Fats and liquids in biscuits: choosing your favorite texture

How do you like your biscuits? Tall and tender, with a golden-brown bottom? Or do you like them a bit flatter and more sturdy, so you can toast and slather them with jam? As the baker, you get to decide how to adjust the fats and liquids in biscuits so they have just the right texture and taste.

When you start with a foolproof recipe like our Baking Powder Biscuits, it’s easy to customize the final result. While it’s certainly important to follow recipes closely while baking, you have some flexibility when it comes to choosing certain ingredients.

Fats and liquids in biscuits via @kingarthurflour

How to adjust the fats and liquids in your biscuits so they’re perfectly suited to you! Click To Tweet

Choosing the fat for your biscuits

Let’s start with the base of any good biscuit — the fat. Our original recipe calls for 4 to 6 tablespoons of butter or shortening. The higher amount will give you a richer, more buttery crumb. I decide to split the difference for testing purposes and use 5 tablespoons (2 1/2 ounces).

Whenever we talk about fats in baking, we always hear from a portion of “lard-core bakers” (people who are dedicated to using lard). Customer feedback is something we take seriously here at King Arthur Flour, so we’ll incorporate lard (as well as coconut oil) into our fat testing.

Fats and liquids in biscuits via @kingarthurflour

The butter version rises the highest — look at those flaky layers! The shortening biscuit is slightly shorter and a bit drier, too. Butter contains a bit of water, which helps create steam and gives baked goods a boost. (We discovered this to be true in our other explorations of butter vs. shortening, as well.)

The coconut oil biscuits are even shorter than the shortening biscuits, and the lard version is the squattest. Neither the coconut nor lard variations win the beauty contest, either. They’re a bit soft looking and don’t have that desirable, craggy exterior that makes biscuits so appealing.

Fats and liquids in biscuits via @kingarthurflour

In addition to rising the highest, the butter version is also the brownest.

Why? Butter contains milk solids, which include sugars that caramelize at high temperatures. Shortening, coconut oil, and lard are all 100% fat. They contain no milk solids or sugars, so they don’t caramelize in the same way. Still tasty, just less golden brown.

This preliminary finding of what adjusting fat in biscuits can do is exciting, but it’s also just the beginning. On to liquids!

Fats and liquids in biscuits via @kingarthurflour

Selecting the liquid for your biscuits

Just as important as the fat is the liquid used to make your biscuits. Our Baking Powder Biscuits recipe offers the choice of using milk or buttermilk. Buttermilk is known for making biscuits tender and adding a zippy tang, so we used that for this test.

Choices are important in baking, so we’ll also test variations with full-fat sour cream, half & half, and heavy cream. (You can also use plain, full-fat Greek yogurt in place of sour cream if you like.)

Each liquid has a different amount of water, fat, milk solids, and acidity — all of which can change the flavor and texture of your biscuits.

To see the effects of each liquid, we make a batch of all-butter biscuits and change only the liquid —testing buttermilk, sour cream, heavy cream, and half & half. (We leave milk out of these tests since milk and half & half should yield very similar results, with the half & half biscuits just slightly more tender).

Fats and liquids in biscuits via @kingarthurflour

It’s surprising what changing just one ingredient can do! The heavy cream biscuit is slightly paler than the other three, while the half & half version is the evenly brown. The buttermilk and sour cream versions are somewhere in the middle in terms of color: nicely caramelized around the edges.

Fats and liquids in biscuits via @kingarthurflour

You might be wondering, well, what about the height? Surprisingly, all four biscuits are about the same height, with the buttermilk version just a smidge taller than the rest. Turns out that fat affects the height and flakiness of biscuits, while liquid impacts the color more noticeably.

Now we have a basic idea of what to expect when adjusting the fat and liquid in biscuits. Time to personalize your biscuits and choose your favorite combination!

Fats and liquids in biscuits via @kingarthurflour

Testing fats and liquids in biscuits

There’s a bit of a baking frenzy in the test kitchen as I try out all the possible combinations of fat and liquid in biscuits. Here’s what we find:

Fats and liquids in biscuits via @kingarthurflour

Shortening: A bit less flaky than some of the other versions but very tender — especially the heavy cream version: think melt-in-your-mouth texture. None of these has stand-out flavor though; they’re a bit bland. Still, not bad overall.

Coconut oil: Slightly sweet flavor (though not coconut-y), most similar to butter in flavor. The texture of some of the higher-fat versions (heavy cream and sour cream) is a bit chewy/gummy. The best combination from this batch is coconut oil and buttermilk: delicate crumb and creamy flavor.

