I'm going to make you a promise: This peach cobbler will glow like a setting sun. It will fill your kitchen with the smell of warm butter, gentle spice, and end-of-summer love. It'll be crisp yet tender, rich yet wholesome, and juicy in all the right ways. But it will not, in any way, be an overcomplicated version of itself.
When I want more of a challenge, I make pie. Perfect crusts, lattices, crimping and fluting and decorating, all that. But cobbler? No way. The whole point of cobbler is that it's easy, and I refuse to take that for granted. I don't want this to just be the best peach cobbler recipe I can share with you—I want it to be an absolute snap, too.
Ah, but what kind of cobbler am I even talking about? Depending on where you live or grew up, the word can be used to describe a variety of baked fruit desserts. It's a pretty big category of dishes, and, if you're interested, you should read our guide to the wacky family of cobblers, crisps, crumbles, pandowdies, and more. For most of us, though, at least here in the United States, "cobbler" refers to a casserole of baked, syrupy fruit with a pastry topping of some sort. After scanning a lot of recipes online and in cookbooks, I found two types to be the most common. One has fruit on the bottom and a topping made of sweetened biscuits; the other has a cake-like batter that starts out below the fruit, but rises to the top as it bakes. I'm most familiar with the biscuit-topped kind, and that's what I intended to make here, but I figured I'd give the other a try just to see if I'd be convinced to switch over.
I followed a recipe published by Southern Living, which is fairly similar to one published by Paula Deen some years later. You start by melting an entire stick of butter in a baking dish. Then you pour the batter on top of that, which mostly pushes the butter to the sides. The fruit goes on next, much of it sinking into the batter, and it bakes until golden on top. There are four cups of sliced peaches and two full cups of sugar in both recipes. By weight, there's nearly as much sugar as peach.
The result looks good, but tastes horrid. It is entirely too sweet. Plus, it is offensively buttery (yes, that is possible). If you like this sort of thing—and apparently a lot of people do, based on the rave recipe reviews—then I apologize in advance for offending you by criticizing your taste.*
*But as long as I am offending you, I may as well go one step further and tell you that you should recalibrate your palate, because no one should enjoy anything so sweet.
The amount of butter and sugar was a flaw I could have fixed had I decided to stick with the batter method, but the cake-y texture threw me, too. This, I realize, is a matter of personal preference and not a larger indictment of anyone's taste, but for me, when it comes to cobbler, it's biscuit all the way.
Having said that, I'll start with the fruit.
Keeping the Peaches Peachy-Keen
When I make a classic peach cobbler, I want it to taste, more than anything else, like ripe summer peaches. Incidentally, that's what you should be using here. Ripe. Summer. Peaches. Like tomatoes, out-of-season peaches are rarely worth eating—they're mealy, bland shadows of themselves. Cooking them helps, without a doubt, but why bother? At the time of publication, many of you in the Northern Hemisphere still have at least a few weeks of peach season left, so now's the time to do it. After that, just wait, and maybe make an apple crisp instead. This recipe will still be here when you circle back next year.
I like to dice my peaches, because they fit in the bowl of a spoon more gracefully that way. Some folks slice theirs, and you're free to do so as well if that's what you prefer; this recipe will work either way. I also don't bother peeling my peaches—I've yet to be troubled by the presence of cooked skins in a cobbler. Once again, if you happen to have an issue with peach skins, go ahead and peel them first.
Even though I want my cobbler to taste like ripe summer peaches, peaches can't be the only filling ingredient. (Trust me, I know, because I actually cooked a version with diced peaches and nothing else, and it wasn't great.) What do we need? First, of course, is sugar—not a ton (see above), but enough to help form the syrupy sauce and punch the dish up to dessert status.
Beyond that, we have choices. Some folks add lemon juice to balance the sugary sweetness. Some add thickeners like cornstarch to ensure that the fruity syrup isn't too thin and watery.
I whipped up a few test batches to work out what would and wouldn't go into my peaches. I compared granulated to light brown sugar, versions with and without lemon juice, and also samples with and without cornstarch.
