What Is Cheese Shortbread?

Dan Harkins

Shortbread has been made since medieval times in the United Kingdom, particularly Scotland, and has since spread in popularity worldwide. Though these cookies are traditionally prepared as a sweet biscuit, many chefs take a savory turn for a cheese shortbread that can lead an entree or join it. Though some recipes strike out into bold new territory, a classic take on this biscuit requires just cheddar cheese, butter, flour, salt and perhaps some sesame and poppy seeds on top.

Classic cheese shortbread includes cheddar cheese.
Classic cheese shortbread includes cheddar cheese.

Deriving its name from the shortening that was once used instead of butter, shortbread appears to have been made as long ago as the 12th century, though the 16th century queen of Scotland, Mary, is credited with popularizing the treats by her avowed love of a certain variety known as petticoat tails. These biscuits were originally made with just sugar, flour and butter or shortening. Corn starch is another ingredient that is often used to give the cookies a thicker, crispier texture. For savory varieties like cheese shortbread, however, the sugar is replaced with salt and perhaps other spices like chili pepper flakes or ground mustard.

Corn starch can be used to give cookies a thicker, crispier texture.
Corn starch can be used to give cookies a thicker, crispier texture.

Precise proportions are needed to properly form the dough for cheese shortbread. One recipe uses one stick (about 0.5 cup or 113 g) of butter for 1 cup (about 125 g) of all-purpose flour and 2 cups (about 250 g) of grated sharp cheddar. Seasonings are confined to 0.5 tsp. (about 2.5 g) of salt and a dash of ground red pepper, but could also include a dash or two of cayenne pepper or ground mustard for a spicy kick.

After the flour, dry seasonings and softened butter are mixed into a dough ball, and the cheese can be blended in as well. The dough is then covered and refrigerated overnight or for at least a few hours. After it has sufficiently risen, the dough can be rolled out flat over sprinklings of flour, to the approximate thickness of a pencil. The cheese shortbread can then be cut into any shapes desired and baked at 350°F (about 176°C) for about 15 minutes.

Some decorate their cheese shortbread just before it enters the oven with a brushing of egg white and a sprinkling of poppy and sesame seeds. Other cooks go in starkly different directions all together. They choose the pungent blue cheese instead of sharp chedder or spice the proceedings up with chopped jalapenos or chile peppers.

Cheese shortbread may be topped wiht poppy seeds.
Cheese shortbread may be topped wiht poppy seeds.

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