Why Shortbread Is So Easy To Bake

With just three ingredients — flour, sugar, and butter — shortbread cookies seem uncomplicated to make. It's true, actually baking the cookies is relatively easy. However, the process of getting them to the oven is not quite as simple. How the butter is handled seems to make all the difference. Handling it incorrectly is often the biggest mistake made when making shortbread. Fine Cooking recommends using cold butter, which will prevent the cookie dough from becoming greasy and unmanageable. Cake Baker warns that if the butter is too warm, you won't get the texture that make these cookies such a treat to eat. 

According to food science site Food Crumbles, with so few ingredients, the ratios are what matter most. Too much butter — which binds everything together — and you end up with a cookie spread entirely too thin. The proteins in the butter combined with the sugar kick start the Maillard reaction, so an overabundance can also make the cookie too brown. Of course, if you skimp on the butter, either the cookie won't hold together or it will be too dry.

All butter talk aside, shortbread is so easy to bake because once you've nailed the ratios, everything else is a breeze.

Baking shortbread is easy, but not simple

Food Crumbles explains that flour absorbs some of the moisture from the butter during the baking process for shortbread. The starch in the flour swells when heated and keeps the cookie's shape even as the butter melts. According to Cake Baker, flour can cause a problem, though, if its over mixed. The gluten in the flour is what makes baked goods chewy. Gluten is activated as soon as the flour comes into contact with liquid (in the case of shortbread, butter) and mixing it elongates and strengthens these proteins (via Modernist Cuisine). While this is fantastic for bread, it's not what you want in a shortbread cookie.

Apart from giving the cookies their sweetness, sugar impacts the level of hardness. The crystal bonds get stronger when sugar recrystallizes after cooling down from its time in a hot oven, per Food Crumbles. This means an over-sugared cookie turns rock hard. However, too little sugar will impact the shortbread's beautiful golden brown color and leave the flavor on par with a pie crust.

Once you have your proper ingredient ratios — and you've kept the butter cool — it's time to pop those cookies in the oven. Cake Baker points out that, since shortbread recipes don't call for eggs, the bake time doesn't need to be long, just enough to give the cookies a golden hue around the edges. This makes the baking part quick and easy! Remember to pay attention while the cookies are in the oven, because overcooking shortbread can make it bitter.