once more and cut out a few more biscuits. Those weren’t quite as flaky, but they were still good. And they all tasted amazing with honey.
Flaky buttermilk biscuits (Adapted slightly from Cook’s Illustrated American Classics 2010) Makes about 12 biscuits
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting counter
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable shortening (cut into 1/2-inch chunks)
Nonstick cooking spray
1 1/4 cups cold buttermilk (lowfat preferred)
Lightly flour the butter and cut it into slices about 1/8-inch thick. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Put oven rack in middle or lower-middle position. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Add shortening to flour mixture. Use your fingers to break up chunks until only pea-sized pieces of flour and shortening remain.
Using a few pieces at a time, drop butter into flour mixture and toss (with fingers) to coat. Pick up each slice of butter and press between fingertips into flat, nickel-sized pieces. Continue until all butter is incorporated. Toss again to combine. Place bowl in freezer about 15 minutes, until chilled.
Spray clean counter or work area with cooking spray and use a paper towel to spread spray evenly around the surface. Sprinkle 1/3 cup extra flour evenly across area and spread it around with your hand.
Add all but two tablespoons buttermilk to flour mixture and stir briskly with fork until ball forms and no dry bits of flour are visible. Add additional buttermilk if necessary. The dough will be sticky and shaggy but should not be sticking to the sides of the bowl.
Transfer dough to center of prepared work surface and dust lightly with flour. Using floured hands, bring dough together into a cohesive ball.
Pat dough into roughly a 10-inch square, then roll into an 18- by 14-inch rectangle about 1/4 inch thick (dust dough and rolling pin with flour if needed). Fold dough into thirds (using a bench scraper or metal spatula, if you have one), then lift short end of dough and fold into thirds again. You should have a roughly 6- by 4-inch rectangle.
Rotate dough 90 degrees, dust work surface underneath with more flour and roll and fold dough again.
After second round of folding, roll dough into a rough square about 1/2 inch thick. Flip dough, and use a floured biscuit cutter to cut as many rounds as possible.
Place rounds about 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet.
Gather remaining dough scraps into a ball. Roll and fold once or twice until dough is smooth. Roll and cut more rounds.
Brush biscuit tops with melted butter. Place baking sheet in oven and do not open the oven door while biscuits bake — about 15 to 17 minutes. Tops will be golden brown and crisp.
Let cool on baking sheet 5 to 10 minutes before serving.