Shortbread Facts and Recipes: A Traditional Christmas Treat - Delishably - Food and Drink
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Shortbread Facts and Recipes: A Traditional Christmas Treat

Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys exploring nutrition as well as 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 lead to other complications as well.

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 Shortbread 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.

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.

Scottish Traditions

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 and then bake the dough in an oven.

The cookie recipes in the videos above and below are quick and easy. They are great recipes 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

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 26, 2020:

I love shortbread, too. I think it's a delicious treat. Thank you very much for the comment.

Travel Chef from Manila on February 26, 2020:

I love store-bought shortbread. The taste and texture of it is just perfect for me. I think I need to try making a homemade version of this aside from just cookies. Such a wonderful article!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 19, 2019:

Hi, Liza. I think I would like cookies with "butter" in their name! Thank you for the comment.

Liza from USA on November 19, 2019:

Yesterday, I made butter cookies and I think they both quite similar. Perhaps just slightly different in the ingredients such as sugar and butter used in the mixture. Thank you for sharing this interesting article, Linda.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 11, 2018:

Hi, Shizette. I love shortbread, too! It does go very nicely with tea. Thank you for the visit.

Shizette on February 11, 2018:

Absolutely LOVE Scottish shortbread. Ate it all the time growing up as a child... its truly indulgent with a nice cup of English breakfast tea. Definitely need to make these sometime (soon).

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 16, 2015:

I love buttery shortbread, so I'm sure I'd like the version sold in your country! Thank you very much for the comment and for sharing the information.

Charito Maranan-Montecillo from Manila, Philippines on August 15, 2015:

I've tasted shortbread from the U.K. and loved it, Ms. Linda!

I have yet to taste petticoat tails and millionaire shortbread bars. (They look so yummy!)

In my country, one local cookie manufacturer has also come up with its own version of the shortbread. You should try it! You'll love its buttery flavor.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 15, 2014:

Hi, vespawoolf. I agree - shortbread can be very addictive! It's often hard to stop at just one piece. Thanks for the visit and the comment.

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on December 15, 2014:

Shortbread is so addictive and delicious! I also like Walker´s of all the commercial brands available. But homemade is even better. The millionaire´s shortbread looks fabulous. I hope to try it next time I make shortbread. Thank you for this useful Hub!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 14, 2014:

Thank you for the comment, the votes, the share and the hugs, Maria! The millionaire shortbread is certainly a guilty pleasure, but it's a delightful one, too! I hope the week ahead is a great one for you and that your enjoy your semester break.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 14, 2014:

Thank you for the comment, the votes, the share and the hugs, Maria! The millionaire shortbread is certainly a guilty pleasure, but it's a delightful one, too! I hope the week ahead is a great one for you and that you enjoy your semester break.

Maria Jordan from Jeffersonville PA on December 14, 2014:

This post is not "short" on detail, information and the incentive for me to get some shortbread in this house STAT!

The Millionaire Shortbread looks like a guilty pleasure I could enjoy on January 6th and any other day of the year it was available...I look forward to giving this a try over semester break.

Voted UP and UABI and sharing. Hugs, Maria

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 13, 2014:

Thanks for the comment, Kim. Merry Christmas to you, too! Scottish shortbread is certainly delicious. I love it.

இڿڰۣ-- кιмвєяℓєу from Niagara Region, Canada on December 13, 2014:

Hi Linda. I remember making shortbread as a teenager after learning to do it in home-ec class at school and did a pretty decent job. Although, my sister-in-law's mom is originally from Scotland and made some one year and it was to die for! Maybe I'll try it again. Thanks for sharing! Merry Christmas! Kim

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 11, 2014:

Hi, VioletteRose. I think that shortbread is a delicious dessert, too! Thank you very much for the comment.

VioletteRose from Atlanta on December 10, 2014:

Shortbread is definitely a delicious dessert to have for holidays, and of course any day! I actually wondered about how they got the name, thanks for explaining it :) Very informative.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 10, 2014:

Hi, Deb. Thanks for the comment. Scotland has some great recipes to offer us!

