This easy 3 ingredient shortbread cookies recipe is made with butter, granulated sugar, and flour (plus salt) in a 2:1:3 ratio, so it’s also referred to as a 123 cookie dough (or a 321 cookie dough). This traditional shortbread recipe is pressed in a baking pan and cut into shortbread bars before baking.
I am completely obsessed with baking ratios. I break down most all of the baking recipes I encounter these days into ratios of butter:sugar:flour to better understand them. I suppose that Michael Ruhlman would be proud of me. He’s the author of Ratio, a book dedicated to ratios that I highly recommend you check out on Amazon, if you are obsessed with recipes and want to better understand the logic behind basic baking recipes and also the best ways to adapt and modify existing recipes. I want to know why certain recipes behave differently than others, and I believe the best way is to figure out the ratios so that I can truly evaluate each recipe. Unfortunately, this also means that every time I pick up a food magazine or browse through a food blog, my brain is always ticking and doing math.
What are ratios in baking?
When bakers talk about ratios, they are not just referring to the specific percentage of a particular ingredient in a recipe compared to the total: an ingredient ratio is a relationship between two or more ingredients. Take a classic Scottish shortbread recipe made of butter, sugar, and all purpose flour. The shortbread recipe ratio would refer to the relationship between the weight of butter, the weight of sugar, and the weight of flour, giving you a better idea of the proportions of each ingredient relative to the others. If you have a recipe in cups and you want to convert it to grams, you can always consult this list of baking ingredient conversions from cups to grams to help you do the math.
How do you calculate ingredient ratios?
To calculate a ratio of ingredients, you divide each quantity of ingredient by the smallest quantity in the recipe. In this classic shortbread recipe, we have 230 grams butter, 115 grams sugar, and 345 grams butter. The smallest quantity in the recipe is the 115 grams of sugar. So to determine the ratio of ingredients in a recipe, we must divide the quantity of each ingredient by 115 grams to determine the relative ratio compared to sugar.
- The ratio of butter to sugar is the quantity of butter (230 grams) divided by the quantity of sugar (115 grams): 230÷ 115 =2
- The ratio of sugar to sugar is the quantity of sugar (115 grams) divided by the quantity of sugar (115 grams): 115 ÷ 115 = 1
- The ratio of flour to sugar is the quantity of flour (345 grams) divided by the quantity of sugar (115 grams): 345÷ 115 =3.
A shortbread recipe made from 230 grams of butter, 115 grams of sugar, and 345 grams of flour has a 2:1:3 ratio of butter/sugar/flour by weight (side note: this is why people often refer to shortbread recipes as 1-2-3 shortbread recipes or 3-2-1 shortbread recipes).
I prefer ratios because the percentage of an ingredient can be misleading
The total weight of cookie dough for the recipe is 690 grams. Of that 690 grams of dough, 230 grams (33%) is butter, but what about the other 67% of the dough, which is flour and sugar? A 33% butter shortbread recipe doesn’t give us the full picture of what is going on and you can’t make shortbread knowing only that it must have 33% butter. You need more information. That’s why I love ratios. If you know shortbread are 1:2:3 (1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, 3 parts flour, by weight), then you can make any quantity of shortbread you want. In a sense, you don’t need a recipe. You have a ratio and you can expand and contract the amounts to make any quantity of shortbread, as long as you come close to that ingredient ratio. It’s as easy as 1:2:3, literally!
If you knew your shortbread had to contain 33% butter, that other 67% can still make or break your shortbread recipe and have a huge impact on the outcome of your recipe. For example, not enough flour, and you will end up with a greasy batch of cookies that really aren’t what you were going for and quite frankly, are the opposite of the best thing you’ve ever made. A shortbread recipe that is 1 part butter, 1 part sugar, and 1 part flour is 33% butter, but so is a recipe containing 2 parts butter, 1 part sugar, and 3 parts flour.A 1:1:1 shortbread recipe becomes a real mess when you bake it. The butter separates out, and the shortbread become chewy and greasy. The dock marks melt away in the oven and the top becomes crackly. So it’s not just the percentage of butter that is important, but actually, it’s the ratio of butter to flour, the ratio of butter to sugar, and the ratio of sugar to flour that are crucial. The ratios matter a lot. OF course, you could express the ingredient ratio of shortbread as percentages (meaning a shortbread recipe with a 2:1:3 ratio of butter/sugar/flour is equivalent to 33% butter, 17% sugar, and 50% flour) but personally, I feel more comfortable with the ratio. It feels less clunky and the math is certainly easier once you know shortbread are as easy as 1-2-3, rather than as easy as 33%-17%-50%. Right?
If you are looking for a cookie that you can cut out with cookie cutters for holidays and celebration, shortbread cookies are not the cookie for you. If you want to a rolled cookie dough for cookie cutters, that’s a different ratio. Try these shortbread cutout cookies made with icing sugar, which have a different ratio of butter:sugar:flour yielding a shortbread cookie dough that can be rolled and that maintains its shape as it bakes. Some prefer sweeter cookies, like these rolled sugar cookie cut-outs. Or for something a little fancier, try these buttery jam thumbprint cookies .
