Really good shortbread

(NOTE: I am Canadian. I use Canadian flour for it, and I create it in our climate. Results might vary if you live somewhere else.)

My mother-in-law had an expert hand with baking in general and with shortbread in particular.

She made shaped cookies for every season—Santas and stars for Christmas; hearts for Valentine’s Day; shamrocks for St. Patty’s Day; bunnies and chicks for Easter; and pumpkins for Hallowe’en. When she made her shortbread cakes for the church bazaar, they were so perfect some people didn’t believe they were homemade.

She shared her shortbread recipe with me early on in my marriage, and I’ve been practising for more than twenty years. Early results were not favourable, and I cursed many times, but I think I’ve got it figured out now. My gift to you this Christmas is her recipe for really good shortbread, along with the fiddly things I do to achieve the best results.

Smith shortbread cookies

1 cup     butter (it must be butter)
1/3 cup  instant-dissolving sugar (it must be instant-dissolving sugar, sometimes called fine fruit sugar)
1/2 tsp.   vanilla (if possible, white vanilla to keep the cookies looking bright)
2 to 2-1/2 cups   cake and pastry flour, sifted (I am Canadian. Flour where you live might be different.)

Beat butter until light and fluffy, at least 2 minutes.
Gradually add sugar, beating after each addition.
Add vanilla.
Using a strong wooden spoon, gradually stir in 2 cups of the sifted flour.
Form into a ball and pat the outside with extra flour.
Roll on a well-floured surface to ¼ inch thickness, adding extra flour if necessary to prevent sticking.
Cut using cookie cutters.
Bake at 300° F on ungreased cookie sheets for 15 minutes. (Do yourself a favour and use parchment paper if you want fewer broken cookies.)
Makes approximately 2 ½ to 3 dozen average-sized cookies.

Shortbread tips

  • Make the shortbread six weeks in advance.
  • It must be butter. Don’t even think about substituting.
  • It must be instant-dissolving sugar. (Sometimes called fine fruit sugar.) Don’t even think about substituting. I’ve even tried fine fruit sugar bought in bulk and it wasn’t the same. I’m not sponsored by Redpath (yet), but theirs is the best.
  • Do I have to say that it must be cake and pastry flour, or do you get the idea?
  • Don’t underbeat the butter. Be patient.
  • I use white vanilla to keep the cookies looking bright.
  • The flour measurement can never be really exact. Temperature and humidity affect the dough. Better to put in not quite enough and use lots of flour on the board and rolling-pin. If you put in too much, you’re sunk. The dough will crumble and be impossible to roll.
  • When I measure the flour, I use a spoon and fill the measuring cup that way, instead of just scooping the flour out of the container. It makes a difference. I sift the flour right after measuring and then again on its way into the bowl.
  • Use parchment paper on the cookie sheets. The cookies never stick so you’ll have fewer breakers.
  • Do not overbake the cookies. Shortbread shouldn’t be browned. It should stay a nice golden colour with the edges just starting to brown ever so slightly.
  • To ice them, I mix together icing sugar, water and vanilla. (Use white vanilla for white icing.)

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.


4 thoughts on “Really good shortbread

  1. L.J.

    I have to say that cake and pastry flour is most certainly NOT a must! I just tried it for the first time on the advice of a co-worker. The result was so horrible I am considering just feeding it to the squirrels. That is if they will eat it. I will never use anything but my Grandmother MacDonald’s recipe again.

    1. Arlene Somerton Smith Post author

      I don’t know if you are American or Canadian or otherwise. I am Canadian, and I refer to Canadian flour, which is quite different from American. AND, shortbread is fussy. The amount of ingredients changes depending on the weather and humidity. It takes lots of practice. But, if you have recipe that works for you, excellent! Run with it.

  2. Eugenia

    Your recipe sounds like what I’m looking for in shortbread, in fact I have already made my dough and it’s sitting in the fridge. Should I leave it refrigerated or should it get frozen for the next 6 weeks?

    1. Arlene Somerton Smith Post author

      I usually bake the cookies right away, and, personally, I don’t refrigerate them once they are baked. I’m not sure what health department guidelines would be on that, so I make recommendations for what you should do, but they’ve been making these cookies in the family for generations, and no one’s died yet!
      Have fun. I hope they work for you.


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