The Art of Quick-Bread Baking

buttermilk biscuitsMuffins, scones and biscuits all fall into the category of ‘quick breads’. However, don’t be confused, they are NOT breads, and they use completely different skills and techniques.

If I had to distill my advice on quick breads down to one or two comments only, it would be this:
1.  For scones and biscuits–cut in frozen butter. Then add the buttermilk quickly, while handling (mixing) the dough as little as possible.
2.  For muffins–first, blend or cream the butter, sugar and eggs thoroughly. Then, when adding the flour and dry ingredients–do this as gently and minimally as possible.

WHY?  Here is what ultimately separates bread baking from quick bread baking. When you make bread, the more you knead the dough the better it becomes.  But with quick breads the more you ‘work’ the dough or batter, the tougher and more rubber-y it becomes.  The reason is the same for all, and the culprit is gluten.  Bread thrives on well-developed gluten to give it its structure and characteristic ‘chew’. Gluten develops as you knead the dough.  When you make quick breads, you do NOT want gluten to form. Thus, you handle or ‘work’ the dough or batter as little as possible. 

How does this translate into practice? It means that when you make quick breads, you work the liquid and dry ingredients together by hand, with a spatula. Run your spatula around the bowl and along the bottom, scooping from the bottom and bringing it up to the top to be sure that the dry ingredients get combined into the liquid.  Continue doing this until the dough/batter JUST begins to come together–and quit!

Fill the muffin tins–or turn the scone/biscuit dough out onto a floured board and cut your scones. Done!

Frozen Butter and Scone Dough–some Chilling Facts

Many recipes (including the directions for making our scones and biscuits) call for using chilled or frozen butter.

Lets face it–frozen butter is. . .cold. Hard. Difficult to slice, and difficult to work with. It is SO much easier to work with butter that is warmed to room temperature, or even melted. So WHY make the extra effort and time and use frozen butter?

Lauren Chattman, author of The Baking Answers Book, says the point in using chilled butter is so that it doesn’t melt during dough assembly. Let the butter melt in the oven, not on your kitchen counter. AND frozen butter takes up more physical space than melted butter. When it melts during baking, it creates an air pocket. The melting butter also releases steam, and that helps expand the air pocket, which ultimately helps the dough rise. What happens if the butter melts before being placed in the oven? You lose those pockets of air and steam, the dough doesn’t rise well, and you have denser scone or biscuit.

Start with a chilled bowl, which keeps everything cold. Add the dry ingredients to the bowl, and cut in cold or frozen butter. There are two easy ways to do this. One is with a mixer or food processor. The second is to pre-grate and freeze the butter, and then use a pastry cutter.

If you use the food processor or mixer, pulse or run it until most of the butter is broken down to rice-size pieces. Then gently stir in the COLD buttermilk, quickly pat out the dough and cut your scones. I add the buttermilk by hand, rather than with the mixer. No matter how careful I am, the mixer overworks the dough. It only takes an extra minute or two to add the liquid by hand, but it makes a big difference in the lightness of the scones.

how to make scones with frozen butter--grating butter firstThe second way to cut in frozen butter is to grate the needed amount of COLD butter, wrap it up gently, and freeze it. When you want to make scones, add the frozen grated butter to your bowl, and use a pastry cutter to cut it into the dry ingredients. This happens quickly and efficiently, and is only method I use to cut in frozen butter. Finish dough assembly by adding your buttermilk, gently patting out the dough and cutting your scones.

And then–FREEZE the DOUGH. When you are ready to bake, preheat your oven. Once preheated, line a cookie sheet with parchment paper, and remove the dough from the freezer. Put the frozen scones or biscuit on a cookie sheet, and put it in the oven. In a very few minutes, you can be enjoying gloriously light scones or biscuits!