At some point in the swamp of time that has been this past winter, my husband convinced me that we should watch Ted Lasso and, despite my skepticism about a dad-joking American football coach who gets a job coaching professional soccer in England’s ability to hold my interest, I begrudgingly agreed. It turned out to be… kind of delightful? Objectively enjoyable, really. Don’t worry, I will not be discussing sports today and there won’t be any spoilers, but do know that homemade shortbread cookies have a recurring role and that is where our story begins.
The moment the season ended, my hunt for the actually-most-delicious* shortbread recipe began. My platonic ideal of shortbread has always been Walkers brand shortbread fingers and I know this is going to upset some people because of course there’s so much better out there, especially homemade, but I live quite far from the shortbread motherland of Scotland in their defense, these packaged cookies have have the exact same ingredient list as homemade (butter, flour, sugar), and when does that ever happen?
[Just a casual reminder that SK is not sponsored by Ted Lasso or Walkers, I am recommending them on my own free will/questionable taste because I am… bad at business.]
I set out to recreate them as best as I could and considering that there are, once again, three ingredients, I thought it would be a cinch and yet I went through an unconscionable number of pounds of butter over the last few months trying to get them the way I thought they should be.
- Formula: The standard Scottish shortbread formula is 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, and 3 parts flour, but this isn’t exactly 1 cup sugar, 2 cups butter, and 3 cups flour because it’s by weight, and yes I learned this the hard way. Weight-wise, it works out to 100 grams (1/2 cup) sugar, 200 grams (less than 1 cup) butter, and 300 grams (2 1/3 cups) flour, which is a solid formula for roll-out or shaped shortbread, but as my goal was pan-baked, I could get away with less flour for a more tender shortbread. I used less sugar due to preference, and fond memories of barely-sweet Walkers.
- Flour: I tried partial flour swaps with cornstarch (but found it chalky) and semolina (excellent and then suddenly it was sold out everywhere, which was the nudge I needed to get these right with no “special” ingredients), before settling on all all-purpose flour.
- Sugars: I tested with granulated sugar, superfine or caster sugar, powdered sugar, before settling on powdered, which gives a boost of tenderness to the cookies.
- Butter: I am deeply, stubbornly devoted to the use of “everyday” butter — that is, the store brand or equivalent stuff — in my recipe development, not because I do not love the taste of higher-fat European and Irish butters, but because I want my recipes to work no matter what your butter budget is. Since there are only three ingredients here, however, each ingredient is more prominent and should you splurge on the lush stuff, your investment will pay off, although I promise it’s delicious with all kinds.
- Flavors: You can flavor these any way you crave — I use 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste here, but extract would work too, as would lemon, orange or another citrus zest, almond extract, and more.
- Baking: I loved a low-and-slow bake on these for even color and a crisp texture. Key here for best flavor is getting a nice golden edge on the cookie without letting it fully brown. Baking time will vary because I find ovens often inconsistent at 300°F (150°C) but will guide you.
But what truly unraveled me was the shaping.
- Shaping method: I tried what felt like every possible method for cutting the pan of shortbread into fingers: Warm from the oven (looked okay but I wanted cleaner edges), warm from the oven after scoring the tops before baking (didn’t improve anything), fully cut in the pan before baking (it fully reattaches in the oven), and 10 minutes into the baking time (ditto with the reattaching), halfway into the baking time (didn’t reattach but the top was too dry to get a clean cut) before settling on 20 minutes in. When they come out of the oven, they should naturally separate at their lines, and are easily detached with a thin knife where they do not.
- Two-step cutting: When I shape the cookies, I like to do it in two parts. First, I use the back of a wooden skewer to gently drag across/indent the surface before making final, deep cuts with a knife because I like the more cushion-y final shape this makes, more reminiscent of my storebought favorites. You can absolutely skip this wider indent before cutting with a knife for a flatter top.
And they’re perfect — excellent once cool, but absolutely amazing over the next week. You’re in for a treat.
* Hannah Waddingham, whose character is the recipient of shortbread gifts, said in an interview that the cookies were actually terrible. “That’s the greatest acting job of my life, that anyone thought they tasted nice… Literally like sticking a piece of sponge in your face.” [Hire me, guys. I can make this right.]
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- 1 cup (230 grams or 8 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
- ⅔ cup (80 grams) powdered sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- Flavoring of choice (see Note)
- 2 ¼ cups (295 grams) all-purpose flour
In a stand mixer: Beat butter, sugar, and salt together, scraping frequently, until butter is soft. Add flavoring of choice and flour, and mix just until combined, scraping down the bowl again. This is the same order as for a hand mixer, but with a hand mixer, you’ll want the butter semi-softened first.
In a food processor: Combine powdered sugar, salt, and flour in the work bowl, pulsing a few times. Add flavoring of choice and butter and pulse several times to chop the butter down into smaller pieces. Then, run the machine until it is fully incorporated, coming together in a smooth mass, 1 to 2 minutes more. Scrape down the bowl a few times for even mixing.
All methods: Add to baking pan in chunks. Use hands to press evenly into the pan, then an offset spatula to smooth the top.
Bake: For 20 minutes, then remove from the oven to cut into shapes. Leave oven on.
Shape the cookies: For the 8-inch square pan, cut into 3 columns (about 2.5 inches wide) in one direction and 8 thin bars (just shy of 1 inch) in the other. Use the back of a wooden skewer (cut method explained explained in the post) to drag across the surface, making slightly indented lines first, then use a very thin, sharp paring knife to cut along these lines to the bottom of the pan. Dock the cookies all over, about 1/3 deep, with the back of the skewer (for bigger dots) or the pointy end (for smaller holes).
For a 9-inch round pan, use a 2 to 3-inch round cookie cutter or glass to cut the center. Then, use the back of a wooden skewer (cut method explained in the post) to gently indent lines like sun rays or the hands of a clock from the inner circle to the outer edge of the cookie so that they’re your desired size wedges. Then use a very thin, sharp paring knife to cut along these lines to the bottom of the pan. Dock the cookies all over, about 1/3 deep, with the back of the skewer (for bigger dots) or the pointy end (for smaller holes).
Finish baking: Return to the oven for another 25 to 35 minutes, until cookies have a deep golden edge but are mostly pale across the top. I find most ovens unreliable (either running hot or cold) at 300 degrees so keep an eye on these in the last 10 to 15 minutes so they don’t overbake.
Let cool in pan, or, if you’re impatient, let them cool for 10 minutes, and then remove them.
Do ahead: Shortbread keeps for 1 week, if not longer, at room temperature. It freezes well too, just wrap it tight.