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July 03, 2006

A Study in Shortbread


Shortbread is one of my very favorite cookies, vying with chocolate chip for the top spot. The best shortbread have an inviting pale golden exterior promising a fine, sandy texture that crumbles into rich, buttery happiness in your mouth.  I've tried many a shortbread over the years in the quest to find the perfect one, and have found disappointments ranging the gamut from glorified butter cookies to dry and crumbly hunks of dough. I turned to the kitchen, testing the myriad of recipes and variations out there. Having worked through mounds of butter, flour, and sugar in search of good shortbread, I've concluded there is no one perfect recipe, but there are several things that will help attain that combination of tender crumb and meltingly rich taste.

Using the right ingredients is of paramount importance, since there are so few: butter, sugar, and flour. Make sure your butter is fresh and of the best quality you can find, as that's what you'll be tasting. You may want to experiment with the different butters available to see which suits your taste! Using superfine (castor) sugar instead of regular sugar also gives the shortbread that coveted fine texture - if I don't have any in the house I often just put some regular sugar in the food processor for about 45 seconds. There are several recipes that call for confectioner's sugar instead; I've found the results from these quite pleasing as well, with a more softer mouthfeel.  Finally, sifting the all-purpose flour will also improve the texture of the finished product just like using superfine sugar. I also like using a bit of rice flour in the recipe, since it does not form gluten like regular flour and thus helps make the shortbread more tender.

When making the dough, it's important to keep from overworking it, as this will make the shortbread tough. That's why many recipes call for using chilled butter and either cutting it into the flour or making minimal use of the mixer.  I found that using room temperature butter to make a soft dough, and then chilling and rolling it out gives good results too, as long as you are again careful to avoid overmixing or overrolling the dough. Also, I try not to roll thinner than 1/4", as this could make the shortbread bake too thin and crisp; one of the pleasures of shortbread, I think, is its thickness: knowing that you can bite into it and have that drawn-out second of your teeth sinking through its sandy fineness.

Traditional Scottish shortbread usually comes in the form of a circle cut into wedges called "petticoat tails", and there are many beautiful molds with intricate designs you can find for this purpose. In a pinch, I also roll out the dough and use a cake ring to cut out a circle, and score it into wedges myself. Shortbread is also often seen in individual rounds or fingers; really, with some rolled-up dough and cookie cutters you could make whatever your imagination comes up with, but as shortbread is a simple cookie I like to keep the shapes simple as well, to emphasize the quality and texture of the product.

Here are a trio of the various shortbread recipes I've tested, just to show some of the many ways you can enjoy this luscious classic.


Lemon Poppyseed Shortbread

This is adapted from Claudia Fleming's The Last Course, and uses confectioner's sugar, which gives it a very soft, refined texture - definitely shortbread, even with the added flavors of lemon and poppyseed. A perfect bite for teatime.


Chocolate Shortbread Nuggets

Adapted from Carole Walter's Great Cookies, this is the sweetest and richest of the trio. I don't think I would make these if I wanted a pure shortbread hit, but they are very buttery and chocolatey and just melt in your mouth. The chocolate dipped end is just a bit of gilding the lily that pushes this recipe into dessert territory.


Lavender Shortbread

This is one of my favorite ones, for its simplicity and how well it turns out. Wonderfully fragrant from the lavender, perfectly sweet and tender to the bite. You can substitute other herbs or spices for the lavender as well.  This, to me, is bliss on a sunny afternoon, with a pot of tea, a book, and a couch to curl up on.

Lemon Poppyseed Shortbread

Adapted from Claudia Fleming's The Last Course

1 cup (8 ounces) butter, softened

3/4 cup (3 ounces) confectioner's sugar

1 1/2 tsp lemon juice

1 1/2 tsp lemon zest

2 cups (10 ounces) flour

1 1/2 tablespoons poppyseeds

1/2 teaspoon salt

Beat butter and sugar in a mixer until creamy. Add the lemon juice and zest and beat well.  Sift the flour, and mix in the poppy seeds and salt.  Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and combine until it comes together. Form the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill for 3 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Roll out the dough out to 1/4 inch thickness. Cut into desired shapes and prick each piece with fork.  If you are making wedges, cut into an approximately 9" diameter circle and score lightly into 8 pieces. If the dough becomes too soft while you are working with it, return to the refrigerator and chill for several minutes.