Fats and liquids in biscuits via @kingarthurflour

Lard: Savory aroma with a distinct taste (and aftertaste). In full disclosure, I’m a vegetarian so some trustworthy employee-owners taste this batch. They think these biscuits might be nice with a sauce (gravy) or spread. The lard and half & half version seem to be the favorite here.

Since lard is such a rich ingredient on its own, it might be good to combine it with another fat, like butter, to balance flavor.

Fats and liquids in biscuits via @kingarthurflour

Butter: Slightly sweet, caramelized flavor; nicely browned exterior. All the liquid combinations produce fluffy, springy texture with an impressive rise. The butter and heavy cream version makes a quintessential biscuit, suitable for all occasions.

But the one I can’t get enough of? Butter and buttermilk biscuits. They’re delightful in all ways you’d expect a biscuit to be, and a little lighter than their heavy cream counterpart. Butter/buttermilk biscuits are flaky, creamy, and downright comforting.

Fats and liquids in biscuits via @kingarthurflour

Finding your favorite combination

Just because my taste buds prefer a classic butter and buttermilk biscuit doesn’t mean yours will, too.

Don’t be afraid to adjust the fats and liquids in biscuits the next time you’re called into the kitchen to whip up a batch.

Fats and liquids in biscuits via @kingarthurflour

Gluten-free bakers, feel empowered to experiment, too. Use our Gluten-Free Measure for Measure Flour to replace the all-purpose flour in our Baking Powder Biscuits recipe. Adjust the fats and liquids until you find the perfect balance of flavor and texture.

You might be surprised to find what your favorite combination turns out to be. Once you experiment with the fats and liquids in biscuits, let us know which you like best in comments, below.

Thanks to fellow employee-owner Seann Cram for taking the photographs for this post.

Kye Ameden
About

Kye Ameden grew up in Fairlee, Vermont and has always had a love of food, farms, and family. After graduating from St. Lawrence University, she became an employee-owner at King Arthur Flour and is a proud member of the Digital Engagement Team.

comments

  1. Lorraine Fina Stevenski

    I have tried lots of biscuit recipes with most of the ingredients mentioned. My best biscuit is made with salted butter, whole buttermilk and White Lilly AP Flour (Sorry KA!). My technique is to flatten the dough and then fold over into a letter. I do this 2X. I mix by hand, very gently and then roll out and cut. My biscuits always turn out wonderful. Sometimes when I forget to turn off the convection bake, I get tall slightly crooked looking blown away biscuits. They are very funny looking but still taste perfect! I like to drizzle local honey instead of butter. A very memorable experience. Thanks Kye for all your tips and biscuit ideas.

    Reply
  2. sandy

    This is a great post. Sixteen batches of biscuits!! I love the photo with the biscuits from the various combination laid out side by side so you can really see the differences. This certainly helped me decide what my favorite combo will be.

    Reply
  3. Monica

    I just made a batch of biscuits to go with dinner the other night, but I didn’t feel like cutting in butter and rolling and cutting. Went to the biscuit recipes on the website, and there they were, the perfect lazy girl’s biscuit – the Never Fail drop biscuits made with cream.Since I don’t keep the self-rising flour in the house as it has too high a sodium content for me, I made my tried and true substitute with Perfect Pastry blend flour, Bakewell Cream Baking Powder (very low sodium, and works very well), and reduced salt. Well, they came out great! Tender, tasty, and they rose really high. Of course, they weren’t flaky layer biscuits, but honestly, nobody cared. I may never cut another biscuit again.

    Reply
    1. Dot

      Always make Bakewell Cream biscuits. Of course being a Maineiac I would use Bakewell Cream if I could find it.

    2. Susan Wakefield

      Dot – you can order Bakewell Cream products from newenglandcupboard.com. After experiencing the biscuits at Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro ME*, I had to try my hand at biscuits using Bakewell Cream.
      *they told me that they use the recipe from the can, albeit tweaked a bit

  4. CarolT

    Love this. I made biscuits earlier today with butter and buttermilk before reading your post. It was the firsts time in a while and probably my most successful batch yet, light and flaky. I’ll have to try the lard/half & half combo next time. What are your thoughts on eggs in biscuits?

