Calgary·RECIPE

Master the perfect biscuit or scone with Julie Van Rosendaal's tips

The ability to make a flaky, crunchy-edged biscuit or light, cakey scone is a skill that reaps endless benefits. CBC food columnist Julie Van Rosendaal offers her tricks and tips to help you get started.

CBC Calgary's food columnist has lots of suggestions for peak flaky

A flaky biscuit or scone can be the ideal treat with a cup of tea. Making these simply takes practice, and food columnist Julie Van Rosendaal is here to help you dive in. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

The ability to make a flaky, crunchy-edged biscuit or light, cakey scone is a skill that reaps endless benefits.

A batch of biscuits or scones is infinitely useful. They can be quickly stirred together with very few ingredients — ones you likely already have on hand — and can be served sweet or savoury at breakfast, lunch, dinner or as a snack.

I'll offer a few recipes to try out — and tips to make them extra tasty. Share your own tips and tricks in the comments below.

There aren't many differences between the two, although some will feel more strongly about this sentiment than others.

Both are made with fat rubbed into flour and baking powder, then stirred into a dough with the addition of milk or cream.

Another side benefit of making biscuits and scones is that you can use up any dairy products that might be nearing their expiry date in your fridge: besides milk, cream and buttermilk, yogurt and sour cream can be thinned with water or milk to the consistency of thick buttermilk.

If you want to go dairy-free, coconut milk makes a tasty biscuit or scone, or swap in almond or other non-dairy milk.

Scones are typically denser, tend to have a wetter dough and thus a softer rise. They have a dense crumb rather than the flaky layers of a typical biscuit. They're often sweetened, and made richer with the addition of an egg along with the cream or milk.

Biscuits, on the other hand, are prized for their flakiness and dramatic rise.

Often they're made with buttermilk, which historically was left over after churning butter. The theory is that its acidity, combined with a small amount of baking soda, will result in a more dramatic rise and a tangy flavour.

Taste test

We put that buttermilk theory to the test on the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday. I made two batches side-by-side using the same formula, except one had milk and one had buttermilk, and baking them together on the same sheet.

In the Eyeopener studio, 100 per cent of biscuit eaters who tasted both, and had an opinion about it, chose the ones made with regular milk instead of buttermilk. Visually, the buttermilk biscuits were darker, but they both had a similar rise.

The buttermilk biscuits were crunchier but had a sturdier texture. The milk biscuits were softer inside but still satisfyingly flaky. Brushing the tops with a little extra milk ensured they were all glossy and golden.

Fold the biscuits dough and you'll create towers of layers. (Julie Van Rosendaal/CBC)

One last note: the majority of comments in the newsroom after the show questioned why so many coffee shop scones are heavy, tough and dry — and disappointing.

One theory is that the dough is overworked. Once liquid comes into contact with the flour, it develops gluten. Fat helps prevent the development of gluten, shortening the strands. This is why it's called shortcrust pastry, or shortbread cookies.

The slightly higher ratio of liquid to flour in some scones might make them more susceptible to the development of gluten, which would make them tough.

Also, they should be eaten fresh. Typically biscuits and scones don't last long, nor reheat well.

No matter which you're making, handle the dough as little as necessary: stir, gather, pat.

If you want to fold it over itself, fold it but don't knead it.

As with most things, the best way to master a biscuit is to make them.

Biscuits

A tip to those at home: get some good layers by rubbing the butter into the dry ingredients with your fingers or using a box grater.

Stir in the milk without overworking the dough, and as soon as it comes together, pat it about ½-inch thick and fold it in thirds, as if you were folding a letter.

Ingredients

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder 

½ tsp baking soda, if you're using buttermilk

½ tsp salt

½ cup butter, cold

¾ cup cream, milk, buttermilk or thinned yogurt or sour cream

Preparation

Preheat the oven to 218 C/425 F.

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, if you're using it, and salt. If you want them sweet, add a couple tablespoons of sugar.

With a small paring knife, slice or cut the butter into the flour mixture or grate it on the coarse side of a grater. Rub it into the flour with your fingers, making flat pieces between your thumb and fingers, as if you were snapping your fingers and as so many grandmas do.

At this point, you could add grated cheese or fresh or frozen berries. Don't thaw the frozen berries; you want them to stay frozen so they don't leak their juices into the dough.

Toss them into the flour-butter mixture, then add the cream, milk or thinned yogurt. Stir just until the dough comes together. It will look shaggy, not smooth. That's OK.

Gather it all up, including all the rough bits in the bottom of the bowl. Either pat it out an inch thick on a parchment-lined baking sheet or pat it out about half-an-inch thick and fold it over itself in thirds, as if you were folding a letter. This will give you satisfying layers but it's truly not necessary.

Pat the dough about an inch thick and cut into wedges, squares or rounds with a sharp knife or cookie cutter. If you're using a cutter or glass rim, try not to twist it, as this could seal the cut sides a bit, keeping them from maximum lift.

Brush the tops with a bit more milk or cream.There should be enough in the bottom of the measuring cup.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until risen and deep golden.

Serving: Makes about eight biscuits.

Scones

As with all biscuits and scones, you can play around here and add dry fruit, chopped fresh or frozen fruit, berries, nuts, chopped chocolate, grated citrus zest. Anything goes.

Ingredients

2 cups all-purpose flour

¼ cup sugar

1 tbsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

1/3 cup butter, grated or cut into bits

1 large egg

¾ cup (approximately) half-and-half, cream or milk

1 cup fresh or frozen (not thawed) berries

½ cup chopped dark or white chocolate

Coarse sugar, for sprinkling, optional

Preparation

Preheat the oven to 218 C/425 F.

In a medium-large bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Grate in the butter or cut it into bits and blend it in with a fork or your fingers. Do this until it's mostly blended in with bits the size of a pea still remaining.

Crack the egg into a measuring cup, stir it with a fork and add enough milk or cream to measure one cup.

Add it to the dry ingredients and, after a few strokes, add the berries and chocolate and stir just until the dough comes together.

Pat it about an inch thick on a parchment-lined sheet. Cut it into pieces-wedges or squares or rounds or just haphazard pieces. If you like, brush the tops with milk and sprinkle with sugar, coarse or not.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, until deep golden.

Serving: Eat warm. Makes about eight scones.

Cream biscuits

This is, hands-down, the easiest biscuit recipe out there. It requires no blending in of butter but still transforms into a tall, airy biscuit, and it takes any additions well.

It was the least favourite of the bunch, but I still make them all the time because they're delicious as is. They're especially tasty when spread with butter and jam, or used to scoop up chili or dunk in soup.

They're ridiculously easy to make, especially when you have surplus cream in the house.

Ingredients

1½ cups all-purpose flour

1-2 tbsp sugar, optional

1½ tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

1 cup heavy or whipping cream

Preparation

Preheat the oven to 218 C/425 F.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.

If you like, add a handful of grated sharp cheese, some fresh or frozen berries, chocolate chunks or other additions.

Add the cream and stir just until the dough comes together.

On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough a few times, then pat into a circle about an inch thick.

Cut into wedges, circles or squares and transfer onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Brush the tops with a little cream. There should be enough in the bottom of the measuring cup.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until golden.

Serving: Serve warm.

Listen to Julie Van Rosendaal's full column on biscuits and scones:

What's the difference between scones and biscuits? Our food guide Julie Van Rosendaal explains. 7:54

About the Author

Julie Van Rosendaal

Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.

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