I Tested 4 Popular Shortbread Recipes and the Winner Is Absolutely Flawless

published Dec 23, 2022
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Four different shortbread recipes on a surface
Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen; Alice Medrich headshot: Courtesy of Workman-Publishing; Ina Garten headshot: Getty Images

I’ve always enjoyed shortbread for its buttery, not-too-sweet flavor and crumbly-crisp texture. But I came to absolutely adore shortbread when I started dating my now-husband. His late mother, Jeanie, made shortbread every Christmas — baking many batches a week or so in advance and stashing them around the house in decorative tins, where the cookies would “cure” and improve in flavor. Those were the absolute best shortbread cookies I’ve ever had, with a complex, buttery richness that was unparalleled. I don’t know what recipe she used, but I do know that her shortbread would get gobbled up almost immediately. And if you were lucky enough to spot an inconspicuous tin slightly hidden on a shelf, you would be rewarded with the prize that everyone envied.

I was delighted to be offered this assignment so that I could find my own go-to recipe for shortbread, one that I might use to start my own cookie tin tradition. I set about finding four highly rated recipes to test against each other, aiming to find the one that would deliver the rich, buttery cookies I crave every holiday season.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Meet Our 4 Shortbread Cookie Contenders

In its classic form, shortbread is a simple recipe consisting of butter, sugar, flour, and possibly salt and/or vanilla. But it’s so easy to bake up a batch that doesn’t achieve the right texture, ending up more soft than crisp, more hearty than “short.” Recipes chase after that ideal texture by using different techniques and ingredients, so I looked for recipes that differed enough from each other to offer their own unique spin. 

King Arthur’s recipe was the only one in the bunch to use powdered sugar instead of granulated, and salted butter instead of unsalted. I was anxious to see what type of texture and flavor differences those choices would make.

Alice Medrich calls for melted butter instead of softened, has you rest the dough for multiple hours before baking it, and then bakes the cookies twice (similar to, but not as much, as biscotti). Talk about unique!

Taste of Home has perhaps the most traditional recipe of the bunch. This one calls for just three ingredients: unsalted butter, granulated sugar, and all-purpose flour. Would this be enough to yield the texture and flavor one expects from shortbread? 

Ina Garten asks for you to chill the dough, roll it out, and cut it into shapes. I couldn’t wait to see how this affected the outcome. 

How I Tested the Shortbread Recipes

To level the playing field as much as possible, I made sure to use the same brand of ingredients. I used McCormick vanilla, Dixie Crystals granulated sugar, and King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour. For the most important ingredient, butter, I used American butter — Land O’Lakes brand. European butter has a higher butterfat percentage that would throw off these recipes.

I baked all four batches of shortbread on the same day and tasted and evaluated them side-by-side at three different points: the day I baked them, the day after, and two days later. For all of them, the flavor did get better with age. And just like you hear on reality competition shows such as Top Chef or Project Runway, the ratings and rankings came down to tiny little details. Every recipe here was very good — there wasn’t a dud in the batch. And you would be well-served to make any (or all) of these recipes. 

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

1. The Crunchiest Option: Alice Medrich’s Twice-Baked Shortbread

Alice Medrich’s method does things that I haven’t seen before in a shortbread recipe. It uses melted butter (most use softened), and it has you rest the dough at room temperature for at least two hours before baking so the flour can hydrate and the sugar can slowly dissolve. Finally, after baking a pan of shortbread, you sprinkle it with coarse sugar, cut it into pieces, and then bake those again for a few minutes, similar to the biscotti process. The flavor did end up toasty-rich, thanks to the double bake, but I found the texture to be a little too hearty for my taste — more crunchy than flaky-crisp.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

2. The Recipe for Thinner, Flakier Shortbread: King Arthur’s Shortbread

The ingredients for this recipe (which include powdered sugar) came together easily with an electric mixer, yielding a smooth dough that was relatively easy to pat into two prepared pans. After baking at a low temperature (300°F), you remove the dough from the pans and cut it into your desired shapes before cooling.

The dough was thinner than the ones from the other recipes, about a quarter-inch thick (as opposed to a half-inch with the others), which created a wonderfully flaky, thin cookie. As tends to be the case with shortbread baked in pans (unless they’re twice-baked, as in the Alice Medrich recipe), the cookies are crispier and more browned on the outside edges than in the middle. I felt that the powdered sugar gave the cookies the slightest, most subtle bit of chalkiness.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

3. The Most Classic Cookie: Taste of Home’s Buttery 3-Ingredient Shortbread Cookies

Yes, three ingredients are all you need for this easy recipe. Unsalted butter, granulated sugar, and all-purpose flour come together quickly with a mixer, are patted into a pan, pricked all over with a fork, and baked until light golden-brown. The shortbread is cut into squares and cooled, upon which it offers up fantastically crumbly-short texture and rich, buttery goodness. I did yearn for a little salt (either added salt or salted butter) to amp up the flavors, but overall this shortbread has a wonderful flavor and a knock-out good texture.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

4. The Shortbread Ideal: Ina Garten’s Shortbread Cookies

I must admit to meeting this recipe with grumpiness. It requires a little more front-end work because you need to chill the dough, roll it out, and cut it into shapes before baking (notably, at a higher temperature than the other recipes). But the cookies you get in return for that wee bit of extra effort are absolutely beyond worth it. They have the perfect crisp-crumbly-short texture through and through, with a complex buttery flavor that you’d swear comes from some sort of culinary magic.