How much water!?
May 3, 2020 5:31 PM   Subscribe

I've been struggling with a really basic biscuit recipe for years and years. It doesn't tell me how much water to add, so I'm always putting in too much or too little. How do I get good biscuits from this recipe?

I suppose there are probably clearer recipes out there for biscuits, but my dad always made these biscuits with a recipe off an old Blue Ribbon Baking Powder tin (which we kept, empty, in the back of our pantry).

[The recipe is: 3 cups flour, 3 tbsp lard/shortening, 3 tsp sugar, 1/2 tsp salt, 6 tsp baking powder.]

The recipe is pretty clear until it says, rather vaguely: "Cut in enough cold water to make soft dough." Okay... so how much water do I need to add?!?!?

A friend of mine who's a pretty good baker explained how humidity, etc. affects how much water you need when baking pastries. I live in a dry climate (Canadian Prairies), so I guess I need more water than someone in a humid climate.

Yet, the question remains... how MUCH water? I have never added the *perfect* amount of water to the recipe. I keep adding, then mix, then add more, then add more... usually I end up adding too much water (super sticky dough) and they turn out... edible. Is there a better technique to this? How do I get better results?
posted by VirginiaPlain to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
These baking soda biscuits on the King Arthur Flour site call for the same amount of flour, sugar, and fat, (though only half the baking soda), so maybe start with their measurements (1 to 1 1/8 cups) for your water or milk, and go from there.

Part of your problem may be overworking the dough because of how many times you have to mix in the new water, so the shortening is no longer in nice chunks and the biscuits lose some of their tenderness.
posted by JuliaIglesias at 5:59 PM on May 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

When you add water, how much do you add each time?

I have a feeling you're adding, like, a quarter cup or a half cup at a time, and that's why when you add more each time it overshoots.

I've looked at a couple recipes and they all say about a cup, so try this - start with a half cup, then add one tablespoon at a time and mix before you see if you need more. That'll give you a little more control.

And remember, too, that biscuit dough is supposed to be pretty sticky anyway.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:00 PM on May 3, 2020 [6 favorites]

I’m from the southern US, and the biscuits we make down here usually call for buttermilk. The typical ratio I see is a little less than half of the flour for liquid. However, the biscuits I’m accustomed to have a much higher ratio of butter to flour in the dough as well. For your recipe, I would recommend starting out with maybe 1 cup of ice cold water, and maybe prepare to go up to 1 1/4 cup. But maybe also consider increasing the lard as well, to give a richer dough and a more tender baked biscuit.
posted by little mouth at 6:04 PM on May 3, 2020

You can't do it right every time unless you can do it the same every time.

Weigh your flour. Weigh your water. Gram scale. Tenths.

This is not hyperbole. This is an actual thing you need to do, if you are cooking for serious.
posted by sourcequench at 6:06 PM on May 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Nah, you can do it by volume. My great-great grandma didn't need a scale, she measured everything by handfulls and kitchen spoons. You should do it the same every time, and once you figure it out be sure to write it down. My biscuits are 2 cups of flour, a half teaspoon each of salt and soda, a teaspoon of baking powder, a quarter pound of cold grated butter, a goodly dollop of honey (I eyeball it), and 2/3 cup of buttermilk. Don't overwork the dough, but fold it in half several times (you probably won't even need to flour the countertop, but a dough scraper is essential). It can still be somewhat crumbly when you cut out the rounds. Bake for 14 minutes at 425F.

I agree that your recipe seems to rely too much on water and too little on fat. They'll also be pretty bitter with 2Tbs of baking powder (no shocker that recipe came off a baking powder tin: no way should you need that much!).
posted by rikschell at 6:26 PM on May 3, 2020 [9 favorites]

This is similar to scones, yes? My mum's recipe is 2 cups SR flour (plain flour with 2tsp baking powder per cup added), 1/4 cup butter and 3/4 cup milk. So that would be 1 1/8 cups for three cups of flour, maybe slightly more, as you're adding less fat.

