What is Shortbread?

Mary McMahon

Shortbread is a type of crumbly, sweet cookie which is commonly produced in Scotland, a nation with which the dessert treat has become associated. These cookies are made all over the world, and often appear as a winter holiday treat in the United States. Dense, sweet, and highly rich, shortbread is adored by many consumers and bakers for its excellent and crisp flavor and ease of manufacture. It has been made since the 1700s, when butter as a cooking fat began to enter common use, especially in dairy-heavy areas like Scotland.

A shortbread may be eaten with coffee.
A shortbread may be eaten with coffee.

The name probably originates from the large amount of shortening used in the cookies. Traditionally, shortbread is made with three ingredients: butter, sugar, and flour. The cookies are generally made with one part sugar, two parts butter, and three parts white flour. Thanks to health conscious consumers in the 20th century, shortbread made from a mixture of whole wheat and white flour can be found, as well as organic and low fat versions.

Shortbread is common to dairy-heavy regions because of its high butterfat content.
Shortbread is common to dairy-heavy regions because of its high butterfat content.

After the shortbread dough is made, it can be cooked in a number of forms. Many home cooks simply make rounds, resulting in round cookies which look quite attractive arranged on platters during the holiday season. Many commercial companies make large rounds which are cut into segments as soon as they are done cooking, resulting in an easily packaged cookie. Sometimes, shortbread is also made in large rectangular molds which are cut into fingers.

Shortbread dough holds shapes very well, and as a result is often patterned or decorated with stamps, forks, or other implements. The resulting cookie has an attractive pattern on the upper surface, with some companies having very distinctive crests or designs for their products. Some shortbread is also dipped in chocolate for an additionally rich touch.

After cooking, shortbread is a pale golden, crumbly cookie. When eaten plain, it can be very messy, and it is often dipped in tea or coffee to soften before consumption. The cookies taste very buttery, because of the large amount used to make them. Because shortbread is so firm, it is easily packed and frequently given out in tins or wrapped in decorative papers, especially at Christmas time. In addition to Scotland, Denmark is another major producer of these cookies.

To make shortbread, bakers can follow the traditional recipe of one part sugar to two parts butter to three parts flour, and bake the cookies at a low temperature on an ungreased sheet until they are a pale golden color. Low to medium baking temperatures are important to prevent the cookies from burning. If baking in large rounds, the cooks should be sure to cut them immediately after they are removed from the oven, before they become too brittle.

Denmark is a major producer of shortbread cookies.
Denmark is a major producer of shortbread cookies.

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Discussion Comments


Try using it in place of graham crackers for a pie crust.


I made some shortbread cookies and they are so tender and crumbly they fall apart in your mouth. Your mouth feels like it is full of dry crumbs. Do I have to throw away all of the cookies or is there a recipe where I could use the baked shortbread crumbs?I have searched on the internet but can find nothing. Hope you can help!

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