A basic homemade butter biscuits recipe is as easy as 1-2-3 and that’s the ratio you need to remember when baking biscuits. Here’s what the ratio means and how to use it.
North American biscuits versus European biscuits
Biscuits in North America refer to baking powder leavened, flaky bun of sorts, served as a side for lunch or dinner. The dough for biscuits are most often rolled and cut into squares or rounds before baking, served with meals, in the same way you’d serve bread buns as a side. They are also used to make breakfast sandwiches and shortcake desserts (like raspberry shortcake or even an ice cream strawberry shortcake).
These North American biscuits are not to be confused with British and European biscuits, where the term refers to cookies, often shortbread or sablé cookies. Remember that “biscuit” is the French term for cookie. Here, we are most definitely talking about North American biscuits.
The biscuit ratio
Actually, American biscuits resemble scones quite a bit. My favourite scone recipes happen to fall pretty close to a 1:2:3 recipe of 1 part fat, 2 parts liquid, and 3 parts flour, by weight. And this same ratio apparently works for biscuits, according to Michael Ruhlman (in his book Ratio).
Turns out homemade biscuits are as easy as 1-2-3 and to make a basic biscuit recipe, that’s all you have to remember: a biscuit ratio is 1 part fat, 2 parts liquid, 3 parts flour, by weight. It’s probably the easiest biscuit recipe to remember!
How to work with a ratio
Knowing that biscuits have a ratio of 1:2:3, that is 1 part fat, 2 parts liquid, and 3 parts flour, by weight, you can use this to make a batch of biscuits, big or small. You can make a batch of biscuits with 100 grams of fat, 200 grams of liquid, 300 grams of flour. You’ll end up with about 8 biscuits this way (if you cut them with a 2.5 ” round biscuit cutter).
Want more biscuits? Double all the amounts, so make a batch with 200 grams of fat, 400 grams of liquid, and 600 grams of flour. You should be able to make about 16 biscuits this way, more or less depending on how you cut them.
Want to make less biscuits, then cut the ingredients by half: combine 50 grams of fat, 100 grams of liquid, and 150 grams of flour to make as little as 4 or 5 biscuits.
The beauty of working with a ratio is that you can easily scale up and down a recipe to make more or less. Just don’t forget the leavening agents, obviously. Biscuits are often referred to as baking powder biscuits for a reason: they need baking powder too!
Basic biscuit ingredients
The fat of choice for many bakers is butter, but feel free to deviate from this and explore other solid fat options for biscuits, like duck fat and bacon fat! Note that with butter, you are adding 80 % fat (up to 84 %) and some moisture, whereas with bacon fat and duck fat, these solid fats are 100 % fat, no water added.
I like to use butter as my fat of choice when I make biscuits, so these are all-butter biscuits. Like with pie dough, you can also consider using a combination of two different fats, like butter and lard, to achieve more tenderness, better layering, etc.
The liquid of choice for the basic biscuit is either milk or buttermilk. If you want to bake biscuits with buttermilk, you will need to add some baking soda to your dry mix to ensure they rise properly as they bake. For every cup of flour, add 1.25 mL (1/4 tsp) of baking soda to ensure a proper rise. You could also use a liquid with a higher fat content, such as half-and-half, or a mixture of milk and 35 % whipping cream.
I prefer to use a liquid with some fat in it or a combination of milk and cream because that fat makes for a more tender biscuit that stays fresh longer.
Most of us bake biscuits with all-purpose flour though some culinary professionals may use a mixture of bread flour and cake flour. The bread flour provides more protein and a lot of structure to biscuit dough, which helps it keeps its shape as the biscuits bake. The cake flour is lower in protein and higher in starch, so cake flour will contribute tenderness to biscuits so that they aren’t so tough.
I bake biscuits and scones with all-purpose flour because that’s what I have in my kitchen. To achieve the layers that many biscuits have, visible especially from the side of the biscuits, the dough for biscuits is rolled out (or pressed out with your fingertips), then cut into equal pieces which are stacked before rolling out the dough.
The process is similar to the rolling and folding that creates the layers you see in homemade croissants or homemade puff pastry. With biscuits, instead of folding the dough, you cut it and stack it to create the layers, but the idea remains the same: to create lots of distinct sheets of dough to create a layered effect.
