Biscuit Throwdown: Carla Hall vs Julia Child
Whose biscuits will reign supreme?
Here at Extra Crispy, we know the power of a good biscuit. If a PhD in Biscuitology were a thing, we'd collectively qualify for honory degrees on account of all of our biscuit resarch. In my ongoing quest to only feed myself the best of the best when it comes to breakfast classics, I knew I had to stage another recipe throwdown.
I chose two celebrated TV chefs. In one corner, we have Julia Child, the brilliant mind that brought French cooking to America and who I sometimes forget didn’t actually look like Meryl Streep. I made her Baking Powder Biscuits from Baking With Julia. In the other corner, we have Carla Hall, Top Chef alum, The Chew host, and owner of at least 175 pairs of fantastic glasses. I made her Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits from her cookbook Carla Hall’s Soul Food.
Julia's biscuit recipe was straightforward and needed only a few ingredients: flour, baking powder, salt, vegetable shortening, milk, melted butter, and turbinado sugar. The moist dough came together very quickly, and required the use of a fork as the main stirring vessel. The dough was to be dumped onto a floured work surface and kneaded "no more than 10 times." According to Julia, “To have a good biscuit hand is to have a light touch and restraint—a biscuit dough is so soft that it invites poking and prodding.” I always want to poke mounds of dough, so this part wasn’t hard. Ultimately, the best advice she gives is, “The golden rule with biscuits is to stop doing whatever you’re doing two beats before you have to.” So even though there were still some shaggy-looking bits of dough after 10 kneads, I stopped. I trust you, Julia!
After forming the dough into a 9-inch disk, I cut out cute little rounds with a two-inch biscuit cutter. She says to brush them with melted butter, and then top with some turbinado sugar if desired, and I did both. Onto a parchment-lined sheet they go, and into a 425ºF oven that goes. Thirteen minutes later, I had pale golden biscuits.
Next, Carla's. The first thing she says in the book's headnote is that she knows what you’re going to say: that these biscuits taste like Popeye’s biscuits—“at least, back-in-the-day Popeye’s.” I wasn't alive back in the day and have never ever eaten at Popeye’s (I’m sorry!!!), I’m going to take her word for it. The main thing I noticed here is that Carla has some tricks up her sleeve, technique-wise. She uses butter and shortening in her biscuit dough, and like Julia, she rubs shortening into the dry ingredients (here, it’s flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt), but there’s also butter involved. And not just any butter. Carla wants frozen butter to be grated into the dry ingredients with a box grater. These frozen shards of butter melt in the oven, creating lift and flakiness, both of which you know you want in a biscuit. I grated the butter. I tossed it around in the dry ingredients, then mixed in buttermilk using my hand as a spatula like Carla told me to, which was very fun. I like being a spatula, it makes me feel useful.
The dough is then turned out onto a work surface, and that’s where magic happens. Instead of kneading, Carla wants you to turn your dough, which is a method typically used when making flaky things like puff pastry dough. Essentially, you make the dough into a rectangle, fold it into thirds like a letter, then flatten it out and do the folds again. The turned dough is then cut into two-inch biscuits and placed on a buttered sheet pan. The biscuits chill in the fridge for 15 minutes, then bake at 450ºF. She says to bake them for 16 minutes, but mine were extremely done in 13. Ovens, man, you never know what they'll do.
After tasting both biscuits, it was clear that while the ingredient lists were pretty similar, the final products were not. Julia’s biscuits were more crumbly and cakey, like a scone, and tasted sort of like Bisquick. Perfectly fine, but nothing to write home about. They tasted like what I imagine a lot of food in the 1950s-1970s did. If I’d eaten it with a pat of butter, a blot of jam, and a sprinkle of salt I think I would’ve enjoyed it more.
Carla’s were a deep golden color and looked like Biscuits-with-a-capital-B: flaky little stubby cylinders that were shiny with butter. When ripped apart, the layers made it clear how important those turns are to this recipe. They were buttery, crisp, and tender all at once. They didn’t need any spreads, but I would’ve still welcomed some anyway. This is the kind of biscuit I’d want supporting my next eggy breakfast sandwich for sure.