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Short But Sweet: A Salute to Shortbread

Shortbread is certainly one of life's small pleasures: crispy, tantalizingly buttery, and when done right, the perfect combination of sweet and slightly salty.

With only three main ingredients (flour, sugar and butter--with a dash of salt for good measure)--traditional shortbread isn't a complex thing, but we would be hard-pressed to call it simple food. Because certainly there is an art to mixing those ingredients, to yielding the elusively perfect, buttery crumb.
But what else lies beneath this humble cookie? We took some time to think about various aspects of the cookie--here's what we discovered.
First off, where does the cookie come from?

As Historic-UK.com informs us, the story of shortbread begins with the medieval biscuit ("twice-baked"), wherein leftover bread dough was baked a second time to form a type of rusk--this is to say, if you picture a family tree of cookies, this would mean that shortbread, rusks and biscotti all share some relatives.
While by some accounts they existed as far back as the 12th century in Britain, it seems to us that it is truly Scotland where shortbread as we know it was developed: it is here that gradually the yeast began to be replaced with butter, and oat flour, which were some of their agricultural staples. These "short" bread cookies were a fancy dessert, reserved for the wealthy and for special occasions. And certainly their popularity was bolstered by the fact that in the 16th Century, they are said to have been a favorite of Mary, Queen of Scots (she liked a variation which included caraway seeds, in case you were interested).

Dipped Shortbread at Au Bon Pain, Penn Station
Why are they called "short"?
It's all about the butter, baby! According to Everything You Pretend to Know about Food and Are Afraid Someone Will Ask, which is like, our favorite book ever,
short pastry is a nonyeast pastry that has a high ratio of butter to flour. Short pastries bake up crumbly rather than chewy and tend to keep well, owing to their high fat content.
What is the proper shape for a traditional shortbread cookie?
We've seen them round, rectangular, diamond-shaped, and cut into wedges from a larger round--so what gives? Is there a proper shape for a traditional shortbread cookie? Once again according to Historic-UK.com,
Shortbread is traditionally formed into one of three shapes: one large circle divided into segments ("Petticoat Tails"); individual round biscuits ("Shortbread Rounds"); or a thick rectangular slab cut into "fingers."

Of course, having taste-tested each of these traditional variations, we can report that while they may differ in look, each shape is delicious.
Dog Portrait Cookies
What is the best shortbread cookie recipe?
These days, shortbread recipes are available in a dizzying array of flavors and variations: and from chocolate peanut butter to gorgeously decorated chocolate shortbread (above, photo c/o Whipped Bakeshop) to Earl Grey to cherry almond to even lavender vegan variations, we have enjoyed many of them. But moreover, we love this simple, classic recipe, which is a wonderful springboard for variations (note: though it can be made into round cookies rather than a big round, it is a fragile dough so may be harder to handle in that way).

Scottish shortbread in a pie tinShortbread
Classic Shortbread
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Preheat oven to 300°F. Lightly butter 9-inch-diameter springform pan (we couldn't find ours so used a pie plate--it worked just fine!). Whisk flour, sugar, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Add 1/2 cup butter and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Gather dough together and form into ball; flatten into disk. Roll out dough on lightly floured surface to 1/2-inch-thick round. Transfer round to prepared pan. Using fingers, press dough evenly over bottom to edges of pan. Using tip of small sharp knife, score dough into 8 equal triangles, then pierce all over with fork. Bake until shortbread is cooked through and pale golden, about 45 minutes.


Using tip of sharp knife, cut warm shortbread into triangles along scored lines. Run knife around shortbread to loosen. Cool in pan at least 30 minutes. Using spatula, carefully remove shortbread from pan.

Can be made 1 day ahead. Store shortbread airtight in single layer at room temperature.


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Reader Comments (37)

what an interesting post :) i love shortbread.

February 26 | Unregistered CommenterSnooky doodle

Hey! Love the 'Scottish' post. Being from Scotland and a maker of Shortbread, may I also add a 'tip'. Here in Scotland after we've gathered our dough and kneaded it for a bit and formed into a ball, we wrap in cling film, let it rest in the fridge for 20mins before we roll. This does something to the butter within the pastry and makes it much more tasty!

Enjoy! x

February 27 | Unregistered CommenterApple

Oooo I forgot to add, for petticoat tails... we prick the dough with a fork all over and when it's finished baking dust with caster sugar! That's a tradition! :)

February 27 | Unregistered CommenterApple

Will you judge me harshly if I admit publicly that those dog decorated cookies make me nervous? We recently tried a peanut butter short bread recipe here in the test kitchen (baked in a pan and cut into wedged) that was surprisingly delicious! I'm usually a bit of a purist when it comes to this cookie.

February 27 | Unregistered CommenterDana McCauley

I love shortbread! I was just looking through some cookbooks last night and marked every shortbread recipe.. now I'm really craving it!

February 27 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie

It is so funny that you would post about shortbread, because just yesterday I was thinking about how I wish I liked it better. I used to think I just didn't make it right, but then others would like it - I think I just don't like its density and crumbliness. Your pics look beautiful though.

February 27 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

It is so funny that you would post about shortbread, because just yesterday I was thinking about how I wish I liked it better. I used to think I just didn't make it right, but then others would like it - I think I just don't like its density and crumbliness. Your pics look beautiful though.

February 27 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

Who knew shortbread could look so good! It's not something I normally crave, but now I'm wishing I had some for breakfast! :)

February 27 | Unregistered CommenterBridget

Oh yum! I made some brown sugar shortbread a few weeks ago that incredibly good too. I love all these varieties!

February 27 | Unregistered CommenterHilary

the dog-cookies are amazing
i likeeee

February 27 | Unregistered Commenteredible forest

Thanks for posting the recipe. I love shortbread cookies, but have never make them.

February 27 | Unregistered CommenterTreehouse Chef

thanks for the tasty food lesson!

February 27 | Unregistered Commenterveggievixen

I lvoe the idea of a baked good geneaology tree! My head is dizzy with all the boxes, circles, marriages, divorces.... oh the drama of patisserie!

February 27 | Unregistered Commenterbigspoonbakery

Your shortbread recipe is pretty much the one I use, but I don't roll it out.

I just knead it a bit by hand until it "feels right" and then press it out into the pan. The feel is smooth and silky without many crumbs.

While I have shortbread molds, I also do this when baking them in pie plates.

They keep nearly forever in an airtight container when stored in a cool area (ie, Seattle!). We just finished the last of the shortbread I'd made in early November.

Which means it's time to make more!

February 27 | Unregistered CommenterOwl Chick

another fine historical snapshot. thank you! now i must away for some carraway seeds!

February 27 | Unregistered Commentermoonrat

Now I can do nothing but obsess over shortbread. Something tells me the craving won't go away until I make this recipe.

February 27 | Unregistered Commenternoisy penguin

Mmmmm.shortbread! My Mama makes the best just wish she made it more often (AND I lived closer to her).

February 27 | Unregistered CommenterJaimee

What a great post! It was very informative and I love shortbread cookies. Mind you I like chocolate chip cookies too. It would be hard for me to choose between the two.

February 27 | Unregistered Commenterchuck

Love this post! I'm a recent shortbread convert and didn't start baking them until last year. Shorbread sure is one enjoyable cookie! ; )

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterAnali

Now I'm craving some shortbread!

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah

Shortbread is so simple yet one of my favorite cookies! It is great to hear about the history behind the treat :)

Now excuse me while I wipe up my pile of drool!

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterKelle's Kitchen

I don't see a lot of shortbread in the stores, now I'll have to look for it. I wonder if dogs see themselves on the cookies and think it's for them.

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterJeanna

I'm chilling the dough right now (as recommended above) :)
I want to make cut out cookies but I think it's simpler to just make a huge cookie like in this post since it's my first time making shortbread cookie :) wish me luck!

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterTeaspoon

YUM! shortbread!!

Love it :)

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterJodi

ooohhh...yummy! i love shortbread, it's simple and delicious. i make a nice brown sugar version, i cream the sugar and butter in my stand mixer for a good mix, about 10 minutes. then add the sifted flour and a pinch of salt. I agree with chilling the dough, i roll mine up in logs and slice and bake. I agree about the perfect degree of salt and sweet too.
thanks for sharing!

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterPuglette
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