Why Cheese Buttons Are One Of North Dakota's Most Famous Dishes

The origin of North Dakota's most treasured recipe has its roots in the story of immigrants to the area. In the late 1800s, a wave of northern European settlers arrived in the Dakota Territories to make land claims. German-Russian farmers who had lived in Russia and Ukraine for decades were among the largest of all the immigrant groups, settling in widespread areas of the state. And, naturally, they brought their hearty foodways with them, including the famous cheese dumplings (käse knöpfen, or käse knepfla), which may have been influenced by Ukrainian varenyky.

The German-Russian population tended to live in close-knit communities and, consciously or not, protected their unique heritage and culture for many decades. The recipe for the dish now known stateside as cheese buttons was passed down through families for generations, making use of wheat grown by local farmers and homemade cottage cheese produced by farm wives. As descendants of those early immigrants continue to celebrate their roots, the cheese dumpling remains a symbol of cultural continuity and a delicious reminder of the blending of traditions in the American heartland.

Cheese buttons are a link to immigrant history

Dumplings of any type, are a good way to stretch costly protein ingredients further to feed more at the table, an important feature for hard-working farm families, and so variations of cheese-filled dough are common in many northern European communities. 

Cheese button dumplings are typically made from a simple dough mixture of flour, eggs, and water, encasing a generous filling of flavorful cheese, similar to Ukrainian varenyky or Polish pierogi ruskie, but without additional potato. The cheese used can vary, with some recipes favoring milder options like farmer's cheese, but today most cheese buttons are filled with dry cottage cheese. The dumplings are typically boiled until they float to the surface, indicating their readiness. Once cooked, they can be enjoyed in various ways — some prefer them with a drizzle of melted butter and onions, while others savor them with a sour cream or toasted breadcrumb sauce. 

Dumplings are comfort food around the world, and in this case, a flavorful bridge to previous generations of immigrant communities who shaped and enriched the culinary landscape of North Dakota.