Place pieces on parchment-lined baking sheets and bake until pale golden and the edges are just starting to turn brown, about 23 minutes (depending on size). Cool on wire racks.  If you have made the wedges, cut along the scored lines to separate the pieces.

Chocolate Shortbread Nuggets

adapted from Carole Walter's Great Cookies

1 1/4 cups flour

1/2 cup rice flour

1/2 cup Dutch processed cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

2/3 cup superfine sugar

4 oz semisweet chocolate

1 tsp vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line the bottom and sides of a  9 in square baking pan with a sheet of foil .

Strain the flours and cocoa together three times.

Beat the butter in a mixer until creamy. Add the sugar and beat until combined.  Take the bowl off the mixer and use a wooden spoon to beat in the flour mixture until the dough just comes together.

Press the dough evenly into the pan, using the bottom of a glass or a tamper to smooth down the top. Bake for about 50 minutes or until it looks set on top. Let rest for 5 minutes on a wire rack, then take a dough scraper and cut into 8 1-in strips on one side and 4  2-in strips on the other. Return the pan to the oven and bake for 10 more minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack, then lift the shortbread out of the pan using the foil, and finish cutting and separating the pieces. Put the pieces on a parchment lined baking sheet and return to the oven and bake for a final 10 minutes, then cool on a wire rack.

For the glaze, stir together the melted chocolate and oil. While cookies are still slightly warm, dip one end into chocolate and place on wire rack until set.

Lavender Shortbread

adapted from Tante Marie's Cooking School

1 cup (2 sticks)butter, softened

2 cups flour

1/2 cup superfine sugar

1 tablespoon dried lavender

Sift the flour. Beat the butter and sugar in a mixer until creamy. Add the flour and beat until combined. Add the lavender and beat just to distribute through the dough.

Form the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill until firm, at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Roll out the dough to about 1/4" thickness and cut desired shapes. Place on parchment lined baking sheets and bake until just golden, about 18 minutes.

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About how many cookies do you yield from the lavender recipe? Thanks!

Your photos are die for!
Yummy! :) Will have to try some of these recipes, thanks for sharing.

Oooh, shortbread, one of my faves, especially lavender, followed closely by espresso bean.

I've seen recipes that call for 10X sugar but I've never used them. Do you prefer it to granulated?

Great minds think alike: I have just posted about our state's shortbread cookie before I checked your site. Oh...those chocolate shortbreads are to die for... well, I have fancy for the lavender ones too now!
As always, great quality of pics, recipes and prose...

Now, how about dipping those chocolate ones in caramel on the other end! Oh, I am so bad but they look so good.

Great post, and beautiful photos as always! The lavender shortbread, in particular, sounds spectacular, and I look forward to trying it at my first opportunity.


I worship at your dessert altar! Finally someone who says it as it is ... shorbread cookies need butter ... they need sugar!

And your photos are gorgeous!

Wow, this is a very scholarly article, shortbreads should feel very happy about it. Neatly written, nice photos !!!!

I'd no idea that Shortbread was this complex! And all the shapes and molds, I'd seen in the UK and never gave it a thought..Lovely photos too. :)

Hi Stefanie,
It depends on the size and shape you use. I used a 2" round cutter and got about 30 cookies.

Hi Kat,
Thanks! Hope you like them!

Hi Maura,
I've found that using superfine sugar just gives the shortbread a more refined texture - but I've made it with regular sugar too and the results are still tasty!

Hi Helene,
Your pecan sandies look delicious! Great minds do think alike!

Hi Tanna,
That would certainly push them over the top...I once made shortbread with bits of toffee in them and couldn't stop eating them!

Hi NS,
Thanks! I hope you like the lavender shortbread - it's one of my favorites!

Hi Ivonne,
Thank you! That's what shortbread is - a celebration of butter of sugar!

Hi Archana,
Thanks for visiting! I guess I get excited about things I love and get carried away talking about them!

Hi Carol,
Thanks! I'm sure there must be some beautiful molds from Europe to try...maybe next time you are there:)

I found a recipe in Martha Stewart years ago for herb shortbreads.

My fave that I made quite a few times was rosemary and pine nut. I liked rolling them in balls and giving them a little press.

Lavender sounds fantastic.

