My Granny, born and raised in the mountains of Northwest Georgia was of Cherokee and Scotch-Irish descent. She married young, gave birth to eight children, lost two of them in death, outlived two husbands, gardened, preserved her food, and made the best of the impoverished conditions in which she lived her entire life. She was a survivor and she was a darn good cook. If you showed up at Granny's house, you were fed, no matter what time of day it might be. She got up early, fixed breakfast for anyone who happened to be there and then she immediately started the big meal of the day. After she had lovingly prepared enough to feed a small army, she kept it warm on the stove and waited for someone to walk through the door so she could offer them a plate. One didn't refuse to eat at Granny's house. That would be rude. She taught me that food prepared with loving hands was indeed a gift. There is no end to the number of delicious meals she could prepare but above all else, she was known for her biscuits, something she served with most every meal. I wish that I could claim to be able to make biscuits as good as my grandmother made them, but that's not possible. My cousin, Teresa, holds the honor of making biscuits most like Granny's, but no one will be able to make them quite like she did.
So what was her secret and how does one make a good, old fashioned, buttermilk biscuit? I am convinced the secret lies in the quality of the ingredients and the touch of the chef. I remember my Granny using self rising flour and lard to make her biscuits. I've always figured anytime the ingredients were already put together in a mix, that was a little bit like cheating, so my recipe calls for all purpose flour. However, upon doing some research, I discovered that expert biscuit makers agree with my Granny and advise using self rising flour like White Lily and others for best results:
"A good biscuit starts with good flour," says Jason Roy, owner of Biscuit Head. Like many Southern cooks, he uses self-rising flour because it's pre-mixed to include a blend of hard and soft wheat as well as a leavening ingredient for the perfect rise—something you can't get in plain all-purpose, cake, or pastry flour.
For more from Jason Roy, check this link.
Quality flour is just the starting point. I like to use my own homemade, butter or lard and cultured buttermilk. If you are not fortunate enough to have your own family milk cows like we do, or do not have access to these products straight from the farm, choose the best quality ingredients you can get. (If not using self rising flour, it is also imperative that your baking powder be fresh. The baking powder acts as a leavening agent and if it has set on the shelf for a long period of time, it may have lost some of it's strength.)
Once you have the quality ingredients needed to make your biscuits, the process is simple. However, resist the urge to over handle your biscuit dough. You want to sift your dry ingredients together and then add your fats (butter, lard or shortening). It is imperative that you use cold butter/lard/shortening. (Some experts even suggest using frozen butter that has been grated and mixing it in with a fork rather than your hands to keep the butter from getting warm. I have tried this method and it works exceptionally well.) Granny always used her hands to mix the fat into the flour with a light "pinching" motion creating pea size lumps.
Once the fats have been added to the dry ingredients, then it's time to add the buttermilk. The best way to do this to make a "well" with the flour/fat mixture and then ad the buttermilk a little at a time mixing until dough until it sticks together loosely.
You want to resist the urge to "knead" your dough at this point. You simply want all the ingredients to stick together. The more you handle the dough the tougher and less flaky it will become. (Same is true when making pie crusts!)
A fantastic article from King Author Flour explains further the need for keeping a light touch and handling your dough as little as possible. You can read it at this link.
Once your dough has been made, roll it out gently and then cut the biscuits with a sharp cutter or thin drinking glass, pressing straight down through the dough. Do not twist. Place biscuits close together in the pan. Make sure your oven has been preheated and is up to the proper temperature before inserting biscuits.
For some additional and alternative tips to baking biscuits, check out 8 Tips for a Perfect Biscuit at this link.
If you choose to make your biscuits using all purpose flour like I do, you might like to try my recipe as follows:
2 cups All Purpose Flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda
1/3 cup shortening, lard or butter
1 to 1 1/4 cups of Buttermilk
Heat oven to 425 degrees F. Sift all of your dry ingredients together. Cut in your choice of fat (shortening/lard/butter). Make a well in the center of flour mixture and pour buttermilk a little at a time mixing until all of the flour is moist and sticks together. Turn dough out onto a floured surface. Handle/knead just enough to work the dough into a soft ball. Roll dough out and use a biscuit cutter or thin glass to cut through dough. Place biscuits on lightly buttered pan and place in preheated oven. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly brown on top.