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A "Grate" Secret for Tender Biscuits

For years, I have heard of the technique of using frozen butter to make better biscuits.  It's one of those ideas that you say to yourself, "I'll have to try that some day," but somehow you just never get around to it.

By grating the frozen butter and then gently mixing it into the dry ingredients, you avoid having the butter soften to the point that it actually blends into the flour.  For light biscuits, you want flour and butter to be distinct, so that the flakes of butter melt and release steam into the dough, making it light and fluffy.  If the butter is melted into the flour during blending, this won't happen.  In addition, the shards of frozen butter trap some air due to their shape, which adds to the lightness of the finished product.

Recently Chef Michael Smith wrote an article for the Globe and Mail describing this technique.  Well, it finally was time.  This past weekend I made a beef stew, and decided to serve biscuits with it, using Chef Smith's technique.  To start though, I had to modify his recipe a bit because I had planned to make buttermilk biscuits.  Chef Smith's recipe called for plain milk.  To change the recipe, I had to replace some of the baking powder with baking soda to offset the acidity of the buttermilk.   The general rule is that you need about ½ teaspoon of baking soda per cup of buttermilk (see Baking Soda and Buttermilk).   A half teaspoon of baking soda will give the same rise as two teaspoons of baking powder.

Armed with these substitutions, I used the following recipe for my Biscuits:

Buttermilk Biscuits
2   cups All-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp Baking Powder
  1/2 tsp Baking Soda
  1/2 tsp Salt
  3/4 cup Butter, frozen
7   fl. oz. Buttermilk
  1. Preheat your oven to 400°F (205°C).
  2. Combine all of the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl and set aside.
  3. Measure and set aside the cold buttermilk.
  4. Using the large holes of a box grater, grate the frozen butter into shards.  Add the butter to the dry ingredients and then toss with a spoon just to blend, breaking up any clumps of butter that may have formed during the grating.  Do not over mix.
  5. Pour in the buttermilk and stir in with a spoon, just until the ingredients pull together.  Turn the mixture out onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough gently, just a few turns, to bring it together into a single mass.  If necessary add a bit more buttermilk or some water.
  6. Shape the dough into a rough circle and cut into wedges, or roll out and cut to any desired shape.
  7. Transfer the biscuits to a baking sheet that has been lightly coated with cooking spray and cook 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

Buttermilk_biscuits Makes 8 to 12 biscuits.

If you want, you can brush the surface of the biscuits with milk to given a nicer finish when they are cooked.  Chef Smith suggests sprinkling them with coarse salt and fresh ground pepper before baking.

To make it easier to grate the butter without skinning your knuckles, start with a larger piece and mark the ¾ cup measure onto the block with a sharp knife.  Wrap the unused end in the paper the butter came in, and then grate down to the mark, holding the wrapped end.

This recipe uses regular, salted butter.  If you wish to use unsalted butter, increase the salt in the recipe by ¼ teaspoon.


Did this work better than refrigerated butter? Do you think it would work better for pie crusts too?

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