The History of Shortbread Part 1 (2024)

When you enjoy a classic shortbreadfinger,or dunk a petticoat tail in a cup of tea, you are tasting a little piece of history. The history of shortbread goes back centuries, with this humble, crumbly biscuit being enjoyed throughout Scottish history. Join us on a trip back through the years as we explore how ‘The World’s Finest Shortbread’ has evolved.

The History of Shortbread Part 1 (1)

Shortbread in its earliest form

We can trace the history of shortbread back hundreds of years. The first historical notes on shortbread come from the 12th century, although that was a rather different form than the delicious crumbly Walkers Shortbread that melts in your mouth today. Original shortbread was a type of ‘bread biscuit’ or twice baked biscuit, which used leftover dough after bread making, sweetening it and making it into biscuits. The word ‘biscuit’ comes from Italian and literally means ‘twice cooked’. The so-called shortbread of the 12th century would have been rather hard, not very sweet, and if we tasted it today with our modern taste buds used to sweet and delicious baking so familiar to us, we probably wouldn’t have thought it very special at all. But to people of the time, this labour-intensive baking which took a long time to make, using scarce resources, would have been seen as a rare and precious luxury.

The Queen’s biscuit

For a few hundred years shortbread was made like this, slowly baking the dough in the oven until hardened and served as an occasional treat. Gradually, the leavening was replaced by butter, and by the time Mary, Queen of Scots came into power in the 16th century, the shortbread had developed to a sweeter, more crumbly and ‘short’ biscuit. That ‘shortness’ in the name comes from the large amount of fat in the dough, which makes the dough slightly tricky to work with. Today, Walkers Shortbread only ever uses fine creamery butter from grass fed cows and never compromises by baking it’s shortbread with anything else.

The famous Scottish Queen Mary is often credited with the invention, or at least refinement of modern shortbread, as it was the cooks at her court who further improved it by taking influences from French cooking that developed at the court, and refining the biscuit using butter, flour and sugar as the main ingredients. Caraway seed was often added to the mix, and the dough would then be formed into fingers, rounds or the popular petticoat tails, which Mary Queen of Scots is said to have been extra fond of.

The History of Shortbread Part 1 (2)

A shortbread for celebration

At this time in history, when food was often scarce outside the royal courts, any treat would be a luxuriously rare affair. The very first shortbreads were usually served only at very special occasions, like weddings, Christmas and New Year celebrations like Hogmanay, which have always been celebrated with aplomb in Scotland. As shortbread was made with butter, sugar and flour, it would be both expensive and difficult to get hold of the ingredients, and so became synonymous with wealth, luxury and celebrations. It was often made for weddings, showing off that the happy couple could afford to serve guests such a rare treat. In Shetland, the Scottish islands north of the mainland, it was a common tradition to break a piece of shortbread over the head of the new bride, bringing good luck and a happy marriage. Shortbread has been intricately linked with weddings and love for centuries, and even today shortbread is a popular item on the menus of many a Scottish wedding.

The History of Shortbread Part 1 (3)

The History of Shortbread Part 1 (2024)

FAQs

The History of Shortbread Part 1? ›

Original shortbread was a type of 'bread biscuit' or twice baked biscuit, which used leftover dough after bread making, sweetening it and making it into biscuits. The word 'biscuit' comes from Italian and literally means 'twice cooked'.

What is the brief history of shortbread? ›

Shortbread originated in Scotland. Although it was prepared during much of the 12th century, and probably benefited from cultural exchange with French pastry chefs during the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland, the refinement of shortbread is popularly credited to Mary, Queen of Scots in the 16th century.

Did Mary, Queen of Scots invent shortbread? ›

Shortbread may have been made as early as the 12th Century, however its invention is often attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots in the 16th Century. Petticoat Tails were a traditional form of shortbread said to be enjoyed by the queen.

What is the difference between Scottish shortbread and regular shortbread? ›

Traditional Scottish shortbread is a simple recipe made with sugar, butter, flour, and salt. Other shortbread styles will include leavening agents like baking powder and baking soda, which makes them crisp instead of crumbly like traditional Scottish shortbread.