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on December 10, 2014:

Sounds fabulous. Now, hand over some authentic Scottish recipes, and I will be happy.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 09, 2014:

Hi, ignugent17. Thanks for the visit. I hope you find some shortbread to try this Christmas!

ignugent17 on December 09, 2014:

Great idea for the season. I do hope I could taste one. Thanks for the information about short bread. It is nice to know how they made it. :-)

Sudiksha from Nepal on December 06, 2014:

you are welcome Aliciac!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 06, 2014:

I love gooey caramel too, Cynthia. That would be delicious with shortbread! Thank you very much for the visit.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 06, 2014:

Hi, monia saad. Thanks for the comment and for bookmarking the hub.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 06, 2014:

Thank you very much, itsmesudiksha! I appreciate your visit and comment.

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on December 06, 2014:

Sounds delicious Alicia. Have to say the millionaire's shortbread is my favourite, especially if the caramel is nice and gooey!

monia ben saad from In my Dream on December 06, 2014:

bookmarked and this is great hubs contain smart idea for christmas

Sudiksha from Nepal on December 06, 2014:

beautiful article! i had never heard of this before but sounds very interesting. and informative too!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 05, 2014:

Hi, Vellur. I appreciate your comment and vote. Thanks for the visit!

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on December 05, 2014:

An interesting and informative article about shortbread. Never knew there were so many types and now I know what "short" actually means. Voted up, great hub.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 05, 2014:

The shortbread that you've described sounds just perfect, pstraubie! Melt-in-your-mouth shortbread made with love is the best kind in the world. Thank you very much for the angels!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on December 05, 2014:

One treat that Momma only made at Christmas time was shortbread. It melted, literally, on our tongue. It was a delight that I make each year too. It takes me back to the little girl who was with Momma when she created this delightful treat each year.

Thanks for sharing this with us.

Angels are on the way to you ps

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 04, 2014:

I agree, Dianna - chocolate does make (almost) everything better! I do love shortbread with chocolate, but my favourite type of shortbread is actually the plain kind. I will probably be eating both types this Christmas, though! Thanks for the comment.

Dianna Mendez on December 04, 2014:

I should not read posts such as this before bedtime. You have me wanting shortbread cookies! I love the million dollar version, chocolate makes everything better. Your post is perfect for this season.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 03, 2014:

Thank you for commenting, MsDora. I appreciate your visit.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 03, 2014:

The shortbread cookie turns out to be a rather interesting item after all. Thanks for all the shortbread information and the recipe variations.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 03, 2014:

Hi, Pamela. Thank you very much for the visit and the comment. I hope you enjoy the upcoming Christmas season!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 03, 2014:

I love shortbread and thought maybe it had a long history, but really didn't know. I think it is delicious and the Millionaire Shortbread Bars mayb not be traditional, but they look good. Very good hub at the perfect time of the year.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 03, 2014:

Thank you very much for the lovely comment, Martie! I appreciate your visit and votes a great deal. I usually eat shortbread with tea. I'll have to try it with coffee again!

Martie Coetser from South Africa on December 03, 2014:

Oh, Alicia, you deserve a golden medal. Who, but you, can write such an informative and excellent article about shortbread - something we take for granted. The meaning of 'short' in bakery was quite a surprise. Voted up, informative and delicious with coffee :)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 03, 2014:

Hi, poetryman6969. I actually like caraway seeds, although I'm not sure that I'd like them in shortbread! Thanks for the visit.

poetryman6969 on December 03, 2014:

Looks tasty. Glad they deep sixed the caraway seeds. I don't like them.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 02, 2014:

Hi, Bill. It's nice to hear from someone else who loves shortbread as much as I do! Thanks for the comment. I hope you have a great week as well.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on December 02, 2014:

Hi Linda. I absolutely love shortbread. When I was a kid my aunts would make it around the holidays. I like it plain and simple with nothing added. Great hub for the holidays, have a great week.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 02, 2014:

I hope you and your hubby enjoy the recipes, Peg!

Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on December 02, 2014:

We were just in the grocery store today when the hubby looked longingly at a box mix for shortbread cookies with Hershey's kisses on top of each. I balked at the price and promised him I'd make some from scratch. Thanks so much for the recipes.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 02, 2014:

Hi, Peg. Thank you very much for the comment and the pin! I like many different types of shortbread, but the plain varieties are my favourite. Like you, I think that any day is a good time to eat shortbread!

Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on December 02, 2014:

Bookmarking and pinning this great source for a variety of shortbread recipes. I can't wait to try the plain buttery one. Any day is a good day for shortbread or cookies.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 02, 2014:

You're welcome, Audrey!

