My Grandfather was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and therefore, was Scottish. The Scottish are known for their kilts, their bagpipes, and Scottish shortbread cookies. All three played a huge role in my childhood, actually.
My mother loved to hear the bagpipes playing and would make us listen to records of songs on bagpipes. My grandfather had a kilt, and I have pictures of him wearing it. He looked so majestic, so regal.
Around the holidays, when my mother would get into a cookie baking mood, she would grab her cookbooks off the shelf and make a list.
Scottish shortbread was ALWAYS on the list of “to bake cookies.” Along with chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal raisin cookies, spritz cookies, no-bake cookies… you get the idea, right?
She would make a list of batches of cookies, multiply that by 8, then get baking.
It was supposed to be a fun day baking cookies with the kids, but we would always get bored after the first cookies came out. Every year, she’d be up for hours by herself baking sheets and sheets of cookies.
Like any other cookie recipe in our house at that time, we would have to make triple batches to have enough to share with the neighbors.
My brothers and I could barely keep our fingers out of the raw dough, too. Since there aren’t any eggs in it, you could always try the dough for yourself. If you like raw cookie dough, that is.
What Are Shortbread Cookies?
Lots of people wonder whether shortbread cookies are the same thing as butter cookies. Both have a lot of butter in them – especially compared to other cookies – but butter cookies have more flour and sugar. They are also baked at higher temperatures, and tend to hold their consistency and shape when they are baked.
Shortbread, on the other hand, has a higher ratio of butter to flour, and is baked at a lower temperature. This kind of cookie will have a crumbly and somewhat dry consistency, melting in your mouth as you eat.
Actually, that’s the whole reason why shortbread cookies are called shortbread cookies! They have a more crumbly texture like what you’d find in bread, and it also has to do with an old meaning of the word “short” as opposed to “long,” or stretchy. The texture is created by the higher fat content in the cookies – which you get from the butter.
Traditional shortbread cookie dough is pretty much the same as regular shortbread cookie dough – with a couple of exceptions. Traditional Scottish shortbread was actually made with leftover bits of yeast, oatmeal, and bread dough. This made the cookies even more like biscuits (and even dryer!) than they are today.
The modern Scottish shortbread recipe has evolved, of course. It’s much more hydrated and although it’s still dry, it’s not nearly as crumbly.
Shortbread cookie dough tastes almost like raw pie crust. It just “misses” something when it’s not baked.
My Favorite Shortbread Cookie Recipe
I still make these Scottish shortbread cookies from time to time. Especially around the holiday season.
As far as recipes of 5 ingredients or less cookies, this always wins. Since my mother has passed, it’s not quite the same. I miss her smile, her laughter.
I miss the ways her eyes would light up when she saw her grandchildren. I even miss the bagpipe music. Ah, Mom…how I miss you!
I hope you enjoy how this Scottish shortbread recipe is easy to make. Once you get started, you are sure to want to make these cookies over and over again.
Maybe you’ll want to play the bagpipes, too? Or grab a kilt and be traditional. No kilt? That’s okay; you can still enjoy the Scottish shortbread cookies!
One bite and you’ll see why this cookies recipe is so popular in our home. It’s full of light, flaky layers that are perfect with tea or milk. (seriously, it’s the world’s best homemade cookies recipe ever!)
Traditional Scottish Shortbread Recipe
- 2 cups flour
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1 cup butter softened
- 1/4 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Begin by bringing the butter to room temp by leaving it out on the counter for 20 minutes or so.
- Mix the softened butter with the sugar until light and fluffy.
- Add the flour, baking powder, and salt.
- Mix well, and then bring together into a ball with your hands, the mixture will be crumbly until you do so. You’ll have to "press it" into a ball. The key to successful shortbread cookie dough is to handle it as little as possible. Don’t pound or knead it heavily or this can affect the levity of the shortbread.
- Form a disk with the dough, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Roll out into 1/4 inch thickness.
