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Shortbread Facts and Recipes: A Traditional Christmas Treat

Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.

Shortbread is a simple but well-loved treat that has long been associated with Christmastime.

Shortbread is a simple but well-loved treat that has long been associated with Christmastime.

What Is Shortbread?

Shortbread is a wonderfully rich and buttery biscuit with a melt-in-your-mouth texture. It's available in stores at any time of year but is traditionally associated with the Christmas season. It's a lovely treat on its own or with a cup of tea or coffee.

Individual biscuits (the United Kingdom term) or cookies (the North American term) are easy to make at home. The recipe contains only three essential ingredients—sugar, butter, and flour—and produces a delicious result. Extra ingredients can be added to produce a wide variety of flavours.

Shortbread has been popular for a long time and has an interesting history. It's associated with Scotland but is also popular in other parts of the UK and in other countries. I always have some in my home at Christmas. Like Christmas cake, pudding with custard, and mince pies, shortbread is a traditional part of my family's holiday celebration.

Rectangular shortbread biscuits are often referred to as "fingers."

Rectangular shortbread biscuits are often referred to as "fingers."

Why Is Shortbread Called "Short"?

Shortbread is thought to have originated in medieval times, but the recipe may have been discovered even earlier. The reasons why the biscuit is known as "short" and as "bread" are somewhat puzzling. Food historians have given some possible explanations for the puzzle.

In baking, "short" is an old term meaning crumbly. The high fat content provided by the butter in shortbread stops gluten strands from developing and produces a crumbly texture. Gluten is a protein complex in wheat and some other grains that acts as a binder in baked goods. The biscuit does contain some gluten, however. It's not a safe product for people with celiac disease. Gluten ingestion can cause major damage to the intestinal lining of someone who has the disease and may cause additional problems in the body.

Shortcrust pastry is another example of a high-fat product that has short in its name. This pastry is made with half as much fat as flour and has a flaky texture. The traditional ingredient ratio in shortbread is one part sugar, two parts butter, and three parts flour. Today, all-purpose wheat flour is usually used, but shortbread was once made from oats.

Butter is an essential ingredient in shortbread.

Butter is an essential ingredient in shortbread.

Why Is the Product Called "Bread"?

It's believed that the first stage in the historical development of shortbread involved bread dough. This dough was baked like bread at a relatively high oven temperature and then dried in the oven at a low temperature. The double cooking process produced a dry, rusk-like product that stayed fresh for longer than bread.

Etymology of the Word "Biscuit"

The rusk created from the bread was known as biscuit bread. The word "biscuit" is an Old French term. According to various sources, the time period when Old French was spoken stretched from the eighth or ninth century to the thirteenth or fourteenth one. "Bis" comes from Latin and means twice, and "cuit" is a French word meaning cooked.

It's thought that at some point in time, butter was used in the biscuit bread recipe instead of yeast. The resulting biscuit then became known as shortbread.

Rounds, Wedges, and Fingers

Today, shortbread is served in the form of large rounds, triangular wedges, thick rectangles (or fingers), and small biscuits or cookies. The smaller pieces will probably be the easiest to find in stores. I've never seen a large round for sale where I live, but they may be sold elsewhere.

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Triangular wedges are also known as petticoat tails. The shape of the pieces is thought to have reminded people of the flared fabric in an Elizabethan petticoat. Petticoats are garments that women used to wear under their dresses.

A stylized thistle flower is often imprinted on modern shortbread.

A stylized thistle flower is often imprinted on modern shortbread.

Today, shortbread is strongly associated with Scotland and is served at many Christmas and Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) celebrations there. It's also part of the First Footing tradition. In this tradition, the first person who steps into a home in the new year has the ability to bring good luck for the rest of the year. The person must carry certain items with them to ensure the good fortune. One of these items is shortbread.

Breaking the biscuit over a bride's head is another old tradition that's still followed in some parts of Scotland today. Another is to eat the biscuit with cheese, especially during new year celebrations. The cheese provides a savoury taste as a pleasant contrast to the sweetness of the biscuit.

Homemade shortbread is simple but delicious. A lot of store-bought shortbread doesn't quite measure up, though I like the version in the photo.

Homemade shortbread is simple but delicious. A lot of store-bought shortbread doesn't quite measure up, though I like the version in the photo.

Modern Products

Early petticoat tails contained caraway seeds, which are generally left out of modern mixtures. Today's shortbread is available with added fruits, nuts, spices, citrus zest, and vanilla essence. The biscuits may also contain chocolate chips or be covered with chocolate.