What is the new name for shortbread? ›

Shortbread is now Trefoils®! they're ABC cookies? always called them trefoils!

Why is it called millionaires shortbread? ›

The name "millionaire's shortbread" appears to have originated in Scotland. The "millionaire" prefix to millionaire's shortbread or millionaires slice implies a level of decadence and wealth to the sweet treat, that it is an upgrade from regular shortbread.

Does the queen eat shortbread? ›

And while we don't know what type of biscuits she preferred, we quite like to imagine that she adored shortbread for its buttery richness and simplicity. Regarding tea cakes, her former chef once said, “chocolate biscuit cake is Her Royal Majesty the Queen's favorite afternoon tea cake by far.”

What's the difference between shortbread and shortcake? ›

Shortbread is similar to shortcake but doesn't include baking powder. Lots of rich butter gives shortbread a high fat content, resulting in a fine, crumbly texture. Shortcake and shortbread biscuits are delicious on their own, with fruit and cream, or simply topped with a delicate dusting of sugar.

What was Mary Queen of Scots' favourite food? ›

Shortbread – Surely one of the best known Scottish foods that has made its way around the world. This sweet, buttery, crumbly biscuit has been around for hundreds of years. It was even a favourite of Mary Queen of Scots so if it's good enough for her majesty, it's good enough for me.

Why does shortbread have holes in the top? ›

The word "bread" comes from "biscuit bread" which was made from leftover bread dough that was sweetened and dried out in the oven to make biscuits. Why do you poke holes in shortbread? The holes allow the moisture to escape during baking and more even heat distribution. This helps dry out and crisp up the cookies.

What are common mistakes when making shortbread? ›

The most common mistakes when making shortbread are over-working the dough, and incorporating too much flour. The less you work the dough, the more crumbly and melt-in-your-mouth your shortbread cookies will be.

Does shortbread taste better with age? ›

As I noted above, shortbread cookies are ones that only get better with age, so bake them, cool and store in a cookie tin to age. You can also freeze both the cut dough shapes (to bake later) or the baked cookies.

What is the secret to making good shortbread? ›

Tips To Make the Best Shortbread Cookies
  • Choose High Quality Butter. No matter what brand of butter you buy, if it's real butter, you can rest assured that it's the best. ...
  • Keep Ingredients Simple. ...
  • Add Flavor. ...
  • Don't Overwork. ...
  • Shape Dough. ...
  • Chill Before Baking. ...
  • Bake Until Golden. ...
  • Add Finishing Touches.

Why is shortbread called petticoat tail? ›

The triangles fit together into a circle and echo the shape of the pieces of fabric used to make a full-gored petticoat during the reign of Elizabeth I. The theory here is that the name may have come from the word for the pattern which was 'tally', and so the biscuits became known as 'petticoat tallis'.

Why do you add cornstarch to shortbread? ›

Cornstarch provides the shortbread with structure, but its biggest job is keeping the cookies extra soft, tender, and light. I love adding a small amount to chocolate chip cookies too. Optional Coarse Sugar Topping: For an optional sparkly crunch on your shortbread wedges, add a sprinkle of coarse sugar before baking.

What is short about shortbread? ›

Shortbread is called short because of the traditional ratio of one part sugar to two parts butter that lends a high fat content to the dough. This yields a soft, buttery crumb that melts in your mouth, similar to short crust pastry. This ratio is also what makes shortbread so crave-worthy. 2.

Is shortbread a Christmas tradition? ›

Making shortbread is an age-old Christmas tradition in Scotland, and fortunately for you, we make it easy to give a delicious gift of all-butter Walker's Shortbread to your loved ones for Christmas.

What is the difference between shortbread and shortcake? ›

Shortbread is similar to shortcake but doesn't include baking powder. Lots of rich butter gives shortbread a high fat content, resulting in a fine, crumbly texture. Shortcake and shortbread biscuits are delicious on their own, with fruit and cream, or simply topped with a delicate dusting of sugar.

Why is shortbread called shortbread tax? ›

Believe it or not, shortbread isn't a bread at all, but rather, a biscuit. The name can be attributed to the fact that the government once placed taxes on biscuits; so, to dodge the taxes, Scottish bakers labeled the pastry as bread.

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