Shortbread cookies recipe
Everybody has a favourite, basic shortbread recipe, and most of them probably fit the 2:1:3 ratio recipe (by weight, of course!). This is my basic shortbread recipe, in cups and in grams. This shortbread recipes is made with three basic ingredients—butter, granulated sugar, and all-purppose flour—with a little salt added for flavour. It’s that simple. Except, there’s one thing I do a little differently: after I unmold the cookies, I transfer them to a cookie sheet, and I bake them again, kind of like biscotti. Why? I do not care for partially baked or undercooked shortbread. This is the best way I’ve found to achieve shortbread that are baked through. The cuts and dock marks, in this and most shortbread recipes, help the steam escape, but baking the shortbread a second time ensures that even the very middle parts are baked through, yielding a dry shortbread with a sandy texture, just like I always crave.
Baking the shortbread a second time ensures that even the very middle parts are baked through, yielding a buttery yet dry shortbread with a sandy texture, as it should be.
- 230 grams unsalted butter 1 cup, room temperature
- 115 grams granulated sugar ~ 1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 345 grams all purpose flour 2 3/4 cups
- Fit a square of parchment to the bottom of a 9-inch square pan. Preheat the oven to 325ºF.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar and salt until it is smooth, light, and creamy. Add the flour and beat it in until the mixture turns into a sandy crumble.
- Pour the crumble mixture into the prepared pan and pat it out evenly, from edge to edge, using a flat-bottomed glass to smooth it.
- Cut the shortbread into 16 rectangles, and dock it with a fork. Bake for 40 minutes until the edges turn golden brown.
- Let the pan of shortbread cool for 5 minutes, then cut them again. Let them cool 10 minutes before unmolding.
- Transfer the shortbread to a parchment-lined baking sheet, 1 inch apart, and bake for another 20 minutes or so until they are baked through.
Let cool before serving.
For this recipe, I used Stirling Creamery unsalted butter
I do my best to bake with the finest ingredients. Stirling Creamery, a Canadian company, has provided the butter for this post.
What causes chewy shortbread?
Shortbread are supposed to be buttery with a melt-in-your-mouth texture. Some shortbread are more crumbly and that’s totally normal. But sometimes, shortbread end up chewy and that’s not quite right. Here’s why your shortbread might be chewy:
- if the shortbread haven’t dried enough in the oven: this is why I bake some batches of shortbread twice: to ensure they were cooked through and dried out well. Consider baking your shortbread longer next time
- if your shortbread aren’t scored/poked with air holes, then your shortbread might not dry properly, again leading to chewy cookies, so make sure to dock or poke shortbread before baking to help air circulate and release moisture as they bake in the oven.
- if the shortbread contain too much sugar: sugar can lead to a more chewy texture. Look into the ratio of butter:sugar:flour that you are using. Consider reducing the amount of sugar in your shortbread next time
- if you’ve overworked the dough, perhaps too much gluten developed, rendering your shortbread more chewy and even tough: while many recipes recommend kneading shortbread, a little goes a long way. You don’t want to overwork the dough. You want to knead the dough until the ingredients are evenly dispersed throughout and until the dough clumps or sticks together. After, press into pan, score, dock (poke holes), and bake OR press into a ball to chill before rolling and cutting out. Either way, don’t overwork the dough!
If you aren’t happy with the texture of your shortbread, consider using a lower protein flour (such as cake and pastry flour). Also consider using icing sugar (instead of granulated sugar) and/or a mix of flour+cornstarch (instead of just flour). This could help you achieve a better texture. Beware that too much cornstarch may lead to a starchy mouthfeel though so avoid being heavy-handed with the cornstarch.
What causes soggy shortbread?
Shortbread are supposed to be a dry butter cookie. That’s what makes them shortbread! Shortbread shouldn’t be moist or soggy. Soggy or wet shortbread are not great and would indicate a problem with your recipe or the method. Here’s why your shortbread might be soggy:
- if the shortbread are underbaked, they might end up with a doughy, raw centre. Try baking your shortbread longer next time.
- if the shortbread are pressed into a pan that is too small to accommodate the amount of dough or, to put it another way, if you have too much dough for the size of pan you are using, then your shortbread will not bake properly. If the pan size is incorrect, the shortbread will overbake on the edges and underbake in the middle, resulting in a doughy, soggy centre. For the recipe above, I used a 9×9 square metal pan. If you want to bake a 9-inch round pan of shortbread, try this lavender shortbread recipe.
- if you are having trouble getting an even bake, perhaps the cake pan is to blame: bake shortbread in a metal pan which is better at conducting the heat so that the heat of the oven is properly transferred to the dough. This metal 9×9 would be perfect for the job, available on Amazon.
What causes crumbly shortbread?
I honestly don’t mind if shortbread cookies are a little crumbly, but some consider crumbly shortbread to be flawed. If you bake a batch of shortbread and you find they are too crumbly, here’s why:
- if the shortbread recipe contains too much butter, your shortbread might be crumbly. Butter makes shortbread “short” and the shorter the shortbread, the less structure they have. Why? Because the fat of the butter interferes with gluten formation in the flour. You need just a little gluten to hold cookies together, but not too much. On the other hand, too little gluten, and your cookies may fall apart.
- if the shortbread are baked with a different fat source, you may end up with crumbly shortbread. Butter contains water, and that water is what helps gluten form. If you were to switch from butter to a 100% fat source (like canola oil or coconut oil), you may end up with crumbly shortbread from the lack of gluten. These might require a splash of milk to come together and hold their shape.
How can you tell when shortbread are baked?
Some shortbread purists will claim that shortbread cookies should be pale and light, without any colour or browning. Personally, I prefer when the edges are golden, so I bake them a little longer, until the edges are golden and the centre of the pan of shortbread isn’t pale or raw looking, but very lightly golden, like it’s just beginning to colour.