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The History of Shortbread Cookies
Image credit: Maddie San Martin

They Have Medieval Origins

Shortbread cookies are a beloved staple at many family gatherings, including holidays and weddings. But you may be surprised to learn that there’s quite the history behind the buttery treats you love so much! Shortbread cookies are thought to have evolved from a food called medieval biscuit bread. Medieval biscuit bread was a type of twice-baked biscuit made from leftover bread dough and it usually contained some added spices and/or sugar. Medieval biscuit bread, sometimes called rusk, was popular in many European countries during the Middle Ages. Over time, the Scottish began to use butter in place of yeast, and the dry, hard biscuit bread evolved into the crumbly, buttery shortbread cookies we know and love today!

They’ve Been Around for Centuries

A Scottish woman named Mrs. McLintock is credited with writing the first shortbread recipe that appeared in print. It was included in a cookbook in 1736. However, shortbread had become a staple at Scottish family events long before that – some experts estimate that shortbread was being consumed in Scotland as early as the 12th century. Over time, the proportions of one part sugar, two parts butter, and three parts flour became the standard shortbread recipe and many bakers still use this same basic recipe today.

They Were Once Reserved as a Celebratory Treat

Because shortbread cookies rely on ingredients that would have been expensive for most Scottish families to afford, they were reserved for special occasions such as weddings, Christmas, and celebrating the New Year. In Shetland, it was traditional to break shortbread over a new bride’s head on the threshold of her new home, and all across Scotland, shortbread is still offered to the “first footers” when celebrating Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year’s Eve. After the Scottish started making shortbread, it made its way to the rest of the United Kingdom and ultimately all across the commonwealth territories. That’s why today, many families have a tradition of serving shortbread cookies at holiday parties and important life events.

They Were Famously a Royal Favorite

Early shortbread recipes were somewhat different from the shortbread cookies we know and love today. So how did the change take place? Many give the credit to Mary, Queen of Scots. The Queen spent much of her childhood in France and her French tastes influenced the food served in her court. Her chefs created a version of shortbread called “petticoat tails” that the Queen famously loved; the cookies were shaped like pizza slices and included caraway seeds for flavor as well as plenty of butter. The Queen’s preferred shortbread recipe is likely to have been more decadent than earlier versions and may have helped give rise to the buttery and sweet shortbread cookies that we know and love today. The Queen’s fondness for these shortbread cookies also helped to further popularize the Scottish treats and elevated them from their peasant roots to a more elegant food worthy of royalty.

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There Are a Variety of Shapes & Styles

Shortbread generally comes in one of three shapes. The shortbread cookies most favored by Mary, Queen of Scots are called “petticoat tails” – they are made by dividing a large circle of dough into segments like a pizza. Shortbread shaped into thick rectangles (which are sometimes called “fingers”) are a common type still seen today. Individual circles called “shortbread rounds” are another shape that you may be familiar with. Sometimes, these round shortbreads are baked with a traditional design on top that’s reminiscent of the decorations used on the ancient Yule bannock – a round cake linked to sun worship in pre-Christian times. In addition to the different shapes, there are also many regional varieties of shortbread. Some popular regional variations include shortbread made with coriander and caraway seeds; shortbread made with almonds and orange peel; and ginger shortbread. And of course, bakers today often experiment with unique ingredients and flavors to create gourmet versions of these simple treats.

They’re Cleverly Named

Ever wondered why shortbread is called, well, shortbread? It’s actually quite clever! In baking, the term “short” indicates a crisp, crumbly texture. Shortbread is known for this type of texture, so the name makes sense. But there’s also a second layer of meaning. The term “shortening” is sometimes used more generally in baking to mean any type of fat in the recipe; in the case of shortbread, the fat source is butter, and it’s essential for achieving shortbread’s famous crumbly texture. Since fat is such a key ingredient in shortbread, the cookie’s name is thought to be a reference to the fat (or “shortening”) called for in the recipe. It’s also interesting to note that shortening does indeed function as its name implies – it interferes with the formation of gluten strands in pastry dough, making them shorter. These shortened gluten strands result in a pastry with the tender, crumbly texture characteristic of the shortbread cookies we know and love today!

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