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Margaret Fulton's ultimate guide to making biscuits

By
Margaret Fulton
Added
21 November, 2013

Whether you're making yo-yos, Anzacs or choc-chip cookies, Australia's queen of baking, Margaret Fulton, has all the expert advice you'll need for a perfect batch of biscuits.

The first biscuits were small, flat cakes which were baked twice to make them crisp (the word biscuit means ‘twice cooked’ in French). The term now describes an infinite variety of crunchy, crisp, chewy or brittle baked goods, from plain water biscuit to sweet confections nibbled with coffee.

Types of biscuits

Biscuits can be formed in many ways. I tend to classify them according to how they are shaped. 

Drop biscuits

These are the easiest of all biscuits to shape, as they are simply dropped from a spoon onto a baking tray. They vary in texture. Some fall easily from the spoon and flatten into wafers when baking. Stiffer doughs need a push with the finger or the use of a second spoon to release them. To get drops of uniform size use a standard measuring spoon of the size noted in the recipe – generally a half-teaspoon, teaspoon or tablespoon. If you want the biscuits thinner, press down on top with the tines of a fork dipped in caster sugar. During very hot weather, put the dough in the refrigerator for 20 minutes before using. Leave a generous amount of space between each mound of mixture on the baking tray; thinner mixtures in particular may spread quite a lot.

Shaped biscuits

These biscuits have very basic shaping. The mixture is generally scooped up in spoonfuls and then rolled into balls by hand. Once placed on the baking trays, the balls can be flattened slightly with the fingers or the tines of a fork dipped in caster sugar or flour.

Refrigerator biscuits

the dough is rolled into a log, wrapped in plastic wrap and chilled until firm. Slices are then cut off to form biscuits. Refrigerator biscuit dough is good to keep on hand in the fridge or freezer so you can cut off and bake a few slices when needed at short notice. The dough will keep for two weeks in the fridge or two months in the freezer.

Rolled biscuits

The dough for these biscuits is rolled out then cut into a variety of shapes, either with a knife, a pastry cutter or biscuit cutters. When rolling out biscuit dough, roll each stroke in one direction only (rather than using a back and forth motion), turning the pastry with the help of a metal spatula to ensure evenness. Ensure that the dough is of an even thickness so that the biscuits will all cook in the same amount of time. Unless the recipe specifies otherwise, the scraps from one rolling can be gathered up, gently pressed together into a pad, then re-rolled and more biscuits cut out. 

Piped biscuits

The dough is piped through a piping bag or forced through a metal or plastic biscuit press to form pretty, uniform, formal-looking biscuits of various shapes. 

Making Biscuits 

  • Have the right equipment: you will need at least one (preferably two) baking trays; a flat-bladed metal spatula for lifting cooked biscuits off the trays; and one or two wire racks. 
  • To prevent biscuits from sticking to the trays, line trays with baking paper, or grease lightly with butter; too much butter can cause the biscuits to spread. Measure accurately, using level cup and spoon measures unless the recipe states otherwise. See page 10 for more information on measuring.
  • Have butter at the right temperature: for creamed mixtures, the butter should be at room temperature. This is a slight misnomer, as the temperature of the room depends on the heat of the day. In baking terms, however, ‘room temperature’ means butter that is soft but still holds its shape. It should not be runny or liquid. Butter straight from the fridge may take an hour to soften adequately, depending on the heat of the room.
  • For mixtures where butter is rubbed in, the butter should be chilled so that it is less likely to melt due to the heat of your hands.
  • Always preheat the oven, so that it is at the right temperature when the biscuits go in.
  • Make sure the oven racks are correctly positioned: If baking one tray at a time, place it in the centre of the oven. If baking two trays, place the oven racks as though dividing the oven into thirds. Air needs to circulate around the trays, so it’s better to bake a large quantity of biscuits in several batches than to overcrowd the oven.
  • Turn the trays occasionally: Many ovens have hot spots that result in uneven cooking. To compensate for this, turn the baking trays once or twice. If using more than one baking tray, also swap their positions on the oven racks to prevent uneven browning.
  • Keep an eye on biscuits as they bake: the cooking time in the recipe is a guide only, as all ovens differ. A few minutes before the end of the specified cooking time, check the biscuits, rotating and swapping the trays if needed. Cooked biscuits will be firm and dry on the top. Lift one biscuit off the tray with a spatula and check the underside to see if it is also cooked. If the biscuits need more cooking, return them to the oven for another minute or two. Keep checking them frequently; biscuits can burn quickly.
  • Once the biscuits are cooked, remove them from the oven. They will be very soft and fragile at this stage, so leave them on the tray for a few minutes to cool slightly and set. (The exceptions to this rule are biscuits such as brandy snaps, which are sometimes removed when still hot and then shaped around a rolling pin or similar.) Then use a flat-bladed metal spatula to transfer the biscuits to wire racks to cool completely.
  • Allow biscuits to cool completely before icing, filling or storing them. Once they are cool, store in an airtight container; if left on the racks for too long they can absorb moisture from the air and lose some of their crispness, especially on humid days.
  • If icing or filling biscuits, it is best to do so on the day they are to be served, as biscuits may reabsorb moisture from soft icings or fillings if they are stored too long (if the icing is hard, they keep well).
  • Store in an airtight container: store each type of biscuit in its own container to prevent flavours from mingling. In particular, keep sweet and savoury biscuits separate.
  • To recrisp biscuits that have become a little soft, place on baking trays lined with baking paper and bake in a 180°C oven for about 5 minutes. (This can only be done with biscuits that have not been iced or filled.) Transfer to wire racks to cool.

Happy baking!

This is an excerpt from Baking by Margaret Fulton. Cook more Margaret Fulton recipes.

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