Most biscuits are made with chemical leaveners, either baking powder or baking soda, either of which (or sometimes both) get whisked in with the flour and salt. Whether you use baking powder or baking soda is entirely dependent on the liquid you use, whether milk or buttermilk:
- If you are using milk to make your biscuits, use baking powder (roughly 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder per cup of all-purpose flour)—these are known as baking powder biscuits
- If you are using buttermilk to make your biscuits, use baking powder AND baking soda (roughly 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder + 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon baking soda per cup of flour)—these are referred to as buttermilk biscuits
Variations on the basic biscuit recipe
Just like with scones, once you have mastered this basic recipe, you can easily adapt it to add different flavour elements and get creative:
- add herbs, fresh or dried, like thyme or rosemary
- add salty flavours, like chopped sun-dried tomatoes, chopped cooked bacon, shredded cheese
These cheddar bacon biscuits are a prime example of taking a base recipe and then modifying it. Biscuits that are served on top of cobblers, with fresh strawberries and whipped cream for strawberry shortcakes, or as a side with dinner are not to be confused with these spicy cheddar biscuits, which are rich, flaky homemade cheese crackers. Actually, those might fall under the savoury shortbread category upon further investigating.
This basic biscuit recipe is similar to a stripped down version of basic scones because biscuits and scones seem like they are cousins. These biscuits are tender on the inside and just a little chewy on the outside. They are buttery and delightful as is, but perfect with a generous schmear of homemade jam.
How to achieve more layers
I made these biscuits a little smaller than most would. The secret to a big, tall biscuit: more dough rolled out thick. But besides the height of the biscuit, there’s another important technique to keep in mind when making biscuits: rolling and folding, which is what you do to make flaky homemade croissants and puff pastry.
Rolling and folding the dough works the proteins in the flour more which builds up a little gluten and adds structure to biscuits. Folding ensures that your biscuits will have lots of flat layers of butter tucked between the dough. Those butter layers will open up the crumb of the biscuit and add physical layers.
Frequent problems when making biscuits
Butter melts out as the biscuits bake
If you’ve ever baked a batch of biscuits and checked on them as they bake, discovering that pools of butter have formed underneath them, you aren’t alone! I’ve done this too and it’s a very common problem!
What I’ve found is that if you don’t take the time to incorporate the butter into the flour properly so that the butter is in very small flour-coated pieces, then when you roll out and cut your biscuits, you will notice that the butter chunks are very visible on the surface and edges of the biscuits, and the pieces of butter are quite large in appearance, close to the surface. This is when you may end up with butter leaking from the dough as it bakes.
This also happens with pie dough! It’s very important to take the time to work the butter into the flour sufficiently so that the pieces of butter are just a few millimetres in size.
Also, I like to chill the biscuits (or briefly freeze them) before baking to ensure that the butter is cold so that the surface and edges will dry out and set before the butter melts. I find this helps reduce that butter pooling effect.
Biscuits are flat
I used to roll out my biscuit dough too thin and obviously, there’s only so much rise the baking powder can bring to compensate. If you find your biscuits are too flat or not thick enough, next time simply roll them out thicker. Lately, I’ve been pressing the dough out with the palms of my hands and I find with this technique, I’m less likely to roll out the dough too thin.
If your biscuits spread when they bake, it’s probably because your dough was too soft or because you added too much liquid. Try freezing your biscuits 15 minutes before baking them to help them hold their shape. If that doesn’t work, try adding less liquid next time.
Biscuits are tough
There’s a reason why, in the South, bakers use bleached low-protein flour called White Lily to make biscuits: it allows them to roll, cut, and stack the biscuit dough repeatedly without developing too much gluten. But if you use all-purpose flour like I do, or a higher protein flour, there is a risk that all that manipulating of the dough will lead to tough biscuits as the gluten develops the more you handle it.
You have to handle biscuit dough as little as possible, just enough to form a dough. You don’t want to knead the dough more than 2 or 3 times, just enough to gather all the pieces of shaggy dough into one ball. You aren’t making bread and we don’t want to develop the gluten, nor do we want an elastic dough. Quite the opposite. Other options to consider for next time if you are having trouble with tough biscuits:
- add a tablespoon of vinegar to your liquid (milk or cream): the vinegar will lower the pH of the dough, making it more difficult for gluten to form (just like you would add vinegar to a pie dough you are making)
- replace the milk with buttermilk: buttermilk is an acidic dairy and that acidity, besides providing flavour, makes it a great baking ingredient to use when you want to minimize gluten formation
- replace the all-purpose flour with lower protein flour, as they do in the south. Or perhaps try combining a couple different types of flour, like all-purpose flour with a little spelt flour.
Biscuits are deformed
If you are cutting out neat shapes, like circles, but you find when they bake, your biscuits end up oval or distorted in shape, it could come from your cutting technique. When you cut out biscuits, you want to cut straight down, through the layers you created. You don’t want to twist or turn the cutter too much. The twisting leads to biscuit shape distorting in the oven.
