Monday, November 9, 2009


Just about the time I lost my cookie mojo, I also thought I had the biscuit blues.

Luckily, I was so focused on my chocolate chip cookie disaster that I didn't have time to investigate the mystery of the no longer towering treasures of flaky goodness.

Lucky because it took only a few sentences by food scientist and cookbook author Shirley Corriher at a recent Bakers Dozen meeting to put me back on the tall and narrow biscuit path. A few words by food scientist and author Harold McGee at that same meeting added a bit of reassurance as well.

In the Midwestern town where I grew up, we were geographically close enough to both the northern and southern parts of the state that you had your choice of flaky or fluffy biscuits. Flaky biscuits are high rising towers and fluffy biscuits are soft mounds. Just like the type of fat you use in your pie crust, your preference was probably determined by what was served at your dinner table.

For me, it was flaky biscuits. The biscuits my mom often stirred together to serve with her creamed chicken were tall and flaky but they also looked a bit like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. So maybe they weren't picture perfect in the looks department but I always liked how the slope gave me a perfect lever to open up the biscuit for a knob of butter.

Most southerners prefer the fluffy biscuits, which require soft flour like the famous White Lily brand. This low protein, soft flour encourages a tender, cake like texture.

No cake like biscuits for us though. We used "strong" high protein all-purpose flour. This flour ensured a chewier and crispier biscuit but without any sacrifice of the flaky interior.

Besides the difference in flour, there are also strong preferences in the type of fat used -- butter or shortening.

I once substituted butter for the Crisco shortening we traditionally used but the sacrifice in height and texture made it a stranger -- Crisco it had to be. After all, I would soon be slathering the biscuit in butter anyway!

We also didn't use buttermilk -- an exotic ingredient in my childhood home. Our recipe was a basic baking powder biscuit recipe calling for all-purpose flour, salt, baking powder, shortening and milk. This recipe can be found in countless cookbooks for the beginner cook and in classic home cookbooks. Part of the appeal of the recipe is that it can be mixed together quickly and in one bowl.

A few weeks ago we had gotten an early rainfall and the house was feeling very cozy. I decided some homemade chicken soup and biscuits were just the ticket for dinner that evening.

I quickly stirred a batch of biscuits together. My dough was a lovely mass of stickiness -- perfect texture. I think rolling the dough can make the biscuits tough so I gently patted the dough into a circle -- adding just a pinch of flour to the breadboard to get a nice smooth circle.

Twisting the biscuit cutter into the dough instead of making one sharp punch probably caused my mom's lopsided biscuits. I cut them close together to generate fewer scraps. I then like to place them close together on a cookie sheet -- this keeps them moist and gives them each other to lean on as a support when they start to rise. Although you could space them one inch apart and this would just give you a crustier and drier biscuit.

The finished biscuits were a disappointment. Instead of my towering treasures they were now small, hockey puck like mounds of dough. Edible yes, but barely. Of course, butter saves most things and it was certainly the savior that night.

A memory tugged at me as I reviewed whether I had done anything differently this time when I put the biscuits together. I realized that last winter the same low rise had happened to a batch of biscuits the few times I had made them during that busy winter.

Now, as I sat listening to Shirley Corriher and Harold McGee talk about the ongoing difficulties bakers have with baking soda and baking powder, I hear Shirley say an interesting thing that made my ears perk up.

"I'm a lazy cook," Corriher said. "It often takes me a bit before I get my cakes in the oven. Therefore I need to use a baking powder that does its magic primarily in the oven and not while sitting on my counter waiting to be baked."

And then her words that solved my biscuit mystery, "Avoid Rumford Baking Powder, it creates 60% of its bubbles in the first two minutes!" proclaimed Corriher.


No wonder my biscuits were flat. Of course I knew that baking powder is what gives the nice rise to baked goods by introducing carbon dioxide into the batter and I also knew that there were different categories of baking powder: single, double, and fast-acting. Most grocery store brands are double-acting.

What I didn't realize is that although Rumford advertises itself as double-acting it in fact acts more like a single-acting baking powder. According to Corriher, Rumford gets most of its rise as soon as it is stirred into the batter and just a bit more in the oven. True double-acting baking powders give more oven rise.

I had grown up using Clabber Girl Baking Powder. In fact, it is produced in my hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana! It wasn't until recently that I realized that more serious bakers preferred the Rumford brand so of course, I had to switch to that brand. Later I found out that the makers of Clabber Girl also produce Rumford.

One of the reasons it appears that Rumford is preferred is that it is an all-phosphate baking powder -- it contains no aluminum.

This aluminum-free claim became a rallying cry several years ago as worries that excessive amounts of aluminum in the diet may contribute to Alzheimer's disease.

But according to Harold McGee, "You get more aluminum from eating a pickle than you do from eating half a cake."

Clabber Girl contains an acid that dissolves rapidly in liquid and an acid that does not dissolve until the batter reaches a higher temperature in the hot oven -- hence the double-acting label.

In her cookbook, Bakewise, Shirley Corriher has an excellent chart of Reaction Times of Leavening Acids During Baking. I also came across a great post on the different types of baking powders and their reaction times on the blog, thefreshloaf. Check out both of these if you want to find out more about the magic of baking powder.

I believe that just like measuring flour correctly (please buy a scale!), knowing what is in your baking powder is just as critical.

I also now know why some of my recent baking efforts didn't have the nice rise that I had expected from past efforts. Rumford literally was bursting my baking bubble(s)!

I'm back to being a Clabber Girl!

1 comment:

  1. PThis is a great post! Even though I was at the same talk, and I knew Shirley had said she didn't like Rumford...I completely missed the 60% comment! That is shocking.
    Rose Levy Beranbaum (in her new cakes book) says she uses Rumford because it lacks the bitter aftertaste associated with SAS (sodium alumninum sulfate)baking powers like Blabber Girl. She says "the supposed advantage of SAS powders is that they release a little more carbon dioxide durin ght ebaking stage than during the mixing stage, but I find I can interchange equal volume and weight of either type of baking powder."
    I have both Clabber Girl and Rumford in my cupboard now, and I think I should fashion some sort of side by side test to see if I notice any difference.