I’m so excited to bring you a post about how to make shortbread cookies. This is a ratio I’ve been using frequently for a while now. When I was pregnant I needed a quick cure for my sweet tooth, and now with my baby on the move, I definitely need an easy and quick way to a simple, satisfying cookie!
Brief History of the Shortbread Cookie
Shortbread cookies are a very simple cookie, traditionally just 3 ingredients: butter, sugar, and flour. It’s possible they originated in the 12th century, but they’re more commonly attributed to the 16th century. The Queen of Scots enjoyed a cookie called petticoat tails that may have been the original shortbread.
The shortbread cookie we’re used to eating however was thought to be brought over by early american settlers, strongly resembling British teacakes and Scottish shortbread.
Shortbread gets its name from one of the essential three ingredients: butter. So isn’t a butter cookie is just another name for a shortbread?
That’s actually not the case. The short in ‘shortbread’ is from the use of shortening, or fat, to make them. While you and I think Crisco at the mention of shortening, the term didn’t always refer to a vegetable based fat. Historically, shortening was a blanket term for lard or fat, like butter. Butter was used for the cookies, hence the name shortbread.
So what’s the distinction between butter cookies and shortbread? To put it briefly, a shortbread cookie has a high ratio of butter and flour. A butter cookie also has a lot of butter, but contains a higher ratio of flour and sugar, meaning is can hold shape better than the tender, crumbly shortbread.
The Ratio and Process
Alright, lets get to the details of how to make shortbread cookies, that ratio for perfection. It’s an easy one, simple for a simple cookie. All you have to remember is 1, 2, 3.
1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, and 3 parts flour, that’s really it!
To make this work you use an equally easy 2 step process. And you even have your choice!
First you can use the creaming method to combine the softened butter with sugar until it’s fluffy and lightened in color. (For more details on the creaming method, check out my Types of Quick Breads post!) Next, fold in the flour.
If you forgot to soften the butter, or you just feel like you’ve been neglecting your food processor, you can also reverse the steps. To do this, pulse the flour and sugar in the processor, then dump in butter and pulse until the dough begins to come together. I wouldn’t attempt this method by hand, you’d have a tough time breaking the butter down enough.
With either method the dough isn’t going to come together all the way, and you don’t want it to! Overworking the dough is going to result in a tough dense cookie, so just mix until the flour and butter begin to pull together.
Once it does, you have a few baking options. I like individual cookies, so typically I scoop up a little dough, roll it between my palms, flatten and place on a baking sheet.
You can also turn all the dough out into a square or round cake pan. If you choose that, press it flat, smooth it with a spatula and then prick holes throughout with a fork. This prevents uneven cooking and puffing.
A lot of recipes will advise chilling the dough, but I’m here to tell you a secret. It’s not actually necessary! I personally am never that patient and always bake right away.
You can absolutely chill it of course, if let’s say you’re prepping dough for the next day. You could portion cookies before chilling, press into the pan then chill, or roll it into a log and slice cookies off to bake when ready.
I’ve tried them all and though the log and slice method is traditional, I’m not a fan. Cookies with fillings (chocolate chips, nuts, etc) often broke when sliced and since I’m not entering these cookies into any beauty pageants, I’m just gonna stick with rolling and pressing the dough after mixing.
And, since shortbread cookies hold up really well in an airtight container for a week or more, I can easily bake them ahead of any event or party too.
Okay, now we need to talk about temp. When I first started baking these cookies, I went for a classic 350°F oven for about 8-10 minutes. I ended up with pale beautiful cookies, with slightly browned bottoms.
The thought is that if you bake shortbread low and slow the browning can be avoided. If that matters to you, you can absolutely bake them at a lower temp for a longer time. With such a simple cookie to throw together, I’m often not patient enough to wait 30+ minutes for them to come out of the oven.
I tested a few different bake times all the same. For both my individual and pan baked shortbread cookies, I found that 350°F for 8-10 minutes was perfect. I had minimal browning and a light, tender cookie that more than satisfied my craving, and quickly!
I did also bake a pan at 300°F for 25 minutes. This was probably a smidge too long, honestly. I would pull them at 20 minutes if you choose this bake temp. But, truthfully, I don’t know why you would. There is NO difference in the taste between the two batches, aside from the slightly more golden bottom on the 300° batch. (My husband actually prefers the crispier ones, whereas I prefer the softer ones. It’s a matter of preference, so find what works for you.)
