Shortbread is a type of unleavened biscuit (cookie) which is traditionally made from one part white sugar, two parts butter, and three parts oatmeal flour. The use of plain white (wheat) flour is common today, and other ingredients like ground rice or cornflour are sometimes added to alter the texture.
Shortbread is so named because of its crumbly texture (from an old meaning of the word short). The cause of this texture is its high fat content, provided by the butter. The short or crumbly texture is a result of the fact that the fat inhibits the formation of long protein (gluten) strands. The related word “shortening” refers to any fat that may be added to produce a short (crumbly) texture.
History of Shortbread:
Shortbread may have been made as early as the 12th century, but its invention (or at least, the refinement to its current form) is often attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) in the 16th century. She had a team of French chefs who had the time, labor and ingredients to perfect the recipes (you’ll read more about that below). The history of Scottish shortbread is interconnected with the history of dairy farming and butter making in the British Isles during the Medieval Ages:
"As Jean-Louis Flandrin points out, butter consumption is a natural development in regions suitable for cattle-breeding. In such places, popular taste and the local economy had gone right over to butter as a cooking fat within 400 years....Flandrin is speaking about the butter-eating areas of Europe in the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries..."
---History of Food, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat [Barnes & Noble Books:New York] 1992 (p. 121) [pages 120-124 present the history of butter, including its symbolism]
"Butter was the other principal milk dish [cheese being the other]. The manner of making is had changed little since Pliny's day...In other branches of cookery butter was an enricher, the accompaniment of cheese in herbolaces or with macaroni; of eggs, milk and sugar in the filling for a flathon; of plain or fancy breads in pain perdu or rastons. For short pastry and cakes, it was at first an alternative to fresh cream, but eventually superseded it, for butter had a more highly concentrated fat content, and was more easily stored. Nevertheless butter appeared in a relatively small proportion of the dishes in medieval recipe books, which were written mainly for and by the cooks of the nobility. It was only in Tudor times that an emerging middle class, which did not despise butter as the food of the poor, began to use it liberally in every possible sphere of cookery, setting a trend that was to last for some two hundred years."
Shortbread recipes first appear in cookbooks of the time, although origination often precedes the first reference in print by a significant number of years. And alas, Queen Mary didn’t enjoy her shortbread with tea, nor did her cousin Queen Elizabeth I [1533-1603], because tea didn’t arrive in England until September of 1658.) It may be difficult for modern folks to imagine a world without a comforting hot cup of coffee, tea or hot chocolate, although herbal infusions have been around since as long as man could boil water, and there was hot cider plus hot spiced wine.
While shortbread is a famous accompaniment to tea (and of course, to coffee, milk and hot chocolate), the cookies are also served with wine and Champagne, and they are terrific accompaniments to ice cream, sorbet, puddings, fruit and other desserts.
Shortbread is different from shortcake, which can be similar to shortbread, but which can be made using vegetable fat instead of butter and always uses a chemical leavening agent such as baking powder, which gives it a different texture.
Shortbread biscuits are often associated with normal egg-based biscuits, but they hold their shape under pressure, making them ideal for packed meals.
Why the Shortbread name?
Why short? There are two different explanations for the name of the cookie. Some sources cite the crumbly or “short” texture of the product. Others attribute the name to its high percentage of shortening, or butter (the word “shortening” refers to any fat).
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "Short" (definition 20): Of edible substances: Friable, easily crumbled. This describes the process of making shortbread. This is also where the English term "shortening" comes from. According to John Ayto, the term "shortbread" dates back only as far as the early nineteenth century. [An A-Z of Food and Drink, Oxford University Press:Oxford 2002 (p. 310).]
Butteriness is an important quality in shortbread—so much so that in 1921 the British government legislated that a product called shortbread must get at least 51% of its fat from real butter. Outside of the U.K., however, there is no such requirement. Check the label to ensure yourself of an authentic shortbread experience. Hold out for 100% butter cookies.