Shortbread is a traditional Scottish baked good with a relatively simple recipe that consists of three basic ingredients (flour, butter, and sugar). Like most baked goods, it is produced in three steps consisting of ingredient mixing, product forming, and baking. Although shortbread is frequently eaten around Christmas and the New Year, it is consumed year round in many countries. In essence, shortbread—with its centuries' old history—is the granddaddy of all butter cookies and a mainstay in Europe. Today, there are several companies in the United States that manufacture shortbread exclusively.
Shortbread's namesake is a bit of a conversation piece. The majority classify shortbread as a cookie, but there are some who consider it a biscuit or even a cake. One would be hard pressed, though, to find someone willing to classify it by its given name—a bread. This confusion surrounding the classification of shortbread is further complicated by why shortbread is called short. A review of the literature on shortbread turns up at least two reasons. First, shortbread calls for a large percentage of shortening thus the name shortbread. Second, short refers to the desired crispness or "shortness" of the final product. Historically, the namesake shortbread was defended by early Scottish bakers who fought to prevent shortbread from being classified as a biscuit to avoid paying a government tax on biscuits.
However, one thing that is not typically contested about shortbread is its origination. Scotland is credited as the birthplace of shortbread. In Scotland one can find regional shortbread variations. For example, in Shetland and Orkney the people add caraway seeds and call it "Bride's Bonn." At holiday time in Edinburgh, shortbread is commonly adorned with pieces of citrus peel and almonds. Shortbread has a reputation as being a tea-time accompaniment, but it is also enjoyed with milk, coffee, wine, or champagne.
The main ingredient in shortbread is white flour. Flour is made from wheat seeds, which in turn are made of three main parts: the outer coat or bran, the germ, and the endosperm. In white flour the bran and germ are removed leaving only the endosperm. The endosperm is made primarily of starch and protein, and it enables the dough to be stretched and rolled without breaking.
Most "authentic" shortbread recipes rely on real butter for their fat. Vegetable shortening tends to give the cookie an undesirable texture and flavor. In fact, in 1921 the British government proclaimed that in order to be called shortbread a product must get at least 51% of its fat from real butter. Cookies marketed as shortbread outside Britain, however, do not have such a requirement. Typically unsalted or sweet butter is recommended in shortbread recipes so as not to affect the taste of the cookie.
Shortbread recipes usually call for granulated or confectioners' sugar. All refined sugar is made from sugar cane or sugar beet. Hot water is used to draw out the sugar in a process called diffusion. The resulting juice is purified and concentrated by evaporation. It is then cystallized out of solution. Different types of sugar can be made from this point based on the size of the sugar crystal. The more screening or refining that the crystals undergo, the smaller the particle. For example, granulated sugar has a much larger crystal size than confectioners' sugar.
Beside the three primary ingredients, many shortbread recipes call for salt, which helps to enhance the taste. One of the distinguishing features of traditional shortbread is its simple almost bland taste. In order to improve the subtle flavor, some manufacturers add eggs, cream, dried fruits, nuts, and even chocolate. Some larger commercial bakeries take additional liberties with their shortbread. For example, they may use vegetable shortening instead of butter t o keep costs down. Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is also used in some recipes to help the dough to rise.
Today, you can find shortbread in a variety of shapes and sizes. One specialty shortbread manufacturer will even put customers' own photographs on their cookies. Traditionally, however, shortbread was one large round cookie with notched edges made by pinching the dough between the finger and the thumb.
The Manufacturing Process
- 1 Most of the major ingredients are delivered to the bakeries in large quantities and stored in bulk tanks or silos made of stainless-clad steel. It is important that the internal environment of the tanks is controlled so that the temperature and humidity are just right. Some tanks are refrigerated to keep the raw ingredients from spoiling.
- 2 Keeping track of numerous bulk ingredients is a big task. In most large bakeries there is a department responsible for gathering the exact quantities of each ingredient and delivering it to the mixing area. Scales are used to ensure the correct amount of each ingredient. Additionally, some ingredients require processing such as milling or grinding before they are sent to be mixed and formed.
