The butter for your biscuits should be cold, cold, cold. Cut the butter into small pieces, drop the pieces into the bowl with the dry ingredients and toss, so that the chunklets are coated with flour.
Use your fingers or a pastry blender to cut the butter into the flour. Don’t be overly thorough here – you want some pieces to be reduced to flakes and others to be pebbly and about the size of peas. It’s the water in the butter that turns to steam in the oven, and it’s the steam that puffs the biscuits and gives them their flaky layers, so keep this in mind and stop mixing and mashing a minute or two before you think you should.
Mix the cold buttermilk into the dough with a fork. Just gently lift and turn the sticky dough to incorporate it – no whipping or beating, here – and then reach into the bowl and knead the dough a few times to bring it together.
Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and either pat it into a circle that’s about 1/2-inch thick, or roll it out. I used to be a patter, but now that I’ve got my wonderful red silicone rolling pin (you can just see it in the background in the photo), it’s my tool of choice.
If you don’t have a biscuit cutter, you can always use a knife and cut the biscuits into squares (in which case you should really roll the dough into a square). However, if you plan on being a bicuiteer, I’d suggest you get a proper cutter – biscuit cutters are taller than cookie cutters (so they can accommodate the thickness of the dough) and usually sharper-edged, so they cut the dough cleanly and not mash down the layers of dough and fat that produce biscuits’ characteristic flakiness.
For biscuits that are soft-sided, place the cut-out circles close to one another on the baking sheet; for crusty biscuits, separate the circles, so the heat can circulate around them. Crusty or soft, I like to put the biscuits on a baking sheet lined with a reusable silicone baking mat (my favorite), parchment paper or foil.
Biscuits really should be eaten burn-your-fingers hot. Not only do they taste better, but when you pull a hot biscuit apart to butter it, you can really see the wonderful flakey layers. Cool – as they’ll be if you take them on a picnic – the layers aren’t as prominent, but the biscuit’s easier to use for a sandwich.
And, don’t forget that you can freeze the biscuits before they’re baked. Roll them out and cut them, put the circles of dough on a baking sheet and slide the set-up into the freezer. As soon as the dough is frozen, remove the circles and pack them airtight. When the urge for hot, flakey buttermilk biscuits hits, just pull out as many as you want and bake them, giving them a minute or two more in the oven.
This is a very basic recipe and I’m sure you’ll find a bunch of ways to play around with it. For starters, you can make a “sweet” milk biscuit – just swap the buttermilk for whole milk and omit the baking soda. You can also make herb biscuits – stir minced fresh herbs (rosemary is always good in biscuits) or a pinch of dried herbs into the flour bowl before you toss in the butter.
Once you get rolling, the ideas will come – I know it.