Shortbread: A Rich Cookie With a Rich History

Shortbread is a crumbly, sweet butter cookie originating in Scotland. Traditionally, the cookies are made with one part sugar, two parts butter, and three parts white flour.  

Shortbread: a rich cookie with a rich history with The Cookie Elf

Its roots date back to medieval times. Leftover bread dough was dried in the oven until it hardened into a type of crisp, sweet bread called “biscuit bread” or “twice-cooked bread.”

Gradually butter replaced yeast in the recipe, particularly as butter came into common use in dairy-heavy Scotland.

The cookie jury is still out as to which monarch popularized the cookie. Evidently Mary, Queen of Scots (who reigned in Scotland from 1542 to 1567) helped the sweet biscuit bread gain notoriety. During the reign of England’s Elizabeth I (1558 to 1603), the cut wedges were called “petticoat tails” after the bell-hooped shaped petticoats worn during that time by ladies of the court.

Early on, the cookie was an expensive luxury. Apart from the aristocracy, the treat was reserved for Christmas, New Year’s, and weddings. In a traditional Shetland custom, revelers broke the decorated cookies over the head of a new bride as she crossed the threshold into her new home.

Why You Must Have Plenty of Butter in the Recipe

Butter, the defining ingredient in the recipe, is often listed as “shortening,” hence the cookie’s name: “short (ening) bread.” In fact, butter is so integral to the cookie that in 1921 the British government legislated that any product called shortbread must contain at least 51% fat derived from real butter. (The Elf places no such requirement on recipes, but salutes the Brits for their love for rich cookies.)

The high butter content produces a crumbly texture. Fat inhibits gluten, a protein in wheat, which allows dough to rise. Gluten gives dough a chewy texture. Higher fat content slows down gluten. Its protein strands are then shorter, rather than longer, producing a more crumbly texture rather than a chewy one.

Variations in Shape and Flavor

The dough is formed and baked a number of ways. Originally, the cookies were baked in large rounds, which were cut into pie-shaped wedges – the petticoat tails of Elizabethan times. In another version, dough is pressed into large rectangular pans and cut into fingers (what we call bar cookies) after baking. In still another variation, the cookies are cut in individual rounds with a cookie cutter or a biscuit cutter. Today, specialty molds also produce elaborate shortbreads.

Flavor variations of the cookies abound, moving far beyond the original recipe of butter, sugar, and flour, ranging in extracts, chocolates, nuts, spices, dried fruits, and citrus zests. The texture can be altered by replacing all or some of the flour with rice flour, corn flour (cornstarch), or semolina.

There Is Money in the Name

Even in cookie land, the value of a name has financial implications. Shortbread has long been classified as a dessert bread. During the 1980s, the European Union attempted to redefine the sweet as a regular cookie rather than a bread, seeking to gain the extra revenue as cookies are taxed at a higher rate than breads. The Scottish Association of Master Bakers stood its ground, claiming that the treat was no ordinary cookie but a dessert bread with a long and honored history.

Other Fun Facts

National Short bread Day is celebrated in the United States each year on January 6.


The Elf Recommends These Yummy Shortbread Recipes

Almond Shortbread: rich wedges flavored with almonds ...

Almond Shortbread Bars ...

Brown Sugar Pecan Shortbread recipe ...

Cherry Chocolate Chip Shortbread: just 7 ingredients ...

Cherry Shortbread Recipe: colorful and easy shortbread variation...

Chocolate Chip Shortbread recipe ...

Chocolate Shortbread Cookies recipe: easy shortbread recipe ...

Classic Shortbread recipe ...

Danish Butter Crunch Cookies ...

Easy Mexican Shortbread Cookies: Just 6 Ingredients ...

Fairy Bites: Shortbread Cookies in miniature ...

Fruitcake Shortbread: Easy Fruited Christmas Shortbread Cookie Recipe ...

Ginger Shortbread Cookies: Ginger Bread variation ..

Irish Shortbread Cookies: an easy Irish Tea Cookies variation ...

Maple Toffee Shortbread recipe ...

Mexican Wedding Cakes: not just for weddings ...

Millionaire Shortbread Recipe: Rich Without Breaking the Bank ...

Pecan Caramel Shortbread ...

Refrigerator Pecan Shortbread: just chill and cut!

Toffee Shortbread Cookies: Just 7 Ingredients!

Whipped Shortbread Cookies recipe ...


Return from Shortbread: A Rich Cookie With a Rich History to
The Cookie Elf home

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.

Find A Cookie Recipe or Cookie Baking Tip


The Cookie Elf

FREE! 6 Easy Cookies Recipes for Kids and Families

Get your free copy here or when you fill in the form below.

I'm a member of Food Blogger Pro. Learn how to start and grow your food blog.