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)