Shortbread is associated with Scotland (red tartan boxes come to mind), but homemade shortbread is easy…just 3 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 to Outlander for a while. And while Walker’s is very good, homemade shortbread is actually incredibly easy to make, using only 3 ingredients! Well, maybe 4…I’ll get to that in a few minutes.
So, about the name…
First, 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 … Shortbread originated in Scotland, with the first printed recipe, in 1736, from a Scotswoman named Mrs. McLintock. Shortbread is widely associated with Christmas and Hogmanay festivities in Scotland, and the Scottish brand Walkers Shortbread is exported around the world. As a Scottish brand, shortbread is sometimes packaged in a tartan design, such as 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.”
Still not answered…why shortbread?
Alright, so it’s the presence of lots of butter that makes it short? 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? (Must we? Yes, we must.)
As I said earlier, the basic shortbread recipe calls for 3 ingredients, but 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, shortbread goodness. The batch with the 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! The basic recipe won out again.
Back to basics
So what is this basic recipe I keep harping on about? Searching the web will yield you countless versions of 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 3 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.
Love me some math
A word (or two) about the flour/fat/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!
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? So many questions…please give me your answers!
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar (3-1/2 oz, 100g)
- 2 sticks butter (8 oz, 227g), salted (for unsalted butter, add 1/2 tsp salt)
- 2 cups all-purpose flour (9 oz, 255g)
- Preheat oven to 350°F. 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 flour (and salt, if needed), andd mix until a smooth dough forms.
- Bake 25-30 minutes or until lightly browned.
- Cut into 1- x 2-inch rectangles while still warm in the pan. Cool 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!