There’s no question that butter is key to baking up rich, flaky biscuits. But Debora Nally of Williamsburg, Virginia, a recent caller on Milk Street Radio, noticed that some recipes call for cutting butter cold into the dry ingredients, while others add it melted and still others freeze and then grate it. She wondered which approach is best.
The science of baking with butter suggests advantages to each method. When baked goods such as biscuits, scones and pie crusts call for cold or frozen butter to be cut into the dry ingredients, it’s so that small chunks of solid butter are left intact. That way, during baking, the water in those bits of butter evaporates into steam, leaving behind air pockets that contribute to the desired flaky texture. Melted butter, by contrast, becomes fully incorporated into the dry ingredients. This coats the particles of flour with butter, inhibiting gluten development— and less gluten generally results in more tender baked goods.
To see which approach produced the best biscuit, we made three batches using cold butter, frozen butter and melted butter.
While the melted butter was easier to mix into the dough, it produced tougher, disappointingly flat biscuits with no flaky pockets. That’s partly because a little gluten actually benefits biscuits: It gives the dough some stretch, allowing the dough to rise and become filled with airy pockets. By coating the particles of flour, the melted butter prevents the gluten development necessary for that elasticity. Additionally, the water in the melted butter doesn’t evaporate in the same way as cold or frozen butter. The cold butter was better, yielding plenty of flakiness. But the best was the frozen butter, which made biscuits with the lightest, flakiest and softest texture, as well as with the highest rise. This is because the bits of frozen butter remained more intact during mixing than the cold butter.