Thursday, February 27, 2014

Buttermilk Biscuits & Civilization, A True Story

Mythical Buttermilk Biscuit Cow

Just as pancakes are merely a vehicle for maple syrup, biscuits provide the perfect vehicle for blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, peach, or apricot jam. And just as I've always made jam, I've always made biscuits and scones. I also count myself among those who have sought in vain to differentiate scone from biscuit and biscuit from scone. So it was with eager anticipation that I read:

Biscuits and Scones Share Tender Secrets, in the New York Times: Dining & Wine, Feb 25, 2014.

In which Julia Moskin tells us that American biscuits originated in the British Isles as scones, first mentioned in print in the 16th century. Her source authority, Elisabeth Luard, a director of The Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery and the author of The Old World Kitchen.
The proto-scone is believed to come from Scottish kitchens, where rounds of oat and barley dough were cooked on large griddles, then cut into wedges. They were a simple combination of fat, flour and liquid, which became softer and lighter as wheat, butter and leaveners like baking soda and baking powder became widely available.
Not exactly breaking news, but good journalism with source clearly attributed. But what is it about the New York Times food writers? So often they choose to state opinion as fact. For instance:
Height is paramount to a good biscuit or scone.
I like a tall biscuit, too, but an acquaintance from Mobile, Alabama makes a traditional New Year's biscuit that is flat and nearly as crispy as a cracker. With a breakfast pork chop and gravy, it's delicious. That's opinion, because deliciousness is a matter of taste, not fact.

To be fair, opinions stated authoritatively can easily be taken as fact, but we want to trust the New York Times to at least get the facts right. To wit:
Buttermilk is a traditional liquid for biscuits and used to contain more butterfat, but today it is a lean and sour product.
This is not only wrong, it's gratuitous. Are we supposed to think that old-fashioned buttermilk made better biscuits? Let's set the record straight, which isn't too hard, because the name says it all (and there are plenty of sources, like this one from a cheese-making professor of biology and chemistry).

Traditional buttermilk was the liquid left behind after churning cream into butter. The fat solidifies into butter leaving a liquid byproduct, buttermilk. You can't buy traditional buttermilk, at least not in these parts, but you can make it yourself.

Try the recipe for Home-churned butter and buttermilk: the sweet-cream type, on page 245 of Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, by Anne Mendelson. She also goes into the differences between "true" buttermilk and the modern-day product. She finds both, delicious.

Commercially-available buttermilk is generally a "cultured" product, i.e. bacteria is added to milk and allowed to ferment. Like yoghurt, you can ferment any kind of milk with any amount of fat you choose. Most grocery store buttermilk appears to be a cultured, low-fat product. It's thicker than milk, thinner than yoghurt, and both pourable and drinkable. More importantly for our biscuits, it's more acidic than unfermented milk.
Cooking Chemistry 101: Acid + Baking Soda = Gaseous Lift
The chemical reaction creates carbon dioxide and gives baked goods a quick rise, which is why buttermilk is a traditional addition to biscuits, scones, and Irish soda bread, too. (It's almost St. Patrick's Day.)

Milk begets cream, sour cream, butter, buttermilk, yoghurt, kefir, and a long list of other fermented, cultured, and ripened products, including countless varieties of cheese.

Goats, sheep, or cow's milk, plus some milled grain, like wheat, oats, or corn, and you've got the dough of civilization. Let it sit around to collect yeasts, and you've got bread. If you're in a hurry to leave town, you've got matzo. Or you can move civilization forward to 1846, when Messrs Dwight & Church, two New York bakers, built the first baking soda factory (now Arm & Hammer), and matzos magically became biscuits. (Though a high-fat cream certainly makes a richer-tasting biscuit).

Leave out the double-acting baking powder and stick to buttermilk and baking soda, plus butter for richness and flavor. I'm going to have to try the crowding tip of "huddling" unbaked biscuits close together on the baking sheet so they've got no place to expand but up! But then again, nice flat crackers have their devotees, as well.

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