Traditional Scottish Shortbread Recipe, Featuring Homemade Butter

Mix up and bake this traditional Scottish shortbread recipe for an unbeatable treat at tea time. Use homemade butter for a flakier, more flavorful pastry.

| June/July 2009

This lovely, flaky dessert is associated with Scotland. The Scottish shortbread recipe we're providing dates from the early 19th century and is still the classic formulation, with flour, butter, and sugar in the ratio of 8:4:2. The butter you make at home has more fat than butter you buy, and results in a lighter, crisper shortbread.

Short crust pastries don’t puff up during baking, and are notoriously difficult to amalgamate into dough. Often, the butter and flour just don’t want to bind. But homemade butter usually has residual water from the washing process, which commercial butter does not. With the higher fat and water content, making a shortbread dough with one’s own butter is a dream — the dough comes together effortlessly. However, if the dough frustrates you, change the proportion to 7:4:2. For a fun variation on traditional shortbread, use rose water for the final wash of your butter: Your shortbread will have a lovely perfume.

8 ounces (2 scant cups) unbleached pastry flour
4 ounces (1/4 pound) butter, cool, but not refrigerated hard
2 ounces (1/4 cup) sugar
Optional: rose water for the butter’s final rinse

Instructions: Mix the flour and sugar on a work surface, then dot with pieces of cool butter. (Think of the room temperature of an unheated Scottish farmhouse.) With your fingertips, incorporate the mixture until it resembles bread crumbs. Then using the palm of your hand, spread out the dough, forcing the flour to bind with the dough. Gather and repeat three to four times, until you can form a ball of dough. If the dough remains unworkably crumbly, sprinkle with 1 to 2 teaspoons of water, and knead again. Shape into a ball and let rest in a cool place, covered, for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. On a floured surface, flatten the dough into a disk about a finger thick, and mark off 8 wedges with the tines of a fork pressed clear through the dough. You can also add decorations with your fork, if you like. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for an hour. (Traditional shortbread is sometimes first pressed into a wooden mold carved with the shape of a thistle.) The shortbread should not brown. When done, remove from the oven, cool on a wire rack, break into wedges, and serve with tea. Serves 4 to 8, depending on whether or not you can stop with just one piece!

William Rubel
5/28/2009 3:54:36 PM

What we now think of as the traditional Scottish shortbread recipe is the recipe that I published -- 4 parts flour, 2 parts butter, and one part sugar. Certainly, you will see on the internet, and in cookbooks, many variations around this ratio, but 4:2:1 is the modern traditional standard. I say modern because 18th century shortbread recipes were quite different. This said, many published shortbread recipes do include rice flour. Rice flour does not contain gluten, so it insures the crumbly "short" shortbread is, indeed crumbly. If you want to use use rice flour, though, think a little less rice flour would be better, say, 1/4 cup rice flour and then 1 3/4 white wheat flour. The frugal Scottish kitchen was a lean kitchen. By this I mean that the frugal Scottish housewife did not stock her kitchen full of ingredients extraneous to everyday Scottish cooking. Rice flour is not a standard ingredient in traditional Scottish recipes and was not a standard ingredient in an ordinary Scottish kitchen. Rice flour would have been a luxury ingredient, and my recipe is not a luxury recipe. I personally believe in keeping my larder as simple as possible. As an author, I try to write recipes using ingredients that we are all likely to have. As I do not stock rice flour as a regular item in my kitchen I did not want to introduce it into the recipe. As a matter of recipe writing philosophy, I don't like to specify ingredients that cooks are likely to have to go out to buy unless the ingredient is absolutely necessary for the recipe. In this case, as the center of traditional Scottish shortbread recipes doesn't include rice flour, I didn't introduce it into the recipe.

Patricia Hartner_2
5/24/2009 2:03:20 PM

One should use 1 cup flour 1 cup rice flour

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