- Using a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut into rectangles. You can also use a cookie cutter, if that’s easier for you.
- Poke a fork carefully into the little rectangles, creating holes. This helps with even cooking. Place in the refrigerator for thirty minutes.
- Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for 20 minutes at 350°.
- Remove to the cooling rack, and serve.
Serving Suggestions & Recipe Variations
Frankly, I think these cookies taste great all by themselves! However, there are several variations and “spins” you can take when making and serving them.
One is to serve the cookies in a dish of vanilla ice cream, ideally with some chocolate syrup and fresh strawberries. This makes for a summery dessert that will transform a classic holiday cookie into a year-round dessert.
Also, although this recipe calls for powdered sugar, it’s important to note that you can use other kinds of sugar, too.
Organic cane sugar or even brown sugar will work, but of course, there will be a slight variation in how the cookie tastes (but they’re still delicious, mind you). If you want your cookies to be a bit less on the sweet side, you might want to reduce the amount of sugar you use ever so slightly.
I’ve seen this recipe elsewhere, and some people use substitutions like shortening instead of the butter. I would really recommend using butter for this recipe.
Even lard won’t do the trick as it doesn’t lend the same flavor to the cookies. In some parts of Britain, a similar shortbread recipe is used that includes baking soda, baking powder, and/or vegetable fat -but to stay true to the Scottish treat, you need to avoid these in yours.
Classic shortbread doesn’t normally have icing, but you can feel free to add some royal icing if you’d like! The flat cookie provides a great base and bland enough flavor for icing or frosting of any kind.
You can also add “add-ons” or “mix-ins” to this recipe, including candied citrus peels, candied ginger, rosemary, dried cranberries, or anything else that may strike your imagination!
Scottish shortbread cookies are usually served on winter solstice, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and on Christmas. Normally, these cookies are served with tea or coffee – but I’ll be honest. You can really eat these cookies at any time of the year!
Common Questions About This Recipe
Does the dough need to be chilled?
You do not need to chill your shortbread cookie dough if you don’t want to, but it can really add a whole new dimension to your cookies.
I discovered this tip later in life and found that although my shortbread cookies of the past were absolutely delicious, these new, chilled cookies were seriously top notch. When you chill the dough, you give it an opportunity to rest. It also rehydrates during this process.
Chilling your shortbread cookie dough will also allow the butter to firm back up. I usually refrigerate my shortbread cookie dough after cutting it, but if you wait to cut it into the tiny rectangles before you bake, it will be a lot easier to cut, as the dough will firm up into a nice consistency.
You don’t have to chill it very long – twenty to thirty minutes is all you need. However, chiling it for longer than that shouldn’t pose any kind of problem, either. I’ve even refrigerated the dough overnight and it’s been just fine.
Can I freeze extra shortbread cookie dough?
You sure can! Freezing extra shortbread cookie dough is a great way to make the most of the extra dough you might have hanging around. I like to freeze some dough in bulk when I first start out my baking season around Thanksgiving.
Then, I have plenty already made up so I can just pop it in the oven when I’m ready to start baking shortbread cookies for Christmas parties and other holiday events.
Why do you need to poke the holes in the shortbread?
Lots of people wonder why poking holes in shortbread is necessary. I used to assume it was just for aesthetics, but there’s actually a reason why you need to do this. As your shortbread cookies bake, the butter in the dough will melt and begin to release steam.
In order to prevent the shortbread from getting too puffy and losing its trademark dense texture in the oven, you need to poke holes into the dough before you bake. This will allow the steam to escape.
What cookies or other desserts brings back childhood memories for you? Will you make this Scottish shortbread recipe?
updated September 7th 2020 by Rebekah White
Heather’s homesteading journey started in 2006, with baby steps: first, she got a few raised beds, some chickens, and rabbits. Over the years, she amassed a wealth of homesteading knowledge, knowledge that you can find in the articles of this blog.