Oh yum! I'm in love with the idea of lavender shortbread (and a perfect use for the lavender my CSA sent me). Your photos are wonderful as well. Everything looks gorgeously delicious!

Hi, Anita! :)
I am impressed by the study you've made, very interesting, especially the lavender shortbread!
The photos are amazing, and the food seems delicious!
You does it well with the current camera, congratulations! If you'll like to upgrade. I recommend you the Nikon 70s with 18-70 mm lens, or the 50 mm f1.4 lens :)

The Lemon Poppyseed Shortbread totally got my attention...

Sounds delicious.

um, lavender shortbread is delicious as an idea. I actually, funnily enough, made a sweet recipe with lavender too...

hi anita, fabulous post and pictures, as always. the lavender number, in particular, has my heart beating a litle faster ;) i adore shortbread too; it's the perfect canvas for all manner of herbs, spices, and other flavourings, as you've so elegantly shown

Hi Cybele,
Rosemary and pine nuts sounds wonderful too! There are so many herbs to experiment with!

Hi Tea,
Thank you! I hope you like the lavender shortbreads!

Hi Alita,
Thank you, and thanks for the advice! I am very eager to upgrade, as I'm starting to see the limitations of my camera. Hopefully soon!:)

Hi Mae,
Thank you! They smell really nice coming out of the oven!

Hi Bea,
Can't wait to see what you came up with using lavender:)

Hi J,
Thank you! You're right, I had to fight to not get carried away with the experimenting, there are so many possible combinations!

I LOVE lavender shortbread. I even have lavander shortbread on my menu right now! Cut in wedges, served aside a dish of white chocolate mousse and strawberry sauce. It's a bit hard to sell, but a few die hard lavender fans swoon to see it on a menu. Thanks for the very informative post on one of my favorite cookies!

Ooh. Lavender shortbread. I have quite a few lavender recipes on my blog.

I have loved shortbread since I was tiny and it was a holiday tradition to make it until it was coming out of our ears. My dad and I would spend hours filling my mom's "orders" for shortbread for gifts. Now I love to use things like cinnamon and Earl Grey tea in mine for a littlw surprise.

I can't wait to try your recipes and the photos are gorgeous.

That dessert sounds to die for - I can't imagine why more people wouldn't go for it!

Thanks! I just visited your blog - gorgeous photos, and your boys are adorable!

Your variations sound tasty - I love how shortbread is so adaptable! Thanks for coming by!

thanks for the lavender cookie recipe! i added 1 teaspoon of grated lemon zest. yum!

I love the shortbread recipes but noticed with Lavender shortbread instructions the sugar is missing from the instructions. Do you cream the butter & sugar together and then add the flour?

thanks for the recipe!

I tried the lemon poppyseed shortbread yesterday but used 250 grams of butter instead as butter come in that size where i live, 1 cup would be 226 grams - too fiddly!

The dough was really crumbly but i didn't want to overhandle it, so i sort of squeezed the dough into 4 logs with plastic clingwrap. I didn't wait 3 hours - just one hour, rolled them out and used a cookie cutter.

result - fabulous :-) From the 100 cookies i had yesterday at 23:00, i would say only 15 are left.

Thanks for the story! I'm thrilled the cookies came out well and everyone enjoyed them!

I myself am more used to weighing out ingredients - I am working on having my recipes in the future measured in grams and ounces and not in cups!

I just love the lavendar shortbreads. I will be baking the shortbreads as favors for the guests at my daughters wedding. I will need to make the shortbreads in advance of the wedding. How well do the shortbreads freeze? Is there a better was to store them?

i just wanted to tell u i tried the lemon poppyseed shortbread recipe, but replaced the poppyseed with sage instead, since i didnt hv any poppyseed. I also halved the ingredients (which is what i usually do when first trying out a recipe to see if it's a good recipe). The cookies that came out were DIVINE!!! The lemony and sage aroma was just SO FABULOUS!!! Thank u for this delicious light shortbread recipe!

I'm excited about making your lavender biscuits - I have loads of lavender in the garden. I can use fresh rather than dried.

But I'm confused by your measurements - can you give me an idea in either grammes or ounces the butter/sugar/flour measurements? I have no idea what a stick of butter is.


Ginger, I added in the measurements in ounces. Usually I can find many sites online that will convert measurements between imperial and metric!

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