Learn to make a few puff pastry-style “turns” of this super simple dough, and you’ll know how to make gluten free biscuits with layers and layers. You’ll never want to make them any other way.
We have made a ton of gluten free pastry here on the blog, from flaky pie crust and authentic puff pastry to biscuits and gravy and 20-minute drop biscuits. But until now, we’ve never done a deep dive on the blog about how to make gluten free biscuits that are as layered and flaky as a Sunday is long (too much?).
The secrets 🤐 to layered and flaky gluten free biscuits
If you want to make flaky pastry of any kind, besides using the exact ingredients specified in the recipe, measured most accurately (usually by weight), focus your attention on temperature and architecture. The cold temperature of the solid fat (butter) is most important, and the way of shaping the dough creates the right structure.
Keep it all cold ❄️
In every single recipe for any sort of traditional gluten free pastry in any of my cookbooks and here on the blog, all of the ingredients must be as cold as possible without being frozen at the start of the recipe.
In baking powder biscuits, the chemical leaveners help create lift. But the layers themselves that appear in any sort of flaky pastry are created when the high heat of the oven hits cold packets of butter that are surrounded by layers of dry ingredients (like flour).
The butter should be cold so that it rapidly releases steam when it reaches that heat. The other ingredients must also be cold (I’ve even refrigerated my whisked dry ingredients before proceeding with the recipe if I really want to ensure mile-high biscuits) so they don’t melt the butter before its time.
Many pastry recipes are made in the food processor or with a pastry cutter with the goal of making the butter into the size of peas, covered in flour. I used to make pastry that way, too. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it failed to create layers and lift.
Using larger chunks of butter, flattened quickly between your thumb and forefinger once the butter is added to the flour mixture, allows for more manipulation of the dough (see the discussion below of the “turns”). And it’s the manipulation of the dough with your hands, but without melting the butter completely, that creates those flaky layers.
Working quickly, make the “turns” ⏎
The layers in pastry are created by sprinkling the dough with extra flour, then rolling the dough and folding it repeatedly. Each additional turn creates layers that increase in multiples. The greater the number of pockets of butter surrounded by flour, all tightly contained in a single buttermilk biscuit, the greater the layering in the final pastry.
When you’re making traditional puff pastry, you begin with a large, square packet of cold butter that is enclosed in dough, then rolled and folded repeatedly. Each time you roll and fold the dough, it’s considered one “turn” of the dough. In between each turn, you must chill the dough. The process is simple, but laborious. 👩🍳
Here, we begin with lots of cold chunked butter that has been scattered throughout the dough. If we work quickly, we can complete 4 turns before the butter really begins to melt.
Of course, you can chill the dough at any time if you are concerned that the butter is beginning to melt. Since we are working with larger chunks of butter, rather than pea-sized pieces, even if the butter does begin to melt, it will resolidify when chilled the moment the premature melting begins.
Begin with a wet dough 💧
When I’m making a pie crust, I’m looking for a light crust that bakes up browned and flaky, but I’m not looking for multiple layers. Since I don’t plan to work the dough nearly as much as I do with puff pastry or layered buttermilk biscuits, I find that I need to add very little additional flour during shaping.
But when making these layered buttermilk biscuits, I like to begin with a relatively wet dough (the proportions in the recipe as written creates a shaggy, wet dough). That way, I can coat my hands in flour and sprinkle the dough somewhat often with additional flour as I complete the turns—all without drying out the dough which will create flat, crumbly biscuits.
Be sure you don’t replace the buttermilk with anything that isn’t at least the same thickness as a prepared buttermilk. If you use 1 cup of milk that you’ve “soured” by simply adding an acid like lemon juice, your “buttermilk” replacement will be too thin and the resulting dough way too soft and wet.
Cut sharp edges 🔪
The final secret to creating high-rising, layered biscuits is to cut very sharp edges on your pastries. That means flouring your biscuit or cookie cutter, and pressing down swiftly on the dough with the cutter and removing the dough from the cutter right away.
If you prefer to make a different shape to your biscuit, be sure to use a sharp edge to create the shapes. A metal bench scraper makes nice, clean cuts. So does a very sharp chef’s knife.
Ingredients and substitutions
The main additional allergen in this recipe is dairy, and it comes in 3 forms (butter, buttermilk, and nonfat dry milk). Here are my suggestions for how to replace all 3 of them, but remember that the more substitutions you make, the further away from the original recipe you will be.
Dairy/Butter: The butter is the most important ingredient in this recipe, and anyone who is dairy-free knows that there is no perfect substitute. However, if you do need to replace it, try using Spectrum butter-flavored nonhydrogenated vegetable shortening as a gram for gram replacement.
Since shortening is missing the moisture that butter itself has, you will likely need to add a bit more moisture to the dough to get that initial shaggy texture in your biscuit dough. You can actually use very cold water by the teaspoonful until you reach the proper texture.
Dairy/Buttermilk: In place of dairy buttermilk, mix 1/2 cup (by volume) plain nondairy yogurt with 1/2 cup (4 fluid ounces) unsweetened nondairy milk.
Dairy/Nonfat dry milk: In place of nonfat dry milk, you can use coconut milk powder. I really like Native Forest brand. You can also try using finely ground blanched almond flour (not almond meal) in place of the dry milk. I have had success with a substitution like that in the past.
Corn: In place of cornstarch, you can use arrowroot. If you’re okay with corn and dairy, you can use 2 cups (280 g) Cup4Cup gluten free flour blend (or my mock Cup4Cup or Better Than Cup4Cup blend) in place of the flour blend, xanthan gum, dry milk powder, and cornstarch.