Shortbread, Plain and Fancy

History you can eat. This weekend we celebrate National Shortbread Day, on January 6. The history of shortbread is a long one: shortbread evolved from medieval “biscuit bread,” a twice-baked bread roll dusted with sugar and spices. Eventually, the yeast from the original bread-roll recipe was supplanted by butter (yum), which was becoming more of a staple in Britain and Ireland.

Mary-Queen-of-Scots-movie-2018-focus-featuresAlthough shortbread was prepared in Scotland as far back as the 12th century, the refinement of shortbread to its modern sugar+butter+flour form is credited to Mary, Queen of Scots in the 16th century.  (Queen Mary liked her shortbread savory, seasoned with a bit of caraway seed).

In the “olden days,” shortbread was expensive to make, and was reserved as a luxury for special occasions such as Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and for weddings. In some parts of GB, shortbread is still a treat served on important days; in Shetland, it is traditional to break a shortbread cake over the head of a new bride as she enters her new house.


Easy as 1:2:3. The recipe for shortbread is perhaps the simplest cookie recipe you’ve ever made: 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, and 3 parts flour.

That’s it: sugar, butter, flour. What could be easier?

But oh, the fun things you can add to or do with a basic shortbread recipe, to make this delicious buttery cookie into a fancy treat!

Not a sugar cookie. While classic shortbread = a sugary cookie, shortbread ≠ a sugar cookie. In its simple sugar-butter-flour recipe, there is so much more butter than sugar in shortbread dough, that the dough comes out crumbly — usually much too crumbly for rolling out and using cookie cutters. On the other hand, a sugar cookie recipe includes eggs, vanilla, salt, and a leavening agent (like baking soda or baking powder), along with the butter, sugar and flour.

Also, traditional shortbread dough is baked in one big single pan (scored before baking for easier breaking apart later). Sugar cookie dough, on the other hand, is typically rolled and cut out, or shaped and baked, as individual cookies.

Scotish Shortbread - Out of the ovenNot shortcake, nor a butter cookie, either. Shortcake (best friend and frequent companion of springtime strawberries) can be made using vegetable fat instead of butter and usually requires a leavening agent such as baking powder, which gives it a different, more cake-like texture.  And to make a delectable butter cookie (like the Danish cookies we buy in round tins at holiday time), the ratio of sugar:butter

The long and short of it. What’s short about shortbread? The large amount of butter (aka the shortening) is what makes shortbread short. In baking terminology, the term short, when you are talking about biscuits and pastry, means crumbly, which is the ideal consistency of shortbread dough.

Hands-on, or machine made? Some recipes say to mix the ingredients with your clean, bare hands, but you can also make a fine traditional shortbread by using a pastry blender to cut the cold butter into the dry ingredients. Truly, an electric mixer and butter that is nearer to room temperature also will turn out great. Experiment to find the method that works best for you.


Once the dough is mixed, decide whether you want to bake the shortbread as a single big pan of cookie, or as individual shortbread cookie “bars.” Ina Garden says to roll out the dough to a 1/2-” thickness on a lightly floured surface before cutting with a knife to make 3”x 1” rectangular cookies.

Place the individual cookies on an ungreased baking sheet and sprinkle with sanding sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Ina Garten also dips her baked, cooled shortbread cookies in melted chocolate – a departure from tradition, but a very tasty one.

shortbread-wedges-by-kate-flickrIf you choose to make one big pan of shortbread, press the cookie dough into a greased, 9” round springform pan or square (9”x9”) brownie pan, about 1/2” thick, and pre-score the dough into equally-sized wedges, with a sharp paring knife or fork to outline where you’d like the cookies to split apart. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes before popping chilled pan into the 300°F oven, and bake for about 45 min, when cookies are beginning to turn lightly golden brown. Allow shortbread to cool in pan at least 30 minutes, before running a blade around the edge of the springform pan, and then gently releasing the sides of the pan.

shortbread-by-gillian-flickrHowever you make your shortbread dough (mixed by hand or by other tools), and however you shape the cookies to bake (individual vs one big segmented cookie), a common factor is to bake the shortbread at a low temperature – as low as 300°F –  to avoid browning. When cooked, she shortbread will still appear nearly white, or a light golden brown.

Your fresh-baked shortbread may also be sprinkled with more sugar while cooling. The cookies may seem to be too crumbly before cooled, but will become firmer after cooling.

Perfection in simplicity. Shortbread can be made more “fancy” with the addition of baking spices (like this cinnamon-spiced shortbread recipe), savory spices (as in this parmesan-fennel-sea salt number), a sprinkle of or a handful of currants or high-quality mini chocolate chips. But a plain, simple batch of shortbread is a crumbly, buttery, perfect cookie, ideal companion to a cup of tea.

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