One last tip, if you’re baking the cookies in a pan, slice the cookies while they’re warm. Waiting until they’re cool will cause crumbly broken cookies. I also recommend you taking the cookies off or out of the pan to cool.
Give them 1-2 minutes to rest in the pan, then remove. This is easy with individual cookies, and for pan baked, simply flip the pan gently onto a cooling rack. The butter in these cookies will let them slip right out. Don’t move them too much, or try to flip them back over, they’re still crumbly, but once cool they will be easy to move and handle.
All that’s left, is to enjoy!
Flavoring and Customizing
Now, while you can most certainly bake these cookies with just those three ingredients, you may not be in love with the flavor on its own. I highly recommend adding a few simple flavoring agents, at the very least salt and a bit of vanilla.
For a single batch of cookies, 2 ounces of sugar, 4 ounces of butter, and 6 ounces of flour, you’ll only need a pinch of salt, maybe 1/8 teaspoon, and 1/2 a teaspoon of vanilla extract. This applies to any extract you choose, feel free to use lemon, almond, or maple instead!
But flavor additions don’t have to stop at extracts. Nuts, chocolate, seeds, spices, or sprinkles are all excellent options to jazz up your cookies.
My Favorite Add ins
- Nuts – Almonds, pecans, peanuts, and walnuts are always delicious, chop for best distribution.
- Chocolate – White, dark, semi-sweet, milk chocolate, any chocolate of your preference is great in chip form or chopped. I also like fun flavor chocolate chips – butterscotch, caramel, or cinnamon
- Spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice, ginger, or fun ones like chinese five spice.
- Fresh Herbs – Thyme, mint, and rosemary are delicious chopped finely.
- Citrus – Zest and/or a splash of fresh juice, oranges and lemons are great.
- Seeds – Sesame, chia, or flax seed (ground)
- Extracts – Vanilla, lemon, almond, mint, or maple.
- Cocoa or Matcha powder – Replace a little bit of flour with these for a delicious new shortbread.
Favorite Flavor Combos
- Vanilla extract, almonds, and chocolate chips
- Lemon extract and poppy seeds
- Lemon zest and thyme
- Peanuts, cinnamon, and butterscotch chips
- Maple and chopped bacon (YES, that’s right, bacon!)
For whichever addition you choose, I usually add 2 -3 tablespoons or so of chunkier things like nuts and chocolate, and 1 teaspoon of finer additions like poppy seeds. For cocoa powder, replace 1.5 tablespoons of flour.
The Power of the Ratio
So we already know how amazing this ratio is. Learning how to make shortbread cookies literally opens the door to any variation. 1, 2, 3 plus a bit of salt and vanilla will give you a great basic cookie, but it doesn’t stop there. Once you’ve got this basic cookie down, you can branch out into any direction.
What happens if you add the same amount of sugar as butter? Adding egg yolks, whole eggs, or whipped egg whites will completely change the texture of the cookie. Add leavening agents, milk, eggs, more sugar, less butter, experiment and you’ll find that the basic ratio will allow you to understand how every cookie is made. Sugar cookies, chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal cookies…you can learn why each work, and how to make the texture you prefer for each one. My Chewy Lemon Poppy Seed Cookies came from this exact type of experimentation, and since then I haven’t been afraid to alter cookie recipes if I find them too chewy or too dense.
I hope this ratio on how to make shortbread cookies opens up that world of cookie experimentation and understanding for you, but if not, I hope you can at least whip up that batch of shortbread cookies whenever you like! I’d love to hear what flavor combos are your favorite!
- 2 oz sugar
- 4 oz butter softened (1 stick)
- 6 oz flour Between 1 to 1 1/4 cups
- Pinch of salt 1/8 tsp or so
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
- Mix in the flour until dough begins to pull together from sides of the bowl and most of flour is mixed in. Don’t over mix the dough.
- Roll and flatten tablespoon sized balls between palms and place on baking sheet. Should produce between 10-12 cookies.
- Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until bottom edges of cookies just begin to become a darker shade of gold.
- Allow to cool for 1-2 minutes on baking sheet then remove to wire rack for cooling.