(NYTIMES) - Most good cooks have a few go-to dishes they can whip up without a recipe, dependable things to make on autopilot that can be adapted to fit their hunger, the contents of their fridge, or the occasion at hand.
This truth doesn’t always extend to bakers, who are often at the mercy of a more complicated formula for their cakes and meringues. Shortbread, however, is one rich and crumbly exception.
Consisting of only four ingredients that you probably already have on hand (butter, sugar, flour and salt), and lacking in challenging techniques, shortbread is quick to master and always delightful to serve, especially as a crisp counterpart to all the soft summer fruit that’s just coming into season.
What makes shortbread so accessible is the simple ratio of its ingredients: one stick butter to 1 cup flour, with sugar and salt added to taste.
I like my shortbread on the sweeter, saltier side. But feel free to take the sugar and salt down if you want something more restrained.
In Scotland, shortbread is often made with a combination of rice flour and wheat flour, which gives it a distinctive brittle crispness. Rice flour has become easier to find in the United States, thanks to a growing demand for gluten-free alternatives to wheat flour. If you can get it and like a pronounced crunch, try substituting it for half a cup of the all-purpose flour. Other flours like whole wheat, buckwheat and cornmeal are also options for changing things up.
Classic shortbread generally doesn’t have any other flavourings beyond those of the core ingredients. At its simplest, it tastes of good butter and not much else. So always use the best butter you can get.
If you do want to add flavours, you can, as long as you don’t add more than a teaspoon or so of liquid (vanilla, almond extract or rum, for example) to the dough. Anything more than that can make the cookies soft rather than crisp. Dry ingredients like spices, citrus zest and vanilla seeds work better for preserving the brittle crumble of the cookie. You can also add nuts and seeds for texture and flavour.
Then bake your shortbread low and slow. It shouldn’t take on much colour in the oven, staying pale on top, turning gold at the edges. Once it’s baked and stored airtight, it will maintain its crunch for weeks — if it doesn’t get devoured first.
Shortbread, 10 Ways
250g all-purpose flour
150g granulated sugar
¾ tsp fine salt
226g cold unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch chunks
1. Heat oven to 160 deg Celsius. Pulse together flour, sugar and salt in a food processor. Add butter and pulse to fine crumbs. Pulse a few more times until some of the crumbs start to come together, but don’t over-process; the dough should be somewhat crumbly. (You can also mix the dough in a bowl using two knives or a pastry cutter.)
2. Press dough into an even layer in an ungreased 20 or 22cm-square baking pan, or a 22cm pie pan. Prick dough all over with a fork. Bake until golden brown, about 35 to 40 minutes for the 22cm square or pie pan, 45 to 50 minutes for the 20cm. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Cut into squares, bars or wedges while still warm.
Here are nine variations for the master shortbread recipe above.
Scottish shortbread: Use 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour and ½ cup white rice flour.
Tender shortbread: Substitute powdered sugar for the granulated sugar, and ⅓ cup cornstarch for ⅓ cup of flour.
Vanilla bean shortbread: Split a vanilla bean in half lengthwise and use the back of a knife to scrape out the pulp. Pulse the pulp into the flour-sugar mixture before adding butter. Or add up to 1 tsp vanilla extract with the butter.
Citrus shortbread: Add 1 to 1 ½ tsps finely grated lemon, lime or orange zest with the flour. Add up to 1 tsp orange blossom water with the butter if desired. These are classic with poppy seeds.
Nut shortbread: Grind ½ cup toasted nuts in the food processor with the flour before combining with remaining ingredients.
Spice or seed shortbread: Add up to 1 tsp spices, like ground cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg or cardamom, or seeds like caraway or anise. Or add up to 3 Tbsps poppy or sesame seeds.
Brown or maple sugar shortbread: Substitute ⅓ cup light or dark brown sugar or maple sugar for the granulated. This yields a slightly softer shortbread.
Cornmeal or whole wheat shortbread: Substitute up to ½ cup cornmeal or whole wheat flour for ½ cup of all-purpose flour. Season with spices, seeds, citrus or rosemary if desired.
Buckwheat shortbread: Substitute up to ⅓ cup buckwheat flour for ⅓ cup of all-purpose flour.