Here’s one of the million things I love about baking: You learn something new every time. Last week, I learned that I could make biscuits using cottage cheese instead of milk.
I was going to file that under “necessity is the mother of invention,” but it’s more likely that this new biscuit came about because of sloth: I couldn’t face heading out in the snow for buttermilk, and I didn’t have my usual b-milk hack: yogurt (I use about two-thirds yogurt to one-third milk). I looked at the cottage cheese, thought about how much I’d liked a cottage-cheese dough I’d once made for pastry, and set to work. The herbs, so good, were a last-minute addition — they tumbled out of the fridge.
Someone who knows more about chemistry than I might tell you that the cottage cheese was a good sub because of its acidity. I’ll tell you it was great because of its taste. It had both sweetness and tang, and those qualities, along with the flavor of the herbs, made the biscuits a standout even before they got a slather of butter and some smoked salmon, which is how I served them that first time. I’m also giving props to the cottage cheese for the biscuits’ texture: tender and light.
Of course, tender and light should be the hallmarks of good biscuits no matter what you make them with. If you’re new to biscuitry, I’m here to assure you that tender and light are not as elusive as biscuit mavens might lead you to believe. In fact, they’re not elusive at all.
Here’s what you need to know to make biscuits that’ll do you proud (and that you’ll have fun baking):
Make sure your baking powder is fresh. All the drama of biscuits is in the puff, and the greatest share of puff comes from baking powder.
Start with cold ingredients. Very cold ingredients. Mix the cottage cheese and milk and cut the butter, then pop them back into the refrigerator while you get the dry ingredients ready and preheat the oven.
Don’t worry about being neat. When you’re working the butter into the dry ingredients — you can use a pastry blender, but I always do this with my fingers — rub, squish, press and toss, but stop before you have a perfect blend. You want a rocky-road dough with flour-covered bits of butter that range in size from flakes to peas.
Resist the urge to knead the dough until smooth. After you’ve stirred in the cottage cheese and milk, you’ll have large curds of dough, and there’ll be some dry spots. Reach into the bowl and give the dough a couple of folds to bring it together and to gather in the runaway flour. Then stop! Under-mixed is better than over-.
Go strong on the cutting. If you’ve got a true biscuit cutter — a tall cutter, 2 to 2 1/2 inches in diameter, open on the top and with a handle — use it; if not, look for a similarly sized glass. Pat the dough out until it is between 1/2-inch and 3/4-inch high (3/4 inch is really high; your yield will be lower but your biscuits will be towering . . . and slightly in danger of toppling, but living on the edge can be fun) and cut with confidence. Press the cutter straight down, then lift it straight up — no twisting. None. If you turn the cutter, you’ll seal the edges of the dough and keep it from rising evenly and exuberantly.
Make these once, and the techniques will be yours forever. And if you want to play around with them, check my recipe: I’ve given you proportions for buttermilk biscuits and sweet biscuits, too. Don’t forget — with just a little tweak, the biscuit you love with gravy can be the biscuit you love with whipped cream and berries. One day the snow will stop, and it will be shortcake season again. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.
(This story appeared in my Everyday Dorie column in Washington Post Food)
Herbed Cottage Cheese Biscuits
Makes 10 biscuits
For these tender, nubbly biscuits, it’s important to use a deep, thin-walled 2 1/4-inch biscuit cutter to get a clean cut around the edges.
Serve with butter; these are terrific for making sandwiches.
Make Ahead: Cut-out biscuits can be placed on a baking sheet, frozen and then packed airtight; they’ll keep for up to 2 months and can be baked directly from the freezer. Baked biscuits should be eaten straight from the oven (best) or within 2 hours. You can reheat the biscuits in a 350-degree oven, but the texture will be denser than for just-baked.
- 2 cups flour, plus more for the work surface
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 cup full-fat cottage cheese
- 1/2 cup cold whole milk
- 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) very cold unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
- 2 to 3 tablespoons minced fresh herbs, such as dill, basil, chives, parsley, cilantro or a combination
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt (to taste) and baking soda in a large mixing bowl. Whisk together the cottage cheese and milk in a separate bowl.
Scatter the butter and herbs over the flour mixture; toss to coat the butter with flour. Use your fingertips or a metal pastry blender to rub, squeeze and/or cut the butter into the dry ingredients. You’re aiming for a lumpy mix with pieces of every size and shape, from pea-size to flake. It will look rough, and that’s just what you want.
Pour the cottage cheese-and-milk mixture over the dry ingredients; use a fork to gently stir everything around until you have a soft dough. Squeeze a piece and it will hold together. You might have a few dry spots here and there, but you’re about to take care of them. Reach into the bowl and turn, fold and knead the dough — go easy, it’s not bread — just enough to bring everything together into a ball.
Lightly dust a work surface with flour and turn out the dough. Dust the top of the dough very lightly, and either pat the dough out with your hands or roll it with a pin until it is between 1/2-inch and 3/4-inch high. Don’t worry if the dough isn’t rolled out evenly: A quick, light touch is more important than accuracy here.
Use the cutter; your goal is to cut the biscuits as close to one another as possible, so you get the most you can out of this first round. Transfer the biscuits to the baking sheet as you work, spacing them at least an inch apart. Gather together the scraps; lightly pat the dough out again, working it as little as possible, and cut additional biscuits, again as close together as possible; transfer those to the sheet. You can go for one more pat-and-cut; just know that third-round biscuits won’t rise as dramatically as the others; they will, however, be delicious. Keep in mind you’re aiming for a total of 10 biscuits.
(At this point, the biscuits can be frozen till firm, then wrapped airtight and kept in the freezer for up to 2 months. Bake without defrosting; just add about 3 more minutes to the oven time.)
Bake for 14 to 18 minutes, rotating the baking sheet from front to back halfway through, until the biscuits are tall, puffed and golden brown. Remove them from the baking sheet and serve right away.
VARIATION: You can make more-traditional biscuits by replacing the cottage cheese and whole milk with 3/4 cup of buttermilk. (Or omit the cottage cheese and baking soda and increase the whole milk to 3/4 cup.) If you like sweet biscuits, omit the herbs, use 1/2 teaspoon of salt and add 2 teaspoons of sugar to the dough.