Audrey Howitt from California on December 02, 2014:

I will have to try it! Thank you!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 02, 2014:

Hi, Audrey. Most shortbread contains gluten, but luckily there are gluten free versions available. Walkers sells gluten free shortbread. Bob's Red Mill sells a gluten free shortbread cookie mix which is very convenient for home bakers to use.

Audrey Howitt from California on December 02, 2014:

So can those of us who are gluten free eat short bread? I love it, but tend to stay away from gluten products

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 02, 2014:

Thank you very much for the vote and the share, ologsinquito. When I eat shortbread with a beverage, it's nearly always tea instead of coffee. The flavours of shortbread and tea seem to go together very well.

ologsinquito from USA on December 02, 2014:

I agree that shortbread would probably taste much better with tea than with coffee. Voted up and shared.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 01, 2014:

Thanks for the visit and the comment, Flourish. I was surprised when I discovered that there was a National Shortbread Day, too!

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 01, 2014:

I've wondered about the name a time or two, so thanks for answering that! That recipe looks really good! And who knew there was a National Shortbread Day? Great hub!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 01, 2014:

Thanks, Maren Morgan. I appreciate your comment.

Maren Elizabeth Morgan from Pennsylvania on December 01, 2014:

Very informative - thanks!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 01, 2014:

Hi, Bill. Shortbread is certainly worth trying! Thanks for the visit.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 01, 2014:

I don't think I've ever had shortbread, Alicia, but I might have to try it now. Thank you!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 01, 2014:

Thank you, peachpurple!

peachy from Home Sweet Home on December 01, 2014:

i didn't know there are so many versions of short bread, voted up

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 01, 2014:

Thank you very much for the comment and the votes, Devika. I appreciate your visit.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 01, 2014:

Hi, pinto2011. Thank you very much for the visit and comment.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 01, 2014:

Short bread is an excellent treat. I enjoyed reading much more from you. Voted up, interesting and useful.

Subhas from New Delhi, India on December 01, 2014:

This is a resourceful hub which is equally intriguing and interesting for me as breads are made differently in India.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 30, 2014:

Thank you, Venkatachari M. I appreciate your informative comment and votes. It's interesting to learn about special foods and celebrations in different countries.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on November 30, 2014:

Very useful and interesting information. Though I am not aware of these recipes, I now come to know much information about making these Christmas recipes. We in India prepare some similar pie recipes at Holi and Diwali festivals.

Thanks for sharing the information. Voted up and interesting.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 30, 2014:

Hi, Rachel. Thanks for the comment and the votes. It's great that there are so many gluten free recipes available now. When I was at the supermarket today I noticed a magazine filled with gluten free recipes for cookies and other treats. Good luck with your Christmas baking!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 30, 2014:

Thanks so much for the vote and all the shares, Faith! Like you, I enjoy eating shortbread as a treat all year long. I've eaten it since childhood, too. I hope the week ahead is an excellent one for you, Faith.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 30, 2014:

Hi, Jo. Thanks for the visit and the kind comment. Yes, the millionaire shortbread is delicious. I'm planning to make some for Christmas, too!

Rachael O'Halloran from United States on November 30, 2014:

We are gluten free at our house and there are so many great recipes for gluten free shortbread cookies. This time of year is my busy baking season, and cream cheese topping is yummy. I enjoyed reading this article. Voted up and interesting :)

Faith Reaper from southern USA on November 30, 2014:

Oh, I have always love shortbread and especially shortbread cookies. However, I have never make any, but that is going to change this year. Thank you for posting all of the delicious shortbread cookie recipes. My mother loved shortbread, and we always had it growing up.

Christmas is a wonderful time to make shortbread, but I do love it all year long.

Up ++++ tweeting, pinning, G+ and sharing

Enjoy!

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on November 30, 2014:

I've been loving shortbread for years, now I know all there is to know about this delicious Scottish export. Maybe I'll try my hand at making the millionaire shortbread for Christmas, it looks yummy. I just need a nice cup of tea now. A useful and very informative article, well done.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 30, 2014:

Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the share, chef-de-jour. Dunking a shortbread biscuit in tea is a great way to eat it! I love doing that. I've never eaten shortbread with cheese, but I'll certainly be trying that this Christmas.

Andrew Spacey from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK on November 30, 2014:

A wonderful informative article on shortbread, thank you. My family really love shortbread; for one you can dunk it in tea plus you can also eat it with cheese as a sort of sweet and savoury duet. Delicious.

Voted up and shared.