Our customized ratio of cream of tartar to baking soda produces crisper, fluffier biscuits with a better rise.Photo Credit : Amy Traverso
These cream of tartar biscuits have been one of NewEngland.com’s most popular recipes for years, and to be honest, we were a bit surprised by their popularity. This was, after all, just a biscuit recipe, right? Sure, the use of cream of tartar—an acidic, crystalline compound that’s a byproduct of wine making—was a novelty. Maybe that had a certain old-fashioned charm. But cream of tartar is commonly found in baking powder, where it’s combined with baking soda. So why not just use baking powder and skip the extra trip to the grocery store? Why did our readers like the recipe so much?
Then we made the biscuits, and realized that our readers were on to something! And by updating the recipe a bit— replacing hard-to-find lard with unsalted butter and incorporating a folding technique that produces loftier layers—we found we had a real winner on our hands. These cream of tartar biscuits are lighter, fluffier, and crisper at the edges, and a little bit of science explains why.
You see, many biscuit doughs are made with baking powder as the leavening agent. And baking powder is typically made of 2 parts baking soda to 1 part cream of tartar. In the presence of a liquid, the acidity of the cream of tartar activates the baking soda, causing it to start bubbling away, and that, in turn, is what makes the biscuits rise.
Now, if you look at the ratios in this recipe, you’ll see that we have 3 parts cream of tartar to 1 part baking soda. So the extra acidity in the mix gives a real boost to the soda, as evidenced in the way the biscuits puff right up. The cream of tartar also adds a very subtle tang—similar to the tartness you get from using buttermilk. But since most of us don’t typically keep perishable buttermilk on hand, it’s actually easier to buy a jar of cream of tartar and make your biscuits this way, since it keeps indefinitely in your spice drawer.
So the next time you crave biscuits, give these cream of tartar biscuits a try. You’ll find that being able to control the amount of acidity and leavening in your biscuits really does produce a better product.
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
7 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
3/4 cup cold milk
2 tablespoons melted salted butter for brushing
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Set your oven rack to the middle position, but do not preheat it yet.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt. Sprinkle the butter pieces over the dry ingredients and use your fingers to blend it them together (the best technique is to rub your thumb against the tips of your fingers, as if you’re making the universal sign for “money.”) Keep going until you have a shaggy mixture with pea-sized bits and little flakes of butter. Add the milk all at once and stir with a with fork until it’s almost fully combined, then turn the dough out onto a floured surface.
Using your hands (never a rolling pin), gently press the dough out into a rough 1-inch-thick rectangle, then fold in half lengthwise, turn it 90 degrees, and gently press it out again. Repeat this process five more times, lightly sprinkling the dough with more flour as needed to keep it from sticking. On the final turn, press the dough out to a 1-inch-thick rectangle and use a pastry cutter or ruler to make the edges as straight as possible. Use a sharp knife to cut the biscuits into 8 or 10 equal pieces, depending on what size you want your biscuits to be. Transfer them to the prepared baking sheet, placing them close together but not quite touching, so that they support each other as they rise. Brush the tops with the melted butter, then transfer to the refrigerator to chill while you heat your oven to 450º.
When the oven is hot, transfer the biscuits to the oven and cook until golden brown and puffed, 9 to 12 minutes. Let cool slightly, then serve warm or at room temperature.