You might have heard how shortbread is easy, beginner-friendly, or only requires three ingredients. So, you let your hopes run high and make your first batch, only to find it a bit lackluster.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: shortbread is far from dull. Its crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth texture can be mind-blowing, but only if you nail the recipe.
Unfortunately, a few things can go wrong along the way.
From cracking to spreading, this article will walk you through seven of the most common shortbread problems, why they happen, and what you can do about each one!
If your cookies have an awkward bubble (usually on the underside), it’s probably because of steam.
As the dough bakes, hot air might get trapped inside and create a pillow. This is particularly common with thicker bars and cookies than with thin shortbread spread in a pan.
Docking (pricking the dough with a fork before baking) will do the trick. That’s because the little holes allow some steam to vent out of the cookie while it’s cooking.
This tip can be applied to any high-fat dough, not just shortbread!
Ideally, you want your shortbread to be crumbly but capable of holding together when you squeeze it lightly.
If it ends up cracking, you’ve probably used too little butter or baked it on low heat.
It’s also possible to crack the shortbread bars if you wait till they’re completely cooled down before cutting them.
You have to remember that “short” in shortbread refers to shortening. So, the recipe needs a lot of fat to come out right.
A good rule of thumb is to use one part sugar, two parts butter, and three parts flour by weight.
For the heat, many recipes recommend baking around 330-350°F, but it’s important to note that everyone’s oven runs at different temperatures. So, if that’s still too low, you can crank it up to 370°F.
Finally, try to cut the shortbread when it’s still warm (but not sizzling hot!) to avoid cracking it along the edges.
The first time you eat shortbread, you might be surprised to see all the holes on the surface. These are “docking” holes made with a fork for venting.
Don’t let them bother you; they’re not a problem at all. In fact, they can help the shortbread bake evenly without pillowing!
You don’t really need to “fix” the holes in the shortbread. However, if you don’t like how the random spots look, try making neat patterns instead.
For instance, some people do straight lines with the fork along the length of a shortbread bar, but alternating lines can be a good fit if your bar is wide. Other baking enthusiasts dock four holes on small shortbread cookies to make each one look like a cute button.
You don’t even have to use a fork. Use a docking tool and go crazy with your designs!
If you’re willing to risk a batch, you can try baking the shortbread without docking at all. Then, you can see if pillowing is a major concern or something you don’t mind seeing on your shortbread.
Shortbread is never supposed to be chewy. If that happens, the most likely culprit is overworking the dough.
You might be under the impression that more blending time = more homogeneous cookies, but that’s not the case.
Sure, you want the flour to hold the creamed sugar and butter well, which takes some mixing effort. However, after a certain point, extra mixing only creates more gluten that turns the dough chewy.
To avoid overworking the dough, we’d recommend using the lowest speed on your mixer. However, that alone won’t cut it.
You still need to stop the moment the ingredients blend. If you can no longer see unmixed chunks of butter, you’re good to go!
To help speed up the process, try these tips and tricks:
- Sift the flour before mixing to make sure it blends easier.
- Opt for confectioners’/superfine sugar since it creams up faster. (Warning: the shortbread won’t be as fluffy!)
- When the blending is nearly done, turn off the mixer and tackle the dough by hand.
Shortbread feels crumbly and dry to the touch. If your baked goods end up greasy, you either went overboard with the butter portion or didn’t handle the butter the right way.
For one, using hot butter is a common mistake. Even room-temperature fat can be the culprit here.
You want the butter to melt only when the shortbread is baking to give the dough a nice fluffy texture!
We get that your baking process might require laying out all the ingredients in front of you. However, you still need to keep the butter in the fridge until you’re ready to mix it with the flour.
You might also need to avoid blending by hand if the heat from your palms is melting the fats.
That said, there will be situations where, no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to keep the butter from melting long enough to knead.
Don’t lose hope; just let the dough chill in the fridge for 30 minutes or so before baking.
Although shortbread has a high-fat content, overloading the dough with butter is still a thing, and it’s what spreads the cookies.
Once you put the dough in the oven, all the extra butter creamed with sugar will create too many air pockets. This air will then expand the shortbread from within and cause it to spread.
You know that the right ratio between flour, butter, and sugar is 3:2:1. Avoid the temptation of adding an extra bit of butter because it’ll do more harm than good!
It also helps to use a scale to weigh all the portions before mixing them.
Some people find that silicone baking mats can “grip” the underside of the shortbread and keep it from spreading. However, it won’t do the trick on its own if you’re using too much butter.
While some cookies need to be golden brown, the ideal shortbread should be rather pale. If it leans towards darker browns, it’s probably due to one of these two reasons:
- You over-baked the shortbread.
- You used too much butter.
The over-baking one doesn’t really require a lot of explaining. However, you’re probably wondering what butter has to do with the color.
Well, if you’ve heard about the Maillard reaction, you’ll know that fats react with sugars under heat to create colored compounds.
Adjusting the butter ratio (two parts for each part of sugar) in the recipe should help you control the effect of the Maillard reaction.
For the over-baking risk, you’ll need to aim for around 350°F. If your oven runs hot, don’t hesitate to drop the temperature 20-30°F.
It’s also crucial that you don’t leave the shortbread in the oven for too long. Even if the recipe calls for 30 minutes, you might want to check on it before that.
You’ll know that it’s done baking when it’s no longer wet from the middle or the underside.
Butter is the key to the shortbread; too little of it leads to cracking, but too much of it spreads and darkens the cookies. Even its temperature can make a huge difference!
Meanwhile, docking works wonders for bubbling and pillowing, but some people like being a bit more deliberate with the patterns that the holes create.
Finally, remember that overworking the shortbread dough often backfires with a chewy texture.
Who would’ve thought that a lot could go with such a simple recipe?
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.