For my first foray into writing for quite some time, I thought I’d discuss something very important to me: shortbread, a versatile often-dessert that Wikipedia has described as
a Scottish biscuit traditionally made from one part white sugar, two parts butter, and three parts flour. I have the spare tire to prove it!
With a quick search of the Internet, modifications abound. Other recipes I’ve seen online often use three-and-a-half or even four parts flour. Confectioner’s sugar (sometimes called powdered sugar or icing sugar) and corn starch often find their way into the recipe, purportedly to create a softer inside and flakier outside. A common baker’s habit is to add a pinch of salt at a minimum to just about every recipe under the sun. I myself enjoy substituting in turbinado sugar, as well as adding vanilla extract and sometimes cocoa powder. One may very well prefer the taste of such modifications, and this is quite all right.
Shortbread can be an exceedingly forgiving dish, ranging from sweet to almost (or maybe even entirely) savory. Before adopting modifications, I suggest mastering the base form and then making permanent modifications for a personal répertoire. How attainable is the perfect texture, inside and out, by increasing the baking dish depth? What about trying a lower or higher temperature? Does the flavor of even a pinch of salt come through overmuch in the finished product? Until experimentation evinces the answer to these, why take shortcuts?
Everything below is presented with the idea that you have some time and money to spare on experimentation until you can achieve consistently good results, even in the face of substitutions.
One other thing: be careful eating raw dough. We do it and it’s delicious… and potentially risky, even when no eggs are involved.
I’ve broken the recipe into several sections. First is the basic ingredients, with only relative quantity. Second is the general directions, wherein the baking process is described without mention of oven fuel, oven temperature, cook time, or bakeware material. Third is a section on how I generally apply the general directions to the basic ingredients: proportions, cook time, oven temperature, oven fuel source, and bakeware material. Fourth is a set of notes from my experiences making shortbread.
- One part white sugar by volume (not weight)
- Two parts unsalted butter by volume (not weight)
- Three parts flour by volume (not weight)
- Remove butter from refrigeration (if any) to soften.
- Preheat oven (see quantities below).
- Cream the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary with a silicone spatula.
- Mix in flour with stand mixer until it forms a more-or-less cohesive blob that pulls itself off the sides of the mixing bowl, mostly cleaning it. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as necessary with a silicone spatula. If you try to remove some from the mixing bowl with your fingers, it should be soft but hold together.
- (optional, recommended) Refrigerate or freeze the dough to firm it up.
- When ready to bake, press the dough into a baking pan.
How to reproduce
- Right now my preferred method is one cup sugar, two cups butter, and three cups flour in an ungreased, 7x11 (inch) glass baking dish. This forms thick, heavy pieces when cut. (All units here are U.S. customary, but should be easily translated.)
- Creaming the butter and sugar usually takes between 45 seconds and two minutes in my experience, depending on the temperature of the butter.
- Once the butter and sugar are creamed together, mixing in the flour usually takes two to five minutes in my experience, again depending on temperature.
- I like a loaf to cut. If rounds are preferred, you can try dropping by the spoonful on a cookie sheet or rolling into a log, chilling, and slicing. Cookie cutters can make other shapes.
- We use an oven temperature of 325°F (about 160°C) for glass bakeware. If metal or silicone bakeware is in use, the temperature may require some adjustment.
- We use a gas oven. I don’t believe this will make too much of a difference for this recipe.
- We bake for about 60 minutes, which yields a very subtle brownness to the topside and sides, and a slightly more caramelized underside, of the finished good.
- With no eggs to worry about, this should stay fresh for some time in the fridge, and even longer in the freezer.
- Preheat the oven fully before using it to promote output consistency and an understanding of the process.
- I don’t generally puncture or perforate the surface of the dough when baking. Supposedly it not only looks geometrically pleasing, but also helps prevent unsightly rupturing during baking. I’ve never had issues with this.
- With that said, I usually use a flat pancake flipper to divide the contents of the pan into squares while it’s still hot.
- I also insert the pancake flipper between the shortbread and the edge of the hot pan to mitigate sticking and slow continued cooking as the dish cools.
- Let the dish cool significantly before removing its contents unless you want a pile of hardened crumbles.
- Since this is an iterative process, don’t expect perfect results the first time. Cooking time and temperature may need tweaking based on personal taste.
- I’ve not found any need to grease the baking pan, nor to line it with parchment paper. I generally use glass, for what it’s worth.
- Some parts of the world frequently cook by weight (i.e., in grams), rather than volume (cups, pints, etc.). It doesn’t matter if metric or Imperial or some other units are being used, as long as they are volume units. The relative densities of sugar, butter, and flour may well differ, hence the directive on volume above.
- Everything here is subjective. I’m not the king of shortbread. Just experiment and enjoy!
Things to try
Adjust cook time and temperature as needed:
- Add chocolate, vanilla, orange extract, orange rind, almond liqueur, and/or other flavorings.
- Use turbinado, muscovado, light brown, dark brown, coconut, or some other sugar for sweetening.
- Use oat flour partly or entirely instead of wheat flour. This yields a a heartier, more nuanced taste. You can make this flour by putting rolled oats in a food processor.
- Use whole wheat flour for a heartier and healthier dish.
- Use more flour. I’ve used between three-and-a-half to four parts repeatedly.
- Use salted butter instead of unsalted for a different experience.
- Use shortbread dough as a pie crust instead of graham crackers or traditional flour crust.
- Use a food processor to cut cold butter, sugar, and salt together for a different texture.
- Adjust sugar levels to make less (or more) sweet.
- Use other types of flour such as sorghum, teff, rice, or corn.
As a science-minded person, I take great joy in distilling recipes into their constituent components and classifying them accordingly, coming up ideally with what I call canonical versions. Mastery over the foundational proportions of a recipe can facilitate spontaneity and innovation. Baking is simply applied chemistry!