Simple, classic, good
Shortbread is a cookie of few ingredients, so having a solid recipe and good technique can make the critical difference between shortbread that's mediocre or magnificent. Click through the slideshow to learn tips for making two variations of shortbread, one in bar form (pictured) and a slightly fancier version, shaped in a tart pan and cut into wedges.
Sift the flour
It's important to avoid over-mixing shortbread dough, which will develop gluten and make the finished product tough, not tender. To make sure that the flour mixes completely with little effort, sift the flour first to get out all of the lumps.
Modified creaming of butter and sugar
Many shortbread recipes call for the use of confectioners' sugar or superfine sugar because they will dissolve into the very limited moisture from the butter when they are creamed together. When doing this, your aim is to get a butter and sugar batter that is completely smooth and slightly slick, but do not expect it to get as fluffy as you would when using regular granulated sugar, since finer sugars do not aerate the butter the same way.
Mix until just combined, no more
When it's time to add the flour, mix on low speed, stopping while there are still many dry patches to thoroughly scrape down the paddle, sides, and bottom of the bowl. Mix until there are no visible dry spots, then stop the mixer and finish the job by hand. This will ensure that the dough does not get over-worked.
Shaping in a tart pan
If using a fluted tart pan, make sure it's the kind with a removable bottom. Then grease the bottom and sides with butter, cover the surface with plastic wrap, and press to distribute the dough evenly in the pan. Chill the shortbread with the plastic wrap on top for at least an hour before baking to allow the dough to relax and the butter to harden.
Another flattening method
Another way to get the surface perfectly flat is to use a small tube as a rolling pin. Here I'm using a cannoli mold, and demonstrating with another popular shortbread shape: a parchment lined, square pan. If you use this type of pan, be sure that there is some parchment overhang to help facilitate easy removal of the dough from the pan. Regardless of shape, the dough should always be chilled for at least one hour in the pan.
Score lines for cutting
Once the dough has chilled, you may wish to draw light lines on the surface where you will later cut the finished shortbread. These lines can be helpful for portioning, and can also serve as a guide when artfully scoring the dough.
For easier cutting, make a hole in the center
When baking shortbread in a round pan, I like to cut a hole in the center and bake the shortbread with the cutter inside. This helps create uniform, neat pieces when cutting. Without a hole, it can be difficult to cut perfect, pointed wedges because the shortbread can easily shatter at the point.
Score the shortbread: Example 1
Scoring is an important step that helps air bubbles escape during baking, minimizing puffs and cracks. When I'm being neat about scoring, I like to use a wooden skewer and poke symmetrical holes all the way through. When using this method, try to avoid scoring too close to the cutting lines, which can cause the shortbread to break when cutting.
Score the shortbread: Example 2
Alternative, and less fussy methods include poking the surface (but not poking all the way through) with a fork.
Baking and cutting
Many people prefer a very light blonde shortbread, while others prefer it a bit more caramelized and well done (see photo). Once the shortbread has baked to your desired color, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool in the pan and solidify a bit (10-15 minutes, depending on thickness). Then, remove the shortbread from the pan, either by allowing the side ring to drop off as with the round shape shown here, or by gently pulling the shortbread out of the pan using the tabs of parchment overhang. For even cutting with minimal cracks, the shortbread should be cut while it is still warm.
Once the shortbread has been cut, use an offset spatula to transfer the pieces to a wire rack. Allow the cookies to cool completely before serving or storing.
Even sugar distribution
Some more savory recipes of shortbread often call for a thin, sweet coating of sugar on the top for balance. To get the most even coat, use a fine mesh strainer to distribute the sugar.
Cutting chunky rectangles
As with the round version, allow the shortbread to rest before removing it from the pan. Use the parchment overhang as handles to carefully pick it up out of the pan. If it's too fragile, allow it to cool a bit longer before moving. For neat, uniform slices, trim the edges before cutting.
Shortbread is perfect on its own, or as an accompaniment to ice cream, sorbet, or berries. It's an easy dessert to prepare in advance, store in an airtight container, and serve when ready. It's got a longer shelf life than most cookies and can be stored in an airtight container for up to one month, or so I'm told. I've never had a batch stick around long enough to know for sure.