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      Congrats on a successful biscuit bake, Carol! I can’t wait to hear what you think of the lard and half & half combination–perfect for accompanying dinner. As for your question about eggs, they tend to make biscuits more cake-y in texture, more like shortcake. If that’s something that appeals to you, you can try using an egg or two to replace some of the liquid in your recipe. (Just crack them into the bottom your measuring cup before filling it up with liquid the rest of the way.) I tend to prefer the flaky, craggly texture of classicly made biscuits, but you’re more than welcome to experiment. It’s all about finding the right balance for you! Kye@KAF

    2. Marti

      My favorite biscuit recipe uses Bakewell Cream and baking soda, half butter/half lard, and usually whole milk rather than buttermilk, and quite often I crack an egg in the measuring cup, beat it up and add the milk. If I have time, I freeze the shaped biscuits while I’m preheating the oven. I also brush the tops with milk. My husband, a southerner, says he’s never had anything better, and his mother was famous for her biscuits. I swear by Bakewell Cream.

  5. Cait

    Since the coconut oil and buttermilk came out well, do you think there’s a way to approximate a vegan buttermilk (coconut milk and lemon juice?) to make a passable non-dairy biscuit?

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      That’s a great question Cait, and I certainly had vegan bakers on my mind when doing some of these tests. I think using coconut oil and a plain non-dairy milk would make an excellent biscuit, especially if you use a higher fat milk like coconut or cashew milk. If you want to add in the tang that comes along with buttermilk, you can add about 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar (apple cider vinegar is my preference) to 1 cup of liquid before adding it to the dough. The milk won’t curdle in quite the same way dairy milk does, but you should still be hitting the flavors you’re looking for. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

    2. Leslie

      Kye, you mention that you like to use apple cider vinegar (ACV) to the milk. I read somewhere that using ACV would add an “off flavor” to biscuits as opposed to distilled (white) vinegar or lemon juice. Your thought on this? Thanks in advance!

    3. The Baker's Hotline

      Leslie, I find that white vinegar can taste a bit harsh, and I like the subtle sweetness that comes from using apple cider vinegar. That being said, the main takeaway of all this testing is to each, their own! Baking is an art as well as a science, and we encourage you to feel empowered to make adjustments based on your own taste buds. (Or just go with lemon juice–it’s always a safe bet!) Kye@KAF

    4. Susan Kaufman

      Cait – I am a vegan baker and make biscuits quite successfully. I use whatever non-dairy milk I have and apple cider vinegar, which I have on hand more regularly than lemon juice. I have successfully used Earth Balance sticks or coconut oil as the fat. The key is having whatever fat you use as cold as possible (I freeze mine in small chunks or grate it while frozen) and handling the dough as little as possible, which is typical for any biscuit recipe. Good luck!

  6. Phillip Williams

    I have never seen a recipe which uses bacon fat. I’m sure that there a good reason for this, but I don’t know what it might be. Could someone kindly educate me? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      We actually do have some recipes that call for bacon fat, Phillip. Decadent Bacon Brownies, anyone? Bacon fat isn’t typically included as an option for the fat in recipes mostly because of convenience and the volume that’s required. If you find yourself cooking lots of bacon and acquiring enough to bake with, then you’re welcome to replace it for about half of the fat in a biscuit recipe knowing that the flavor may be intensely bacon-y (and potentially salty depending on the kind of bacon you use). The texture will be more like the lard and coconut oil biscuits; a bit softer and less craggly. You might like it! Kye@KAF

    2. Phillip Williams

      Thanks for this wonder article. I have just completed baking a batch of the Savory Cheddar cheese biscuits using 1/2 cup of milk and 1/2 cup of bacon fat rather than one cup of heavy cream. Here in the South, we do cook a fair amount of bacon and saving bacon fat as a seasoning is a custom in many households. The outcome was really good. The bacon flavor plays so well against the sharp cheddar cheese. The biscuits had a very tender crumb and a flakey exterior. I will certainly be making these again!

  7. ljhallan

    I appreciated the different ingredients and the results for each but I was hoping that margarine would have been also evaluated as a fat in the biscuit testing.

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      Thanks for making this suggestion, as we want to include as many relevant ingredients in our testing as can. Margarine has a similar composition to butter (about 85% fat and 15% water), so it likely would produce a texture that’s similar to butter but without the buttery, creamy flavor. We’d have to do a few more tests to find out for sure though, so let us know if you give it a try! Kye@KAF

  8. Amy Schmelzer

    Lard-core baker here. I like a combination of butter and lard though. Straight lard is just too porky for my tastes. For savory applications like for sausage gravy I might use a 1:1 ratio of butter to lard. For sweet recipes like strawberry shortcakes, I like 2:1 ratio of butter to lard. I do the same with my pie crusts.

