Why It Works
- Finely grating cheddar cheese increases its surface area so that it serves as a "dry" ingredient in the dough.
- Cream is uniquely high in lactose, helping the crackers brown and grow more flavorful as they bake.
- Kneading the dough helps make for crisp rather than crumbly crackers.
Since my nine-to-five is all about playing with sugar, I tend to keep a lot of savory snacks on hand. From salted peanuts to seasoned nori, my pantry is stocked with all manner of salty treats—chief among them a giant bag of Cheez-Its. Homemade, of course, because that's how I roll.
Something about their crispy, crunchy cheddar intensity inspires a sort of greed. One bite leads to another, then to a handful, and next thing you know, half the bag is gone. Bite-size and eminently snackable, homemade Cheez-Its tend to disappear fast. Fortunately, they're easy to make—no special appliances required!
Now, recipes for cheesy crackers are a dime a dozen online, and most are made with butter, along the lines of a cheesy pie dough or savory shortbread. What sets my recipe apart is cream, which replaces the combination of butter and water that most other recipes use. As I've harped on a time or two before (see my post on homemade caramel), cream often proves to be the better option.
That's because cream is much higher in lactose, the milk sugar involved in Maillard browning. Using it in place of butter helps my Cheez-Its brown more flavorfully in the oven, developing an extra dimension of roasty, toasty complexity reminiscent of those crispy bits you peel up from the skillet after making a grilled cheese.
It amps up the inherent flavor of the crackers, which comes from cheddar cheese, and plenty of it. So much, in fact, that it's the primary ingredient by both weight and volume (in the latter case, by a factor of four). That means the flour serves only as a binder, while cheese physically makes up the bulk of the dough's flavor, body, and crunch. To get that kind of volume out of a block of cheese, it's vital that it be shredded as finely as possible—with a Microplane, rather than a box grater.
Microplaning the cheddar increases its surface area to such an extent that the cheese behaves more like a dry ingredient, offsetting the liquid content of the cream for a dough that's easy to handle and roll. It's a necessary transformation that you won't get with a box grater, or with the grating attachment of a food processor, both of which inevitably result in an unworkably sticky dough.
Not only will a light and fluffy pile of cheese make for a dough that's pliable and smooth, it'll distribute the cheese so that the dough has a uniform color, flavor, and texture, helping the crackers bake more evenly.
Also of vital importance: kneading the dough. Don't worry about making the crackers tough by overworking the dough, since there's so much cheese and so little flour that that's not even a remote concern. What's important is giving the dough enough structure that you can roll and handle it without tearing it. Kneading also helps ensure that the crackers bake up crisp instead of crumbly, so when it comes time to knead, don't be afraid to give the dough what-for.
Once it's pliable and smooth, I divide the dough in half and roll each portion out on a generously floured surface. The exact size needn't be precise, but I like to aim for something around 12 by 11 inches, so that each piece will nicely fill a half sheet pan, where it can be cut en masse. A fluted pastry wheel makes it easy to cut the dough into cracker-size pieces, as the wheel can zip across it in a few seconds flat.
Okay, technically, you could use a knife or a pizza wheel to do the cutting, but the cute little rickrack design is more reminiscent of the original Cheez-Its' notched edges. Another key factor in their allure is a generously salted egg wash, which helps the crackers bake up with a glossy, golden-brown sheen. It's not a strictly aesthetic approach, either: When your tongue hits the salty surface of the crackers, it helps their flavor really pop. (Poking each cracker with a bamboo skewer, on the other hand, is a purely aesthetic touch.)
In a perfect world, the crackers would shrink oh-so-slightly as they baked, pulling apart from each other all on their own. In reality, it takes a few tries to get the hang of exactly how much gluten development is needed to make that happen, so don't hesitate to nudge the rows apart with a metal spatula to give the pieces a little room. Or just leave them be; the perforated crackers are easy to break up later on.
Once the dough is prepped, homemade Cheez-Its are baked until crisp, dry, and burnished gold. That's just a heartbeat away from "holy crap, I burned them," so keep a super-close eye on the crackers as they near the end of their bake time—at least, so long as you're still learning how the dough handles in your oven. On that note, if you're confident that your oven's heat is even, there's nothing wrong with baking the trays two at a time, but if hot spots and patchiness plague your baking endeavors, it's better to let each tray bake on its own.
Give the homemade Cheez-Its plenty of time to cool, then transfer them to an airtight container for up to....ahhh, who am I kidding. Just brace yourself for a snack attack. Whether sprinkled over a bowl of thick and creamy tomato soup or just eaten out of hand, homemade Cheez-Its won't last long (particularly during football season).
If leftovers are an issue you're fortunate enough to have, the crackers are dry and salty enough to last several weeks in a zip-top bag. Presuming you hide them, anyway. The bag I left at Serious Eats didn't survive the night...
How to Make DIY Cheez-Its
For the Dough:
6 3/4 ounces all-purpose flour (1 1/3 cups; 190g), plus more for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons (6g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or use the same weight
1 (8-ounce; 227g) block cheddar cheese, preferably sharp and yellow, grated finely (see notes)
8 ounces heavy cream (1 cup; 225g)
For the Egg Wash:
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/2 ounce water (1 tablespoon; 15g)
1/4 teaspoon (1g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling
For the Dough: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 375°F (190°C). Whisk flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt together in a medium bowl. Toss cheddar with dry ingredients until well combined. Stir in cream, mixing with a flexible spatula until dough comes together. Transfer to a lightly floured surface, knead until pliable and smooth, then divide in half. On a lightly floured surface, roll each portion into a roughly 15- by 11-inch rectangle, no more than 1/8-inch thick. Transfer each to a parchment-lined half sheet pan, then cut into 1-inch squares using a fluted pastry wheel.
For the Egg Wash: Whisk egg, yolk, water, and salt together in a small bowl. Brush over prepared dough, then sprinkle with additional salt to taste. Using a bamboo skewer or chopstick, press a small indentation into the center of each dough square. (This is strictly for a Cheez-It look and is therefore optional.) Bake until golden brown, about 24 minutes. Cool to room temperature and enjoy immediately, or store up to 1 month in an airtight container at room temperature.
This recipe works well with sharp yellow cheddars, like Tillamook and Cabot, but if you're looking for a change of pace, Manchego works well, too. Use a fine, Parmesan-style grater for the cheese. I love Microplane's fine grater because it's extra wide, making quick work of the cheese.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 17g||22%|
|Saturated Fat 10g||50%|
|Total Carbohydrate 17g||6%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||2%|
|Total Sugars 2g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||1%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|