The products with additions are very nice, but I also like the plain versions. The buttery flavour is sometimes more pronounced in these versions, assuming the maker has used butter instead of vegetable oil in their recipe. In my opinion, shortbread made with vegetable oil doesn't deserve its name.

The makers of today's products may substitute icing sugar (also called powdered sugar) for some of the regular sugar and rice flour or corn starch for some of the flour. The rice flour is said to provide a slight sandiness to the texture of the biscuit, which some people like. The makers may also add a little salt to bring out the flavour. The surface of modern products is often decorated with a pattern that is created with a mold or the tines of a fork.

Making Cookies or Biscuits at Home

The basic recipe for making shortbread cookies is very simple. All that's required is to mix butter, fine-grained sugar, and flour together to form a dough, cut the dough into biscuit shapes, and then bake the biscuits in an oven, as shown in the video above. If salted butter is used, adding more salt may not be necessary and may even spoil the taste.

The recipes available on the Internet are often easy to follow. They are great for people who are new to making shortbread or for people who don't have much time for baking. They are also versatile recipes that allow for the addition of tasty extras like dried fruit, spices, and essences.

Since the characteristics of the biscuit depend on its butter content, it's important to buy the most flavourful butter that you can find if you're making cookies at home. I prefer to buy organic butter containing only natural ingredients and no added colour or salt. It's not something that I have in my kitchen all the time, but when I do buy butter, I like it to be of high quality.

Making Wedges or Petticoat Tails at Home

Making petticoat tails may not be quite as simple as making small cookies because the tails are traditionally cut from a larger biscuit. Several factors can produce a disappointing product when a round for wedges or petticoat tails is baked. Some recommended precautions are described below.

  • Follow the instructions in the recipe carefully.
  • Treat the dough gently once it's formed. Pat it into the tart pan or another round container.
  • Don't fill the container completely. This ensures the dough can spread as it bakes.
  • Score the dough into pieces as though cutting a pie. "Scoring" means making shallow cuts in the dough so that it's easier to cut without disintegrating once it's baked.
  • Pierce the surface of the unbaked biscuit with a fork, toothpick, or skewer. This creates a decorative pattern, but more importantly, it allows steam to escape from the biscuit as it bakes and prevents it from puffing up. Pierced shortbread is said to have been "docked".
  • Consider removing the centre of the round, since this sometimes refuses to harden during baking. The centre can be baked on its own to make a cookie.
  • Some recipes recommend chilling the round in the refrigerator for at least twenty minutes before putting it in the oven.

Store-Bought Cookies

I think that anyone interested in shortbread cookies should make them at home at least once before they buy a commercial brand so that they know what the cookies should taste like. Some commercial varieties are quite bland in taste or are overly sweet and may discourage someone from eating the biscuits again.

I've discovered that there is at least one good type of commercial shortbread available. My favourite type out of all the ones that I've tried so far is the Walkers brand. Their biscuits come in different varieties, but all of the plain kinds contain only wheat flour, butter, sugar, and salt. Walkers is a Scottish company that sells gluten-free shortbread as well as the traditional type.

Packets of Walkers cookies are available in stores all year long where I live. I recently saw the gluten-free version in a local supermarket. Instead of wheat flour, it contains a flour mixture made from rice, maize (corn), and potato starch. It's good that cookies without gluten are available for those who mustn't eat the substance, though I don't know what they taste like.

Walkers also sells shortbread cookies in special containers at Christmastime. One year, one of the teachers in my school found the cheerful snowman container shown below. I've seen it in stores every year since then. The snowman has an uneven base and rolls around when pushed. The tin contains miniature versions of the cookies. I've also seen a Scottie dog tin and a Christmas tree tin in one of my local stores. Unlike the snowman, they don't wobble.

A wobbling snowman container filled with small cookies

A wobbling snowman container filled with small cookies

Millionaire Shortbread

Millionaire shortbread is not at all traditional, but it is delicious, especially for those who love caramel and chocolate. It's a triple-layer bar made of a shortbread base, a caramel centre, and a chocolate topping. The combination of flavours is wonderful.

The caramel is made by heating sweetened condensed milk for at least an hour. The heat causes the milk to change into a creamy brown sauce with a lovely taste. The longer the milk is cooked, the thicker the sauce becomes. The sauce is known as dulce de leche, which is a Spanish term. The treat is believed to have originated in Latin America.

The bars can be time-consuming to produce, but I think the effort is very worthwhile. When there's no time to make them, though, a piece of plain shortbread is a lovely treat at Christmas or at any other time of year.

References and Further Reading

© 2014 Linda Crampton

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