Buttermilk and baking soda biscuits are a classic, and with good reason. The acid in buttermilk reacts with baking soda, producing carbon dioxide gas and giving the biscuits their characteristic puffiness.
Technically, this recipe calls for saleratus, which was a generic term used for several different raising agents during the 19th century. When baking soda first became commercially available after 1846, it was often referred to as “saleratus” as well. You can generally substitute baking soda in recipes that call for saleratus, but you might have to play around with the amounts to get a good result since the strength of the various compounds known as saleratus could vary. In this case, I found that I needed to use about twice as much baking soda as the recipe called for to get a good rise.
The recipe says to dissolve the saleratus in hot water and add it at the end, a common instruction in 19th-century recipes. In modern recipes, on the other hand, raising agents are usually added to the dry ingredients first. I tried making this recipe with both methods and didn’t notice much of a difference; but I do think it’s a little easier just to add the baking soda to the dry ingredients. The hot water method may have been necessary with 19th-century raising agents, which tended to clump, but I don’t think you need to do it with modern baking soda.
Buttermilk biscuits (half of original recipe; makes about 11 or 12 if you re-roll the scraps):
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 cups flour, plus more for rolling
- 3 tbsp butter
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
- 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
- Whisk the flour, salt, cream of tartar, and baking soda together, making sure to break up any lumps.
- Cut the butter into small pieces and rub it into the dry ingredients with your fingertips.
- Mix in the buttermilk.
- Knead lightly, adding flour if necessary, and roll out about an inch thick.
- Cut into round biscuits and bake at 425 degrees for 15-17 minutes.
These are pretty much your classic buttermilk biscuits. I did have to play around with the recipe a bit to get the right amounts of baking soda and butter. I needed more baking soda than the recipe called for, probably because the “saleratus” the author was using may have been stronger than modern baking soda. I also needed more butter; the recipe calls for “butter the size of an egg,” which usually means approximately 2 ounces or 4 tablespoons of butter, but this didn’t seem like quite enough to me. Perhaps the author of this recipe was comparing the size of her butter to an unusually large egg! I increased the amount of butter to 6 tablespoons (or 3 tablespoons in my halved version of the recipe).
Once I got the kinks worked out, though, the recipe worked beautifully and resulted in nice, buttery, fluffy biscuits – perfect vehicles for jam, gravy, or whatever topping you prefer.
Cornelius, M.H. (1846). The young housekeeper’s friend; or, a guide to domestic economy and comfort. Boston: Charles Tappan. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Young_Housekeeper_s_Friend/AvkpAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1
Oliver, S. (2004). Chemical leavening. In A. F. Smith, (Ed.), The Oxford encyclopedia of food and drink in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.