Despite its name, shortbread comes in all shapes, sizes, and even flavors. So, why is shortbread called shortbread?
Well, it has less to do with what it looks or tastes like and more to do with the texture! “Short” is an old term used to describe the crumbly nature of pastries, like shortbread and most types of biscuits.
Let’s learn more about this buttery pastry and the history of its name in this article!
Shortbread got its name from its signature texture: crumbly! The word “short” used to be a medieval term to describe these breakable forms.
This buttery pastry isn’t stretchable or “long”—it’s the complete opposite. It’s well-known for its dry sandy textures that strongly resemble biscuits.
Shortbread’s signature crumble is a result of this golden recipe ratio: one part white sugar, three to four parts wheat flour, and two parts butter. The high amounts of fat in the butter inhibit the expansion of gluten, hence “shorter” strands.
As a result, you get a pastry that’s light and flaky with a crisp and crumbly texture. The name stuck and is still used to this day.
Some recipes throughout the world create different variations of shortbread, such as the addition of cream and egg yolk to create Ayrshire shortbread. Another more modern variation, millionaire’s shortbread, is paired with chocolate and caramel drizzled on top.
However, even with the addition of other ingredients, these recipes stay true to the golden ratio of its three main ingredients, hence producing the same signature texture of shortbread.
Shortbread has been around for a while now, so there’s been a lot of tweaks to its name all over the world. Some variations are simply shorter versions of the original, like “shortie.”
Some of its other names have roots tracing back to the 1400s when the British people referred to shortbread and shortcake as synonyms.
However, this wasn’t the case in the American English language. According to this language, shortcake uses baking powder, and shortbread doesn’t, meaning these pastries are distinct from one another.
During the 16th century, Mary I of Scotland refined shortbread, presented it with caraway seeds, and cut it into triangular wedges. This type of shortbread was then called “petticoat tails” or “petites galettes” in French, mainly because it resembled the shape of that garment.
We can trace its roots even earlier into medieval times when it used to be called “biscuit bread.”
Although this technically doesn’t follow the shortbread’s golden recipe ratio we know today; many believed that this is where the buttery pastry started.
A common misconception is that the “short” part of shortbread comes from shortening—a solid all-fat ingredient used in baking. The confusion likely comes from the fact that shortening also tenderizes gluten and helps make pastries crumbly.
In addition, the term shortening can refer to any type of fat used to create that dry sandy texture. Moreover, butter is a type of shortening.
However, butter and shortening are different ingredients. Shortbread isn’t called shortbread because of shortening but because of its fat content.
This pastry is primarily made “short” or crumbly because of the large amounts of butter in its recipe.
Butter is 80% butterfat and 20% water, while shortening is made of 100% hydrogenated vegetable oil. Despite having a handful of similarities, pastries baked using one or the other produce different results.
While some recipes say that they’re interchangeable, any pastry made with shortening instead of butter tends to lie more on the softer and tender side of things. That’s because shortening doesn’t contain water at all, which means it doesn’t create any steam during baking.
So, why is shortbread called shortbread? The main reason is its crumbly texture that comes as a result of “short” gluten strands.
Contrary to what some think, the star ingredient that causes this reaction is butter, not shortening! The butter inhibits the expansion of gluten and, at the same time, produces steam during baking.
This buttery pastry has been around for a while and has since developed—and even moved on from—other names. For example, depending on which language, shortcake can also refer to shortbread.
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.