I found that brown sugar didn't make enough of a flavor difference to warrant calling for it, while lemon juice was a must to prevent the dessert from becoming cloying. In my small test batches, which I cooked in ramekins, I preferred the ones without cornstarch, but I chose to reserve judgment on this until I'd scaled up to a full, baking-dish-size batch and zeroed in on my ratio of biscuit to fruit. Good thing I did, because subsequent larger batches proved that a little cornstarch goes a long way toward getting that perfect syrupy texture, even when the dish is still hot. Even so, I go light on the cornstarch, since there's no need to heavily thicken the juices. After all, one of the best things about a cobbler is that, unlike pie, it can't really be too wet and juicy, since there's no bottom crust to become soggy.
Then there's an endless number of flavoring options. Popular ones include spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, vanilla, and even mix-ins like nuts; some folks go a step further with additions like cocktail bitters and cayenne pepper for a hint of heat. I walked a fairly conservative line here, and you're once again free to either follow my lead or go your own way, since there's no right or wrong way to do it.
I didn't care for my test batches with cinnamon—it's a flavor that says "fall" to me, not "summer"—so I opted for a light grating of fresh nutmeg instead. In place of vanilla, I borrowed the trick of adding a splash of bourbon from Max, who used it in his apple crisp recipe. It delivers not only vanilla notes, but also a dose of complex caramel flavor. Feel free to leave it out.
And then I snuck in just a couple of drops—literally, drops—of almond extract. It's not that outlandish of an idea when you consider that peaches and almonds are closely related: The almond, after all, is just the edible center of the pit of a peach-like fruit. Beware, though, because if you add too much (which would be anything beyond those two drops), your cobbler will go from tasting like peaches to tasting like marzipan—definitely not what I want my peach cobbler to taste like. Regardless, it's optional. I certainly wouldn't skip this recipe just because you don't have almond extract kicking around in your pantry.
Once I get my peaches all whipped up, I scrape them into an eight-inch-square, two-quart baking dish and pop them in a 400°F oven for 10 minutes to get them started. I highly recommend setting the baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet, since cobblers love to overflow during baking.
The Quickest Biscuit
While the peaches are in the oven for those 10 short minutes, it's time to make the biscuit. Don't worry—that's just enough time, because this isn't a complicated biscuit like a rolled buttermilk biscuit. Nope, this is an easy one known as a drop biscuit.
Drop biscuits straddle the line between a batter and a dough. Butter is cut into them, just as it is with pie or biscuit dough, but a liquid is then mixed in to form a spoonable, droppable texture that can be plopped on a baking sheet like cookie dough. Once baked, the biscuits are light, tender, and moist, with an airy, ever-so-slightly spongy center, like a cake version of a biscuit. We already have a solid drop biscuit recipe on the site, so I started with that. It's savory, meaning it has no sugar in it, so I tinkered with adding different amounts of sugar until I'd gotten a just-sweet-enough version with an even lighter texture, perfect for peach cobbler.
To make it, start by mixing the dry ingredients—all-purpose flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder—together in a bowl. Then cut in diced chilled butter. I find that doing this by hand with a pastry blender works very well and is quick, but you can also cut the butter in by pulsing it in a food processor. Finally, stir in milk just until incorporated and no further, since additional stirring will develop gluten and toughen the biscuit.
Out come the peaches and on goes the biscuit dough in clumps, which I then spread out. This recipe makes enough to just barely cover the peaches in an eight-by-eight baking dish, which is how I like it. If you want more clearly separated biscuit rounds instead of a solid layer of topping, just use a little less of the dough and leave more space between each clump.
Either way, I like to leave a small opening right in the center to help heat penetrate and prevent the biscuit in the middle from underbaking. I pop the cobbler back in the oven and let it bake until the biscuit is browned and fully cooked.
But wait! I also do one little extra step while the cobbler is in the oven: I mix up a basic syrup by dissolving sugar in a couple of tablespoons of water and cooking it for just a minute or two so that the syrup thickens slightly. Then I brush that syrup onto the biscuit topping, right when it's showing the first hints of browning.
The syrup forms an incredibly thin, crackly glaze on the biscuit, enhancing its texture and appearance.
Once it's done, you have to resist the urge to dig in right away. The peaches and their syrup are too hot right out of the oven and need to cool and thicken slightly. Give it a half-hour at least, then scoop out servings into bowls or plates. Don't worry if it looks at first like there's too much liquid in the baking dish. I promise it'll all get soaked up by that biscuit as you eat it.
Oh, and add some ice cream or whipped cream. That's not too complicated—not by a long shot.