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      Glad to hear from a lard-core baker, Amy! The trusty taste testers who sampled the lard versions said something very similar to what you’ve shared here: that a combination of lard and butter might be just the right way to get the benefits of both kinds of fats. Otherwise, it seems like the flavor of lard might overpower anything the biscuit were paired with. Happy biscuit baking! Kye@KAF

  9. Donna Washburn

    Enjoyed this comparison of fats and liquids. As gluten-free cookbook authors, we have research and found this is one of our favorite combinations. It is from our GF Baking Book. They can be made as biscuits or scones.
    Donna and Heather
    Lemon Buttermilk Scones

    These scones with a delightful lemon tang are perfect to serve with fresh raspberries.

    Makes 4 to 6 wedges
    Serving size: 1 wedge

    Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C)
    5-inch (12.5 cm) round baking pan, lightly greased and bottom lined with parchment paper

    1 large egg yolk 1
    1/4 cup buttermilk 60 mL
    1/3 cup brown rice flour 75 mL
    1/4 cup amaranth flour 60 mL
    2 tbsp tapioca starch 30 mL
    2 tbsp granulated sugar 30 mL
    1 tbsp GF baking powder 15 mL
    1 tsp baking soda 5 mL
    1 tsp xanthan gum 5 mL
    1/8 tsp salt 0.5 mL
    2 tbsp grated lemon zest 30 mL
    3 tbsp cold butter, cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) cubes 45 mL

    1. In a measuring cup or small bowl, whisk together egg yolk and buttermilk. Set aside.
    2. In a bowl, combine brown rice flour, amaranth flour, tapioca starch, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, xanthan gum, salt and lemon zest. Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs about the size of small peas. Add egg yolk mixture all at once, stirring with a fork to make a thick dough.
    3. Spoon dough into prepared pan, leaving the top rough. Bake in preheated oven for 24 to 28 minutes or until top is deep golden. Cut into wedges and serve immediately.

    Tip
    * If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, substitute plain yogurt or GF sour cream.

    Variation
    * To turn this into a dessert scone, increase the granulated sugar to 1/4 cup (60 mL).

    Thought you might enjoy the combination. the addition of lemon is tasty.

    Reply
  10. Margo Haynes

    Dear Kye
    Thank you so very much. I’m considered an excellent cook, and my biscuits and homemade bread turned out lovely during my 20’s (I’m now soon to be 80). But later I married a man that didn’t like homemade breads & biscuits, he demanded canned biscuits & store bought bread. There’s an old saying “if you don’t use it, you lose it” & during that 17 years I lost my “soft hand” at biscuits & breads. Even with my soft hand though I never acquired the touch of my friend’s mother when in high school. Her mom’s biscuits were 2 inches high! (I measured them once!) Your lessons and tests today have inspired me on biscuits again. Your butttermilk & butter look just like hers! Today, we’re having Kye’s biscuits!

    I did not find out about King Arthur flour until I moved to Kansas and it is the most excellent flour I have ever used. Everyone can always learn and grow. I love the recipes, the tests that you make and share with us. I simply want all of you to know that you are greatly loved and appreciated for your talents, your love of cooking and the magnificent products that you turn out for us, the cooks of America.

    BTW, I forgot, I just googled to find out when your company was founded, 1790!
    I would think after that many years you would have it down to a science. Have a very blessed year everyone!

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      Margo, thanks for your inspiring, heart-warming note! One of our ultimate goals is to share the joy of baking with others and inspire people to get in the kitchen. I’m absolutely thrilled to hear that after seeing the biscuit experiments compiled here, you felt reinvigorated to get your “soft hands” back in the dough. I hope that your biscuits turned out flaky and striking tall. Best of luck to you, Margo, and happy biscuit baking! Kye@KAF

  11. Dosi

    I have such trouble making light biscuits/shortcakes. Only once I had success with a pecan shortcake recipe and they were memorable but not duplicated again. I gave up on from scratch and use a buttermilk pancake mix or a bisquick mix and add sugar, butter and use only water. I heat the water a little and add the butter, actually margarine, to the warm water to melt the butter. The wet gets dumped into the dry, mixed quickly and not thoroughly, and without delay dropped onto the baking sheet with 1/3 cup measure. I like a somewhat course (not cake texture) with a little crunch on the outside and this does the trick every time.