Mixing and forming
- 3 There are a variety of factors that are important when it comes to mixing the dough: the temperature of the ingredients, the mixing time, and the order in which ingredients are added. Shortbread dough requires that the shortening be at room temperature for proper mixing. Over mixing shortbread dough causes it to become tough and oily. Additionally, the sugar and shortening are typically mixed first with the flour being folded in later.
- 4 Once the dough is mixed, it must be formed into individual cookies. Shortbread comes in a variety of shapes, but it is typically molded by a rotary molding machine. The thickness of the dough is crucial. If it is too thick it will be too doughy. On the other hand, if it is too thin it may be too crispy or even burn. The molding machine ensures a uniform shape for baking.
Baking and cooling
- 5 Once the dough is properly mixed and formed, it must be baked. Ovens in commercial bakeries are 300-ft (91-m) long tunnels with adjustable speed conveyor belts and extremely sensitive temperature controls. Many chemical and physical changes take place during baking so it is important that the process is closely monitored. Each 18-30 ft (5.5-9.1 m) section of the oven has its own temperature controls and doors that allow employees to observe the cookies and vent the oven if necessary.
- 6 After the shortbread is baked, it must be cooled on a cooling conveyor. Controlled cooling helps the shortbread to retain appearance, taste, and texture. Controlled cooling also prevents condensation when the shortbread is packaged.
- 7 The last step in the manufacturing process is packaging. Because one of shortbread's desired properties is crispness, it is important that the manufacturer package shortbread in a rigid and airtight container to prevent the cookies from breaking or getting soggy from moisture. Often manufacturers choose a tin box or canister to hold the shortbread. Other manufacturers house the shortbread in plastic trays surrounded by some type of outer paper packaging. The outer package, whether it is tin or paper, is decorated to make it appealing to the consumer. Oftentimes shortbread manufacturers choose a traditional Scottish plaid design for their packages. Individual shortbread packages are then put into case boxes that are stacked on pallets for shipment to stores. All individual boxes and cases are coded so that they can be traced back to the time and place of manufacture.
Quality control begins with the ingredient assembly stage of production during the measuring, weighing, and processing of the raw ingredients. Additionally, most large manufacturers have quality control (QC) labs responsible for making sure the materials meet determined specifications. Characteristics such as appearance, color, odor, and flavor are checked. QC technicians also test for particle size, viscosity of oils, and pH of raw materials.
In addition, there are a variety of non-technical measures that bakeries take to prevent product contamination. For instance, throughout the bakery haimets are worn. Also, most bakery personnel wear special uniforms with no pockets and are forbidden from wearing jewelry. These precautions will keep personal items from accidentally falling into the raw ingredients or dough.
The finished product is also carefully monitored. Like the inspection of the raw material, the finished products must be examined for appearance, flavor, texture, and odor. The product is compared to a standard established during product development. Specially trained testers are responsible for detecting subtle differences that deviate from the norm.
As a product with a lot of history behind it, shortbread is shrouded in tradition. With its high fat content shortbread does not pretend to be a health food, although food industry trends are for low-fat and organic products. In an attempt to keep up with these trends, some shortbread manufacturers have started making low-fat and organic varieties. Like many products nowadays, shortbread is also beginning to be marketed and sold via the Internet. This online option makes it easy for new and repeat customers to enjoy authentic shortbread made by small to medium sized bakeries in Scotland and England. Shortbread has stood the test of time and will continue to be manufactured and consumed in both its traditional format and "healthy" varieties.
Where to Learn More
Karoff, Barbara. The Best 50 Shortbreads. San Leandro, CA: Bristol Publishing, 1995.
ABC Official Girl Scout Cookie Bakers. ABC Bakery and Marketing Consultants. (1997). http://www.girlscoutcookiesabc.com/pages (January 2000).
Irish Sugar. Sugar Educational Website. http://www.irish-sugar.ie/pages/product/prodtext/prodi/mprodi.htm (January 2000).
The Scots Kitchen. Scotweb Ltd. http://www.scotweb.co.uk/kitchen/BAK/shortbread.html (January 2000).
short·bread / ˈshôrtˌbred/ • n. a crisp, rich, crumbly type of cookie made with butter, flour, and sugar.