But what I wanted to suggest trying is doing it in a food processor, if you have one. When I pour the milk in the top slowly, pulsing the blade as I do (after blitzing the butter and flour together), it comes together in a big clump when the "right amount" of liquid is added.

This recipe is very similar to yours, and has a video: For some reason she does pour the milk in through the top opening - ruining the fun. It happens fast, as you can see. (Mum was generally making them en masse for fetes, we could get them into the oven as fast as they cooked)
posted by kjs4 at 7:06 PM on May 3, 2020

Yeah I'm an enthusiastic and often pretty good baker who has never used a scale in my life, and I promise you stuff like this can be figured out by getting a feel for the way the dough ought to be. I would strongly suggest watching a YouTube video of someone making biscuits. I learned what the correct consistency and "look" of a good pie crust is by watching a video - it turned out I was overworking the dough and then under-refrigerating it, but I would never have figured this out without a video. Cookbooks give vague descriptions of consistency or say things like "refrigerate at least 30 minutes" but watching someone else do it is where it's at.
posted by MiraK at 7:07 PM on May 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm a yankee who has lived in the old South for 40 plus years and it took me a long while but I learned to use White Lily self-rising flour to make biscuits. The flour, lighter than AP flour, has leavening and salt in it already in the right proportions. Shake out as much flour as you think you want to make this morning. You cut in shortening (butter, LARD) much as you want. From the name, a lot of shortening will result in a shorter biscuit but a more flavorful one. At any rate, I don't measure that anymore. The thing is what you're asking: how much liquid? Again, like the shortening, you can vary that somewhat. A drier dough will bake a heavier biscuit. A wetter dough will rise higher and be more tender. But back to your question: add a little liquid (I like buttermilk cause it adds flavor and tenderness.) and stir. If everything in the bowl isn't wet, add a little more liquid. Etc. Be lighthanded in adding the liquid. If you add too much and the dough is very wet and sticky, turn it out on a well-floured cutting board, sift some more flour over the top, and give it a few turns/kneads. A dough cutter is really helpful for this. Not a lot of kneading 'cause you want them to be tender. When the dough holds together but is not nearly as firm as a bread dough, that's it. It will be a little ragged around the edges but that's OK.

BTW, a dough cutter is cheap and is useful for other things, like moving cut vegies from the cutting board to the frying pan. Here's one. As the title says, it's good for scraping down the board when you're done.

I'm sorry I can't give you a recipe with measurements but I don't measure stuff anymore....for BISCUITS only. Mine come out somewhat different every time but folks are so happy to have freshly made biscuits that they love 'em.
posted by tmdonahue at 7:25 PM on May 3, 2020

Also, for scones/biscuits literally cut it to mix it, don't stir, for better results.
posted by freethefeet at 7:30 PM on May 3, 2020

I get pretty consistent results without using a scale. I don't think that's crucial as long as you use the same technique to measure every time. What you need to do is measure the water you add so eventually you'll have a definite amount you know is right. If you know you put in 1 1/4 cups and that seemed like a little too much because the dough was really sticky, then next time you can try 1 cup to start with. And if you need to add more, measure it out, maybe by the tablespoon. It should only take you a few times to figure out the right amount and then you can always just measure out that amount. Occasionally, for some reason or other (more or less moisture in your flour, variation in the way you measure) your usual amount of water may seem like not enough (and then you can add a bit more) or too much (and then you can add a little more flour.) When you're experimenting to figure out the right amount of water, I suggest stopping when most of the dough is coming together in one big clump but there's still a small amount of dry stuff that isn't clumping. Use your hands to knead that last bit in. You don't want to knead more than about 10 times. If that isn't enough to make it all come together, you probably didn't add enough water.
posted by Redstart at 8:03 PM on May 3, 2020

Thanks for all the advice so far! I find baking to be much more difficult than cooking because I have so much trouble visually understanding how things "should" look. I didn't think to look up videos like MiraK suggested, so I will do that. I have trouble understanding how the dough "should" look when it's mixed enough.

