Saturday, November 18, 2006


Why? Because I thought everyone knew how to bake biscuits. Turns out, I was wrong, big time. So here ya’ go. But first, let me clue you in about flour.

All fish aren’t the same, other than being fish. Same is true for tomatoes, chili peppers, women, dogs and pick-up trucks. Wheat, too. Lots of varieties of wheat. Some wheat has more starch, others have more gluten, some have a higher water content, some got a bigger kernel.

Different wheats produce different flours. Nowadays they mix them all together, try to convince you this All-Purpose crap is just as good as honest Bread Flour or Pastry Flour. It’s not, which you can prove for yourself if you can get your hands on the Real Thing. Trying to make good biscuits outta All-Purpose flour is like trying to make planked salmon outta sardines.

So if you wanna bake biscuits, go find yourself some real Bread Flour.

And some lard. And some salt. And some baking powder.

Most folks use cow’s milk for mixing if they can get it. Not the skimmed stuff, real milk. Of course, if you can’t catch a cow or don’t know how to milk, you’ll have to use something else. Out at sea, you can mix up instant milk. Tastes like hell but it’s okay for cooking. Or you can use water. Or even beer if the crew is hungry enough.

Ready to make some biscuits? If you’ve got an oven, go turn it on. Hot; up around 450. If you’ll be using a Dutch Oven you should have started the fire about an hour ago. I never had much luck baking biscuits in a pueblo oven; too cool or something. But a Dutch Oven will work fine. Fishing, prospecting or just traveling around, I generally use the Coleman stove because it’s faster.

Batch of biscuits is four big handfuls of flour, big pinch of salt and a palm-full of baking powder. I like Clabber Girl but Calumet works okay. (Durban, Loreto or Vancouver, they won’t know what the hell you’re talking about even if they speak a little English. But the local chandler will know what works, can usually give you a list or even buy it for you, plus his usual bite of course.)

That’s all the dry stuff. Throw it in a bowl and mix it up. Use your hand. If you been out for a while the flour will usually have some weevils. You’ll have to sift them out if the crew is college boys or picky sorts but weevils won’t hurt you once they’re cooked.

Lard comes next. Two scoops-worth. Use your first three fingers as the scoop. Squish it into the flour with your hand. Squish it good; the flour will be kinda crumbly if you do it right.

Now you can add the milk. Or beer. Or whatever. Little at a time, starting with about one glug, which works out to about as much as you can put in your cupped palm. Moisture and heat activates the baking powder, which generates carbon dioxide, which makes your biscuits fluffy. But you don’t want too much moisture or the biscuits will come out tough. Just Right is when the dough peels away from your hand without sticking; too wet, it’ll stick.

Flour your cutting board and flop the dough onto it. Knead it with your palms and fold it back, then turn it end for end and do the same, then flip it over and do it all over again. Now pat it out and use a tin can to punch out the biscuits.

If you’ve got an oven, put your biscuits in a big iron skillet or on a cookie tin or whatever and stick ‘em in there. Hot oven, should take about a quarter of an hour.

Dutch oven should be just about too hot to touch before you put in the biscuits. Pack them in the bottom, put on the lid, rake some coals off the side and sit the oven over the coals, then put about one pie pan’s-worth of coals on the lid. How long depends on the wind and the weather but south of sixty, ten to twenty minutes is about the norm.

Back over on the cutting board you got that Swiss cheese looking mess of dough. Knead it into a ball then take something round and roll it out thin, like a pie crust. Grab a lump of butter and smear it all over the dough. Sprinkle some sugar on the butter and some cinnamon onto the sugar then roll it up like a tortilla. Slice the roll into little wheels and bake them along with the biscuits.

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Wacky as all that sounds, it has produced superlative biscuits for more than half a century, afloat and ashore, from the arctic to the tropics. There’s a bit more to it of course; experience counts for something. But the basic message is that making biscuits isn’t rocket science; anyone should be able to whip up a batch of biscuits from scratch. Preparation of food is mostly common sense. Unfortunately, common sense is a remarkably uncommon commodity in modern-day America.

If all you’ve got is All-Purpose flour, go ahead and use it. But you’ll be shooting yourself in the foot. Oh, it’ll make a biscuit. Or a pie, cake or whatever. But it isn’t the right flour for any of those things. (Makes good pancakes, through.)

Don’t want to use lard? Then use something else. But privately, if it’s the first time. I’ve used everything from seal blubber to coconut oil. Some things work better than others; lard’s the best shortening for biscuits.

You’ll note that all of the measurements are relative to the cook. I’ve learned to do without cups or teaspoons or ounces because as soon as you become dependent on such things you’re screwed when you don’t have them. But you’ve always got your hands and your senses.

Can’t boil water without a cookbook? Then get acquainted with Fannie Farmer. She’s been telling Americans how to prepare good food for more than a hundred years.

Bob Hoover

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