Published November 1, 2009.
Achieving rich, buttery taste in this simple cookie is easy. But for the optimal crumbly, evenly browned texture, we needed to take a step back in time.
In Scottish tradition, shortbread cookies are crumbly, perfectly browned, and faintly sweet. In American tradition, shortbread is often bland, chalky, and lackluster.
We wanted shortbread that was an alluring tawny brown and crumbled in the mouth with a pure, buttery richness.
To produce a worthwhile version of this classic, we started with the basics: flour, sugar, butter, and salt. We tinkered with various mixing methods and found reverse creaming—mixing the flour and sugar before adding the butter, creating less aeration—yielded the most reliable results. We reduced the butter, which resulted in dough that was pliable and had plenty of buttery flavor but did not exude grease during baking. We also swapped the white sugar for confectioners’ sugar to smooth out an objectionable granular texture.
Though we were pleased with our ingredients and mixing technique, our shortbread was tough—unpleasantly so. Two factors played into our texture problem: gluten and moisture. Gluten, the protein matrix that lends baked goods structure and chew, forms naturally when liquid and all-purpose flour are combined, even without kneading. The liquid in our recipe was coming from butter, which contains 20 percent water—just enough to make the cookies tough. We needed to curb gluten development without compromising flavor. We found our answer on the shelves of the test kitchen’s pantry: old-fashioned oats. Oats have a nice, nutty flavor and contain few of the proteins necessary for gluten development. We ground some to a powder and supplemented it with a modest amount of cornstarch. The cookies were now perfectly crisp and flavorful, with an appealing hint of oat flavor.
As for the moisture problem, cookies can only become truly crisp and crumbly if they are perfectly dry. Our goals were to limit gluten development and to help the cookies dry out completely. We took a hint from early shortbread preparation. We cooked the dough briefly, then shut off the heat and let them sit in the still-warm oven. The batch was dry through and through, with an even golden brown exterior.
For no reason except that it was reportedly the shape favored by Mary, Queen of Scots, we chose to shape our cookies as “petticoat tails,” so called because the uncut cookie resemble a dressmaker’s pattern. We also developed a gussied-up variation, dipping a pistachio-studded version in melted chocolate.list of recipes