There are a few suggestions I'm a bit curious about, but need more "guidance":

rikschell: "But maybe also consider increasing the lard as well, to give a richer dough and a more tender baked biscuit." -- How much could I increase it by, without the recipe turning out poorly?

freethefeet: "Also, for scones/biscuits literally cut it to mix it, don't stir, for better results." -- I just want to make sure I understand this point. I cut in the lard with a pastry cutter, but I stir in the water. Am I supposed to use the pastry cutter with the water, too?
posted by VirginiaPlain at 8:26 PM on May 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

As a fellow Canadian prairie baker, one factor may be the flour. I understand that Canadian AP flour is different (higher in gluten?) than American and this can affect recipes, although I haven’t baked with other flour personally.

I have a copy of my mother’s recipe for baking powder biscuits, which is quite similar to yours and definitely makes great biscuits with prairie AP flour:
3 c flour
1/2 c sugar
6 tsp b powder
1 tsp salt

Cut in 1/2 c margarine

Beat 1 egg with 1 c milk & stir into dry ingred just until moistened.

400 degrees 12-15 min
(She uses hard margarine, but you could use butter, shortening, etc. Soft margarine from a tub won’t work.)

She often used this recipe for scones as it’s fairly rich. Reduce the sugar or omit it to make less-sweet biscuits.

This may help with your question about how much you can increase the shortening, since this recipe more than doubles it. You want to cut in the fat thoroughly and then mix in the liquid with a spoon or your hands. Handle the dough as little as possible - it’s easy to overwork it as you roll it out, ball it up, roll it out again, etc. Good luck!
posted by pocams at 8:49 PM on May 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

pocams, I was just about to mention the flour. Different flours have different amounts of protein, and more protein means that the flour can absorb more water and produce more gluten.

Generally, bread flour has the most protein (for strength), cake flour has the least (for tenderness), and all-purpose is somewhere in between, but it can vary a lot. Canadian all-purpose flour is generally high-protein, and southern US brands like White Lily are low-protein (good for cakes and biscuits). You may get tenderer biscuits if you try using cake flour instead of all-purpose.
posted by ectabo at 9:05 PM on May 3, 2020

Okay, learning about the difference between Canadian and American flour has been a revelation!! It explains so much.
posted by VirginiaPlain at 9:12 PM on May 3, 2020

There's also a trick Cook's Illustrated came up with to avoid having to cut in butter: melt the butter and stir it with the chilled liquid. The butter will solidify and you'll end up with a slurry that can be added to the dry ingredients and stirred in.
posted by ShooBoo at 9:50 PM on May 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yeah, obviously there is a little stirring that seems inevitable, but the recipes I've seen all call for a knife and to cut the mix together, even with the water, rather than stir.
posted by freethefeet at 11:34 PM on May 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

One baking term I’ve found useful for biscuits is 'shaggy'. At the perfect moment to stop adding water and mixing, the dough is just barely a cohesive mass and it’s still shaggy, there are sort of torn bits or flakes or whiskers sticking out. The amount of working the dough from shaggy to biscuit-shaped (out of the bowl, maybe a fold to make it cohesive enough to pat out and cut) is all a tender biscuit needs. Doesn’t look mixed at shaggy, though.
posted by clew at 12:37 AM on May 4, 2020 [4 favorites]

Seconding clew. Biscuits and scones are a masterclass in realizing that "this shaggy crumbly mess doesn't look nearly cohesive enough" is EXACTLY the state want for good results.
posted by cyndigo at 1:03 PM on May 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

I am from the southeastern US and come from a long matrilineal line of Georgia biscuit makers. Cut the fat and the liquid in. Do not overmix. Do not knead much at all. You do not want to develop the gluten like for other bread recipes. Developing the gluten destroys biscuits. "shaggy" is an amazing word to describe proper biscuit dough. Roll the dough out once and make it all into biscuits. A second rolling is disastrous for biscuits.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:50 AM on May 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

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