Be it from-scratch buttermilk biscuits or store-bought puff pastry, the key to making a butter-based dough reach picturesquely voluminous heights when baked comes down to temperature control. And no, we're not talking involved monitoring with Thermapen precision—just adding one simple step before baking is all you need to do.
I had an embarrassing cooking mishap a few months ago. I’d invited a pastry chef friend over for dinner, and I was making my go-to entertaining entrée: Nigel Slater’s caramelized onion, Taleggio and thyme tart. It employs frozen puff pastry, so as long as you caramelize those onions in advance, it’s easy as pie. I let the puff pastry sit for 25 minutes like the package suggested and pricked it all over with a fork, brushing melted butter on it so the crust would be nice and
And my puff pastry didn’t puff for the pastry chef. It was mortifying.
Turns out I did absolutely everything wrong. (And some of you probably saw this a mile away, but although I’m a skilled savory cook, I’m still working on my baking chops.) The number one trick to getting puff pastry or biscuits to bloom is having a major, fast crack of temperature shift between the pastry itself and the oven.
I reached out to my pal Kelly Fields, chef-owner of Willa Jean in New Orleans, Louisiana, who confirmed my error: I’d let my dough get too warm, letting it sit out and adding melted butter to it. Instead, she said, I should have popped the whole shell into the freezer before putting it in the oven. And then she told me something that blew my mind: Her famous biscuits—the best I’ve ever had—go straight from the freezer into the oven. They don’t come to room temperature, or even sit in the fridge; they’re rock-hard, frozen as can be. Turns out when you put supremely cold or frozen dough in the oven, “it causes the water in the butter to evaporate more quickly,” said Fields. “When water evaporates it goes up, as steam, so it takes all the structure [of the biscuit] with it.”
This is also why most biscuit recipes call for keeping the butter itself very cold when mixing. In Fields’ recipe, she chills and grates her butter so it distributes quickly in the dough without melting. She makes her biscuits a full day in advance, freezes them on a sheet pan, and heats another pan in the oven: The biscuits come out of the freezer, straight on to the blazing hot pan, and right into the oven. The result? Tall, lovely, tender biscuits.
The science, she tells me, is similar to why when she’s baking bread, she’ll put room-temperature bread dough onto a preheated baking stone, then pop the whole thing in the oven. With that speedy evaporation of water comes a lovely crust against the stone. (Those of you who make skillet chicken may recognize the technique of getting a sear from a pre-heated pan.)
The quick cold-to-hot technique as a way to get height in baked goods works with “puff pastry, and anything that has butter or fat as most of the leavener,” says Fields, although she notes that store-bought puff pastry often also contains chemical leaveners. As for my sad tart, I should have “taken that puff pastry, done all the steps, made your tart shell, brushed the edges with butter, then thrown the tart shell in the freezer.” Once it was chilled, I should have dumped my savory ingredients in, and thrown it in the oven. She explained that, in the freezer, the crust would solidify, but “when it’s back in the oven, it’ll be where it needs to be.” So the instructions on my puff pastry to let it sit out for half an hour? Bogus.
What else can you try using this technique? Fields makes wholes pies in advance, freezes them, then puts them in the oven. Same with cookies, scones, puff pastry, and “any sort of Danish dough—anything that has butter in it.”
In an industry still somewhat obsessed with cooking food a la minute, Fields swears by using frozen biscuits, keeping them carefully wrapped in plastic so they don’t pick up the flavors of her walk-in. If you want to try the technique but don’t have a whole day, not to worry; even 30 minutes or an hour in the freezer should make a difference in the biscuit’s stature.
When I groused to Fields that I’d made her buttermilk biscuit recipe three times and—although tasty each time, as I’d kept my cold ingredients cold and my oven hot—they came out differently each darn time, she laughed, “That’s the beauty of baking. That’s why people hate it, but I love it.”
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Martha Stewart Living, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen