Homemade shortbread cookies are so easy to make, and can also be used as a shortbread crust for pies and bars. Just three ingredients to buttery goodness!
I'm not short, I'm fun sized. That’s what is said on my older daughter’s license plate rim. And with her dad and mom at 5’4” and 5’2”, she comes by it honestly. My husband and I fit together nicely, so it works for us. However, both my girls are currently dating much taller guys (over 6’ each!), so who knows…maybe we’ll have some tall genes injected into the family tree. No pressure, girls...really!
Why am I talking about shortness, I hear you ask? Because I’m going to talk about Scottish shortbread, that’s why (whoa, major pivot there!).
Shortbread is so associated with Scotland that to think of it, red tartan boxes automatically come to mind (well, at least to my mind!). Walkers Shortbread is the gold standard of commercially made shortbread, and they even did a tie-in with Outlander.
And while Walker’s is very good, homemade shortbread cookies are actually incredibly easy to make, using only three ingredients! Well, maybe four...I’ll get to that in a few minutes.
Why is it called shortbread?
What’s short about it? Let’s turn to that most trusted of sources…Wikipedia:
"Shortbread is a biscuit traditionally made from one part white sugar, two parts butter, and three parts flour. Other ingredients like ground rice or corn flour are sometimes added to alter the texture. ... (It) originated in Scotland, with the first printed recipe in 1736, from a Scotswoman named Mrs. McLintock."
In Scotland, shortbread cookies (or more accurately, shortbread biscuits) are widely associated with Christmas and Hogmanay (New Year's Eve). Walkers Shortbread is exported around the world in their iconic Royal Stewart tartan.
Lots of info here…definitions, history, and some math, too (yay!). But nary a word about why it’s called shortbread (my, you’re impatient!).
For that, let’s visit British Food: A History:
"The large amount of butter is what makes shortbread short: the term short, when applied to biscuits and pastry, means crumbly, like shortcrust pastry should be. It is the reason why the fat added to biscuits and pastries is called shortening."
Alright, so it’s the presence of lots of butter that makes it short?
Still not answered...why shortbread?
But we’ve still not answered the etymology question…why is it called shortbread? A more satisfying answer can be found at HuffPost Taste:
"Shortening got its name because of what it does to flour. Introducing fat into baked goods interferes with the formation of the gluten matrix in the dough. As a result of its interference, gluten strands end up shorter which in turn creates a softer, more crumbly baked good.
It’s the reason that cakes and pastries are soft and breads not so much. But funny enough, shortening got its name way before anyone knew anything about the chemical reaction of fat and gluten, and that’s because the word short used to mean tender in reference to food."
Aaaaah…now we’re getting somewhere! Math and Science in one little cookie. Fabulous!
Whew…that was exhausting. But don’t throw in the towel just yet (especially since I have enough laundry to do as it is)…let’s look at the info from Wikipedia again.
There’s made mention of two interesting trivia tidbits: the recipe ratio of 3-2-1 flour/butter/sugar, and something about altering the structure using other ingredients. Shall we delve a bit deeper, dear reader?
Shortbread cookie ingredients
Flour, butter, and sugar
A word (or two) about the flour/butter/sugar ratio. I had never seen that mentioned before I started researching this post, and of course I had to check to see if my basic recipe fit the bill (it’s math, and you know I love math!).
The answer is…almost. My recipe is 18:16:7 and the ratio would have it as 18:12:6. So I have slightly more sugar (1 oz or 2 Tbsp), and a whopping extra stick of butter (4 oz). No wonder my shortbread is buttery goodness!
The type of butter matters
I keep saying there are only three ingredients to homemade shortbread, and that's true, up to a point. There's an assumption that you'll be using salted butter. If you're using unsalted butter you have to...say it with me now...add salt.
Why was there this assumption? Remember that the original recipe was first written in the early 18th century, and presumably made even before that. Salt was used to keep butter fresher longer without the need for refrigeration.
Nowadays, most bakers use unsalted butter so we can control the amount of salt in the dish. Use either kind of butter you'd like, but add salt if needed. So there are three (and possibly four) ingredients in homemade shortbread cookies.
Shortbread cookies with rice flour
As I said earlier, the basic shortbread recipe calls for three ingredients. I was intrigued at the addition of rice flour when I looked at some shortbread recipes online. Did it really alter the texture of the shortbread, and how many people really baked it that way?
To find out, I did what any former engineer worth her salt would do...I conducted an experiment.
I took my basic shortbread recipe and substituted 10% of the total all-purpose flour with rice flour, then conducted a blind taste test (with me blind and my husband feeding me…that’s trust!).
The basic recipe was buttery and not too sweet, crumbly but still firm. In other words, homemade shortbread cookie goodness. The shortbread cookies with rice flour included did have a softer texture, but the sweetness and buttery-ness was somehow muted. For us, the basic recipe was the clear winner.
Next, I wanted to know how many bakers really use the rice flour in their recipes. I turned to one of my Outlander Facebook groups and conducted a poll. Of the 99 responses I received, 60 didn’t add rice flour, 1 did, and 28 ordered from Walkers and didn’t bother with baking. Interesting!
Recipes for homemade shortbread cookies abound
Searching the web will yield you countless versions of homemade shortbread recipes. There are many different versions of the flour/fat/sugar amounts, and how soft, sweet, soft, or buttery the results are varies considerably (interesting, considering that you'd think only having three ingredients wouldn't leave much wriggle room).
After looking over many versions, I settled on this recipe for Scottish Shortbread Cookies...it wasn’t as sweet as some of the others (it had more flour to sugar than other recipes), the texture was soft without being wimpy, and flavor let the butter shine. A winner in my book.
The many uses of shortbread cookies
Shortbread is a very versatile cookie...it's like the vanilla ice cream of the cookie world. Yes, you can eat is as bars (pictured here). You can also flavor the dough with different add-ins like lemon zest, almond extract, or essence of lavender. I've even made savory shortbread with garlic powder and parmesan cheese (yes, I omitted the sugar).
Shortbread is also commonly used as a base for pies and bars. You don't think about it...it's just there. Think lemon bars (or maybe Mint Lemon Lime bars?). Most pies that use a pastry crust can also be turned into bars...Pecan bars and Brown Sugar Pie bars come to mind. Think of the possibilities!
How do you make shortbread? Some of my poll respondents said they substituted brown sugar for the white sugar for a richer flavor.
Do you add rice flour to your recipe? Do you doctor your shortbread in any way, maybe adding lemon zest, vanilla extract, or almond extract?
Whenever I have a craving for a cookie that doesn't take too much effort, I make a batch of shortbread. They're easy, tasty, and really fun to play with variations. Homemade shortbread cookies might have short in its name, but it’s big in flavor!
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!
Recipes with a shortbread crust
Shortbread isn't just for eating out of hand (although that's a big plus!). It's also used as a base for cookie and pie bars. Quick and easy!
Homemade Shortbread Cookies
- ½ cup granulated sugar, (3-1/2 oz, 100g)
- 1 cup butter, salted or unsalted (8 oz, 227g)
- 2 cups all-purpose flour, (9 oz, 255g)
- ½ tsp kosher salt, if using unsalted butter
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9- x 9-inch baking pan with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on 2 sides. Set aside.
- In a large bowl of a stand mixer (or just a large bowl if using a hand mixer), beat the sugar and butter until smooth.
- Add the flour (and salt, if needed), and mix until a smooth dough forms.
- Pat the dough into the prepared baking pan. Use a piece of plastic wrap to press out the dough until it's even...you can even use a small pie roller to help. Pierce the dough with a fork, then chill for 20-30 minutes, or until the dough is firm.
- Bake the shortbread for 25-30 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from the oven to a wire rack.
- Cut the shortbread into 1- x 2-inch rectangles while it's still warm in the pan. Cool the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes.
- Carefully remove the shortbread from the pan using the parchment paper overhang to the wire rack. Cool completely & enjoy!