My teenage Anglophilia started with music—The Smiths, New Order, The Wedding Present—and quickly spread to sweets, particularly the Brits’ delightful array of candy and cookies, or biscuits. As I was about to order some sugary imports during the pandemic, I realized I had the time to try making some of my favorite UK biscuits at home rather than pay inflated transatlantic shipping prices. Here’s the second entry in my very own Great Biscuit Fake Off.
As someone who’s done lots of baking during the pandemic, it should not have surprised me that shortbread cookies contain only three ingredients. And yet… that number seems wrong. No baked treat this delicious could possibly be quite that simple. And yet, here are the parts of its great sum: Flour, sugar, butter. But is shortbread actually simple? It can be. Or you can complicate it in various tasty ways.
I was inspired, of course, by the classic packaged shortbread brand Walkers, which has been in the game since 1898. This is the ne plus ultra of shortbread and probably the only brand that most people could name—if they could name any at all. Walkers packages are simple throwbacks, decorated with a red Tartan backdrop, a tasteful photograph of the product, and a tiny painting that depicts Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald, “a young Highland woman who risked her life out of compassion for a fugitive Prince who had staked everything on a bid to win a kingdom and lost,” according to the Walkers website. This painting has nothing to do with the shortbread, but it speaks to Scottish pride. And the Scottish have much to be proud of. Shortbread is near the top of a list that also includes Belle & Sebastian, Sean Connery, Alexander Graham Bell, and the bicycle.
Though Scottish shortbread dates back to the 12th century, its current buttery iteration is closer to the one popularized by Mary, Queen of Scots, in the 1500s. In other words, it’s been around a long time, and for good reason: It’s delicious.
But you could probably have guessed that, considering those three ingredients. Shortbread tastes exactly like what it is: Butter and sugar. Fat and sweet. Crispy and delicate. But, if you’ve done it right, exploding with flavor. And I’m here to tell you a secret about shortbread: Once you’ve got the basics, it’s pretty hard to do it wrong. Imagine another recipe in which tiny mistakes often yield positive results. You might want to fumble your shortbread just to see what delightful results little changes make.
It’s easier than you might expect to come up with something incredibly close to the commercial Walkers version, with its buttery, crumbly delights. (And you can save yourself some cash: Those things work out to like 50 cents a cookie when you buy them by the box!)
But first, the basics: It’s literally as simple as one-two-three. That’s the ratio of sugar, butter, and flour. One part sugar, two parts butter, three parts flour. You cream the sugar and butter, mix in the flour, shape however you’d like, and bake. Of course, for something as popular and ancient as shortbread, there are a thousand ways to tweak and refine.
Makes about 12 cookies
- 2 oz. (a heaping ¼ cup) sugar
- 4 oz. (1 stick or ½ cup ) salted butter, room temperature (I love Kerrygold for these)
- 6 oz. (about 1½ cups, minus a tablespoon) all-purpose flour
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a sheet pan, casserole pan, or cake pan with parchment paper, letting it run up the sides to form a sling that you can use to remove the shortbread when it’s done.
Cream the butter and sugar in a stand mixer or by hand until well combined. Add the flour in two batches, mixing until the dough is crumbly and just holding together. Using your hands, finish combining the dough into a ball.
Press the dough into the pan, shaping it into a rectangle about ¼” thick. (This is for traditional shortbread “fingers,” but you can shape it however you’d like and then adjust the bake time accordingly. Regular round cookies might take eight minutes, while a full sheet pan could be 35 or more.)
Bake for 12 minutes, then remove from the oven, slice into smaller rectangles (about 3" by 1/2"), and poke decorative holes in the tops with a fork. Return the pan to the oven for about 10 minutes more, or until the shortbread is just starting to get golden brown. Cool completely, but maybe try one while they’re still warm, because they’re nice and chewy before they firm up. After an hour or so, you’ll have crunchy, crumbly goodness.
What kind of flour should I use? Just use all-purpose. Some recipes suggest using some rice flour. It’s not worth the hassle.
Salted or unsalted butter? Salted.
Should I add salt? And taint this thing with a fourth ingredient? Just use salted butter.
What type of sugar? Oh, you thought these were all going to be easy answers? Most bakers use plain granulated white sugar. Many prefer powdered. Some insist on caster sugar, which is finely ground white sugar that’s not quite powdered. Some daring souls use brown sugar. What is the correct answer? Any of the above. You can use any type of sugar, and your shortbread will be delicious.
This recipe does not take beauty into account at all. I don’t care if my edges are straight, or if the cookies are perfectly uniform. It’s not hard to make them look pretty perfect, though, simply by being careful to uniformly press the dough, or cooking in a pan that perfectly fits the amount of dough you’ve got. This is a small recipe, but if you double it, it fits nicely in a 9 x 13 cake pan.
Mess with the ratios until you find what you like. The 1-2-3 ratio is not terribly sweet, so the taste emphasis is on the butter. Add a little more sugar if you’d like. While putting this recipe together, I tried something I hadn’t before: I used brown sugar, upped the butter in the ratio by about 15%, and baked for an extra 10 minutes or so. I ended up with brown-butter shortbread, which I cut into wedges that tasted like shortcrust pastry.
Try some mix-ins. Old-timey Scots used caraway. Not-sweet things are great, like walnuts or pistachios. Sweet things are great, too, like shaved chocolate. If you’re feeling frisky, melt some chocolate chips with a little butter, then dunk the ends in the mixture and allow to cool.
Experiment with the cooking time. Shortbread hardens up a lot once it’s cooled, so go a little shorter for a chewier texture.
Some bakers swear by a technique I’ve decided to call “afterbaking.” They bake a batch this size for only 10-15 minutes total, still slicing into fingers halfway through, then turn off the oven and leave the cookies inside for another hour or so. This way they finish cooking but they don’t get any golden-brown color at all (and thus look more like the Walkers boxed version).
If three ingredients just isn’t enough to satisfy you, throw in a splash of vanilla extract.
Find a few more tips here.
Next time: Going from simple to super complex, with Jaffa Cakes.