Biscuits are too sweet
I add a little sugar to my biscuits, sometimes several tablespoons and I garnish the biscuits with turbinado before baking. Generally, I’m probably using the biscuits to make a fruit dessert, like a raspberry shortcake or ice cream strawberry shortcake. The sugar isn’t essential in the recipe so feel free to remove it. You can also up the salt in the recipe, adds some freshly ground pepper. You can also incorporate shredded cheese in the dough and even bacon, as in these cheddar bacon biscuits.
Biscuits aren’t flaky enough
When I make biscuits, I only go through 1 round of stacking to create layers in the dough, the minimum. This creates enough layering that I can easily split the biscuits open to fill them with cream and berries for a dessert, for example. If you want more layers and a more “flaky” look to them, repeat the rolling, cutting, and stacking several times.
Remember that the more you handle the dough, the higher the risk that gluten will develop, the tougher your biscuits may be. So more layering may also make a more chewy, less tender biscuit.
Homemade butter biscuits
- 345 grams (2¾ cups) all purpose flour
- 15 mL (2½1 tbsp) baking powder
- 6.25 mL (1¼ tsp) fine kosher salt
- 14 grams (1 tbsp) granulated sugar for sweeter biscuits, use up to 45 grams (3 tbsp) of sugar
- 115 g (½ cup) unsalted butter cut into small chunks
- 250 mL (⅔ cup) half-and-half cream (10 % fat) plus more for brushing on top of the biscuits (see note)
- Turbinado sugar for garnishing
- Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and the sugar.
- Add the butter and work it into the flour with either your hands or a pastry cutter until the mixture resembles a coarse crumble.
- Add the milk and cream. Stir it in with a fork, then dump out the biscuit mixture onto the counter and knead it 2 or 3 times til it comes together.
- Press the biscuit dough to 1 inch thick on a very lightly floured surface. Cut into four pieces and stack them to make a tower.
- Press out the dough again until it's 1 inch thick and cut out about 8 circles with a 2.5 " round cookie cutter, if you can. Press the scraps together gently enough to cut out the rest of the biscuits. You should have 10 to 12 biscuits, depending on how thick the dough is.
- Place the biscuits on the baking sheet. Brush with a little milk and sprinkle with turbinado (if using).
- Bake until the edges and tops of the biscuits are golden brown, about 25 minutes. Serve fresh.
- For the biscuits, you can replace the half-and-half cream (10 %) with a mixture of 35 % whipping cream or heavy cream and milk:
- to replace 250 mL of half-and-half cream (10 % fat): combine 80 mL of whipping cream (35 %) and 170 mL of milk as a substitute
- For this recipe, I baked with Stirling Churn 84 unsalted butter
Though many bake their biscuits at 350 ºF, I prefer to bake them at a higher temperature (400 ºF) so that they rise up before the outer crust sets. I also prefer to bake at a higher temperature to help them brown more since biscuits are low in sugar, browning is slow at 350 ºF.
Freshly baked biscuits taste great the day they are made, but the longer they are stored, they will dry out and become pretty unappetizing. Though they can be quite rich, biscuits are lower in fat than scones and lower in sugar. Remember sugar leads to moist baked goods that store well because sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs humidity. That lack of sugar in most biscuits means that they don’t have as much ability to retain, nor absorb moisture. They dry out very quickly, especially because they are made with milk or buttermilk and not that much butter. For this reason, it’s best to bake smaller batches of biscuits, or better yet, freeze unbaked biscuits so that you can bake the amount you need when you want them.
To freeze unbaked biscuits, set them on a parchment-lined sheet pan and freeze them in a single layer. Once they are frozen solid, you can transfer them to an airtight freezer bag to seal them and store them in the freezer long term.
To bake frozen unbaked biscuits, preheat the oven to 400 ºF and bake them, straight from the freezer, for at least 5 minutes longer than the recipe calls for.
You can also freeze freshly baked biscuits in the same way, on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Then reheat them in a low oven (around 250 ºF) for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they are warmed through.
And if you are looking for a scone, I definitely have a few scone recipes that you can try that are variations on the base recipe but with more sugar added:
- fruit-stuffed scones like these apple pie scones that I love to make in the fall
- fresh fruit scones, like these rhubarb scones that are perfect in spring
- fruit scones made with dried fruit like these date scones
- tea-infused scones like these lavender scones made with white chocolate (and feel free to swap the lavender for some Earl Grey tea leaves!)
I do my best to bake with the finest ingredients. Stirling Creamery, a Canadian company, has provided the butter for this post.
Janice Lawandi is chemist-turned-baker, working as a recipe developer in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She studied pastry at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and cooking at l’Académie Culinaire. She has a BSc in Biochemistry from Concordia University and a PhD in Chemistry from McGill University. Visit janicelawandi.com to see my portfolio.