Ultimate cookie series – 5 – Shortbread basics

In my Ultimate Cookies Series I’m trying to find the ultimate cookie recipe (or maybe 2 or 3 or …). In previous posts I focussed on describing cookie baking experiments, for instance with chocolate macademia cookies, or with Dutch ‘pepernoten’. Now it’s time to go back to the basics. Let’s dive into a very basic type of cookie, shortbread cookies, and see what we can learn from them.

Shortbread cookies

One of the easiest cookie recipes is the one for shortbread cookies (in Dutch called ‘zandkoekjes’). Shortbread cookies only consist of flour, sugar and butter. Proportions for a shortbread cookie are generally approximately (ratios are in weight, not in volume):

  • 1 part of flour
  • 3/4 part of butter (note that butter is at least 80% milk fat, and approx. 16% water)
  • 1/2 part of sugar

As you can see, you only need 3 ingredients to make a cookie basis!

This is only an approximation, I’ve also found ratios of 1:1 for flour and butter and more or less sugar. But this provides a good start. When making shortbread the ingredients have to be mixed fast and preferably while kept cool. I guess that to keep your butter cold so that when it bakes it will form pockets that separate flour layers. But let’s have a look at the ingredients and what they all do for the cookie.


Flour is an interesting ingredient, its main structural components are gluten and starch. Gluten can form a structure when worked well, starch will swell up when it comes into contact with water. Flour provides structure for the cookie. However, there is only very limited water available in a shortbread recipe, thus the gluten will not develop too much and the starch won’t absorb that much water. This will make the cookie crumbly, a totally different structure when compared to bread where gluten has been worked more extensively and far more flour is available. The flour gives the cookie its structure due to its cooking.


The only source of water in shortbread comes from the butter (learn more about butter here). Besides that, butter also provides the fat which will give the cookie a rich flavour. Fat melts during baking and will seep around the flour. If too much fat is used the cookie will become very flat, too little and the cookie will be very dry.


Besides giving the cookie its sweetness, sugar is also essential for colour and structure formation. A shortbread contains very little water, therefore, most of the sugar won’t dissolve. However, when the cookie is heated in the oven, some of the sugar will dissolve in the water. Upon cooling of the cookie, the sugar will crystallize again, this will give a cookie its distinct snap. It’s also a reason why warm cookies generally don’t snap, yet, their sugar has not yet crystallized.

Furthermore, sugars caramelize when heated and it reacts with proteins in the so called Maillard reaction, both give the cookie a nice golden colour.

A recipe

You will recognize the shortbread basics (flour, water, sugar) in a lot of different recipes. All use the same idea to make a nice product.

Shortbread cookie - Dutch 'Zandkoekjes'
Literally translated these cookies are called 'sand cookies'. They don't taste grainy, but sure are simple. These cookies are very suitable for all sorts of decorations.
  • 100g flour
  • 50g sugar
  • 75g butter
  • sprinkle of salt
  1. Mix all ingredients together, leave to cool in the fridge.
  2. Roll out dough and cut out shapes
  3. Bake in the oven at 175C for 15-20 minutes (time will depend on thickness of the cookies)


This was quite a theoretical post, but I won’t find my Ultimate Cookie, if I don’t do some thorough analysis once in a while. Of course, I’ll have to try to make a shortbread cookie as well, so you’ll probably see that appearing some day.

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