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      Interesting technique, Dosi–thanks for sharing. If you ever want to re-attempt making classic buttermilk biscuits, you might want to check out this article on our blog before jumping in. There are five tips that can turn you biscuit baking around! Kye@KAF

  12. Karen Girard

    I was introduced to Bakewell Cream (not the baking powder) when I moved to northern Maine. I tend to make biscuits as an accompaniment to fried chicken and gravy and I have found the best combination for this is lard, Bakewell Cream and baking soda, and half AP flour and half pastry flour, and milk. They come out light as air yet sturdy and my husband, a southerner, says “Oh honey hush!”

    Reply
  13. John Heinbokel

    Thanks for a great comparison. Question, however: if the water content of the butter leads to greater rise among the various fats, would an extra t (or T) of liquid with the other fats increase their rise comparably?

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      That’s a good question John, and I see where you’re coming from. However, adding a bit of additional water to the dough would have a different effect on the biscuits than the water that’s in the butter. Adding more water could potentially lead to tougher biscuits because the stickier dough would require more handling to prepare and shape. Extra manipulation develops gluten and decreases tenderness. The water that’s released from the butter happens only once it meets the heat of the oven, and at that point turns directly into steam without developing gluten (and instead creates flaky layers). You can try using butter and another fat together if you want the best of both (biscuit) worlds. Kye@KAF

  14. delam

    I have been making the butter-buttermilk combination for the last few years and I have to say I agree with you 100%. For many years I used shortening-milk but no more. Biscuits are my family’s favorite and with these changes they love them now more than ever.

    Reply
  15. Leslie

    Kye, thank you so very much for sharing all of your very helpful findings. Also, thanks Seann for your clear photo documentation…pictures really are worth a thousand words! My “go-to” biscuit recipe uses unsalted butter and buttermilk; but after all of your experimenting with various combinations of liquids and fats, I’m going to try a few variations. Why not? I think I’ll give sour cream mixed with buttermilk a go. I’m wondering where Lorraine (who posted here) finds “whole” buttermilk? Here in California all I’ve ever seen is buttermilk produced with reduced-fat milk. I’d love to try whole buttermilk in my biscuits. 🙂

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We love your enthusiasm, Leslie! If you can’t find whole buttermilk, you can always try making your own out of whole milk and lemon juice or vinegar. The sour cream biscuits certainly surprised me the most in flavor and texture, so I recommend giving them a try! Kye@KAF

  16. William Mitchel

    A nice article, thanks. I would like to know the relative proportions of fats used, since not all fat sources are created equal …

    Mitch

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      Hi Mitch,
      The fats were all measured by weight: 2.5 ounces for each batch of biscuits to keep things consistent. I hope that answers your question. Kye@KAF

  17. Mary H.

    I would like to weigh in on the bacon fat option. I’ve found it needs to be frozen in order to work well. It’s too soft otherwise. I use the butter and buttermilk combination for my biscuit but then melt some bacon fat in the cast iron skillet I bake the biscuits in. Just hot enough to melt it but not be really hot. Then i put the biscuits in, turning them over in the fat so both sides are covered. This produces a slightly balcony biscuit with a very crisp outside. These are very popular at my house.

    Reply
  18. Cathy

    Have you tried this experiment with a cooking oil such as canola, sunflower or corn? I usually mix half butter, slightly less than half oil, to avoid the fat and calories, but would love to see comparisons with these!

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      Cathy, in order to get the flaky texture that makes biscuits so lovely, a solid fat must be cut into the flour in chunks. A liquid fat like oil would make the scones look like the coconut oil and lard versions, but even softer and less craggly. For this reason, we didn’t include oil in our testing, but we’re intrigued by your half oil and half butter idea. Thanks for passing this along; we’ll see what some of our test kitchen bakers think about this. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  19. Angela

    I really enjoyed your post. I generally use half lard and half butter with buttermilk in my biscuits, although my flaky biscuit recipe is best with butter, and my yeast biscuit recipe is best with lard.

    I noticed from the photo that you may have used Epic brand lard in the testing. I buy Epic brand when I can find it, as it is really good, but I learned the hard way NEVER to use it in baked goods. It fries up a mean skillet of home fries, but the flavor is too strong for biscuits, cakes, or cookies. I typically use conventional lard for baking, and I have yet to notice the flavor in the final product.

    Reply
    1. Kye Ameden , post author

      Great insight, Angela. Thanks for sharing! We have a local co-op where we source many of our ingredients for the test kitchen, and Epic brand was the kind they proudly carried. Taste testers found your remarks to be true; the flavor was distinctly savory and wouldn’t have paired well with anything sweet. We’ll have to experiment with a few other brands of lard next time to see how the flavor compares. Thanks for writing. Kye@KAF

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *