Are you also one of those people who doesn’t tend to follow recipes precisely? When you’re asked to add eggs in one by one, or to pour in the sugar slowly, or to use a separate bowl to mix the dry ingredients, you end up adding all eggs and sugar in one go, all in one bowl? Sounds familiar to me! If I don’t see a good reason to follow the instructions I don’t. Sometimes learning along the way that there was indeed a good reason to do so…
A scone, is one of those foods which needs some proper following of instructions. We’ll dig into which of those steps are actually important (and which aren’t) to give you that light, flaky scone instead of a brick. From there on, be creative and make scones your own!
What are scones?
The ‘traditional’ scones come from the United Kingdom. There, they’re almost always round and served with clotted cream and jam, as part of a British afternoon or ‘cream’ tea. These scones are slightly sweet, but not overly so (hence the jam). More importantly, they’re very flaky. Scones break apart easily and it makes for quite a unique eating experience.
From there, scones have traveled the world and don’t necessarily always look like that classic round scone anymore. They come in various shapes, sizes and flavors. American scones especially tend to be a lot sweeter. But, all scones will still have that characteristic flaky texture. It’s what unites the scone.
The main challenge for making scones is to achieve that crumbliness. It should fall apart easily when you pull a part off, but it shouldn’t crumble apart in your hands. You might be surprised to learn, that it isn’t that different from the American biscuit, Both are crumbly, light and moist and use very similar preparation techniques. But, biscuits tend to be savoury, even salty.
Why are scones crumbly?
There are a few steps you can’t skip on to make a good scone. Aside from those, you can let your creativity go wild. These crucial steps all relate to creating that characteristic crumbly scone.
A crumbly scone breaks apart very easily into smaller bite size chunks. The opposite of crumbliness would be a well baked baguette. You have to tear a part off a baguette, taking a lot more effort than breaking of a piece of scone.
The main reason for these differences is the existence or absence of a gluten network. A bread dough is kneaded extensively to organize and align the gluten that are naturally present in wheat flour. That gluten network makes a smooth coherent dough. With scones though you do not want this gluten network to form!
Two steps help you prevent extensive gluten network formation:
1. Do not knead/mix more than you need to
Gluten are proteins. They align and form this strong network if there’s enough water and if the dough is kneaded extensively. It’s why any scone recipe will caution you against mixing once all the moisture has been added into the scone dough. Just fold it through with a spatula or gently use your hands.
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Be careful when using electric mixers when using scone doughs. Use them at a low speed when all the moisture is in and stop just before you think it’s ready. It’s easier to over than under mix a scone dough.
2. Rubbing in the butter
There is another way to help prevent gluten formation, it’s to put barriers in place for the proteins to interact. Butter, as are other others and fats, is good at forming these barriers.
It is why you add the butter to the flour first. Rubbing the butter into the flour puts those barriers in place. Rubbing in the butter consistently throughout the flour is essential for making that crumbly scone. At this point you can use an electric mixer without any risk of over mixing (just be careful to not melt the butter).
Butter contributes in more ways than just preventing gluten networks. By rubbing in butter into the flour you’re creating little pockets of the butter throughout the dough. Upon placing the scone dough into the oven these pockets of butter will start to melt. Where the butter used to sit is now an opening, forming a perfect ‘break’ area for when you’re pulling apart a piece of your scone. It is very similar to what happens when making puff pastry or short crust pastry, but to a lesser and less organized extent.
Other ingredients in a scone
A good scone contains at least that butter and flour. However, that won’t bring the scone dough together in a coherent mass, this is where the milk comes in. There should be enough milk to make a dough out of all the ingredients that doesn’t crumble apart. It’s better if it’s just a little sticky and wet, giving the dough some flexibility to rise.
That rise mostly comes from added baking powder or baking soda. The provide just that extra boost of lightness by puffing up the scone as a whole in the oven. Remember that baking soda only works well if there’s some other form of acid in the recipe. It works well with buttermilk scones for instance.
Last but not least a basic scone may contain a little salt and sugar for flavour. Aside from providing sweetness, the sugar also helps to brown the scone more quickly in the oven.
Crumbliness trouble shooting
Even if you’ve done everything right according to the theory, it go can wrong in practice. Different flours, different egg sizes, different butters, all affect the recipe. So what to do when things don’t turn out as you would have liked them to?
Why are my scones too crumbly?
The liquid that you add after adding the butter is required to keep the whole dough together. If there’s not enough water to keep the dough together, it will fall apart too easily and it will be very hard to bring it all together.
Also, it is important that you mix long enough for the ingredients to mix evenly. If there are still large clumps of flour or pockets with a lot of water, it won’t hold together in those areas.
Why aren’t my scones crumbly at all?
In order to get that crumbliness, you need those fat pockets. Not starting by mixing the flour and butter at the start can cause them not not form properly. However, there’s another thing to keep in mind. The butter has to remain solid while making the scones. If the butter melts completely those pockets are gone and it will become more bread like than scone like.
Also, remember to not extensively knead the scone dough. Knead so that everything just comes together, but not anymore or again you will lose those air pockets.
My scones haven’t risen enough
If your scones barely rise in the oven, reconsider the amount of water you’ve added. You might want to add more. Otherwise, increase the amount of baking powder/soda.
If you’re using baking soda, take care that you’ve added at least one sour ingredient (e.g. buttermilk). The baking soda needs something acid to be activated (read why here).
Adding fillings to a scone
You can jazz up the basic scone and include all sorts of fillings. Some fillings even help to create that light and crumbly texture, whereas with others you have to be a bit more careful that they don’t undo all your previous hard work.
Adding grated cheese to your scone almost can’t go wrong. Cheese is mostly fat, with very little liquid. Therefore, cheese will serve a similar function as the butter in your scone, it will help keep it crumbly and light. To most scone recipes you can add grated cheese without it negatively impacting the texture. The recipe below contains some suggestions for quantities.
Fruit contains a lot of moisture as so you should be a lot more careful with fruit than with cheese when adding them to scones. It is best to add the fruit towards the end, when you’re bringing the dough together and try not to break the fruit too much. The more you knead and break the fruit, the more moisture you will release and the more the scone will be affected.
If you want to add berries, use frozen ones, so that they don’t break down during kneading. A good fruit we found is cranberries, they barely release any moisture when they’re uncooked!
If you do want to add more moist fruit, reduce the amount of milk you’re adding. Fruit contains a lot of moisture, so reduce the amount of milk by the weight of 50% of the fruit as a start. If it’s still too dry you can always add water back in.
The science of cutting out a scone
There are roughly two ways to shape you scones. One is to roll out the dough into a thick sheet and cut it into pieces. This tends to gives the best rise since you haven’t interfered with the sides to much, allowing those to expand and rise. However, you can also shape them individually, more like little balls. They will puff up slightly differently as you can see in the photos on this post, but still taste great. Shaping them does tend to be hard when you’re dough is slightly sticky. Actually, if you’re able to shape them as nicely as a bread, your dough most likely isn’t sticky enough!
Do’s and don’ts of making scones
Apart from the main facts we just discussed, we tested out some more aspects! Based on that, here’s the highlights of the do’s and don’ts of scone making.
- Mix in the butter before adding the rest. This ensures an even distribution of the butter and the creation some of those buttery pockets.
- Make a sticky, wettish dough, it will give a better rise.
- Add enough baking powder to puff it up well and add something sour if you’re using baking soda.
- Knead a scone dough, it should be way too wet to knead.
- Add all ingredients in one go.
- Add too much butter, if you do, it will turn out more like a cookie than a scone.
- 250g flour
- 30g sugar
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 50g cold butter
- 135ml milk*
- Little of milk (optional for a wash)
- 60g roughly grated cheese (larger pieces are better than very finely grated cheese)
- 60g fresh cranberries, cut in half, it is very hard to knead them in when they're whole and round, they tend to bounce away
- Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
- Add the cold butter to the flour and knead through the flour until you have a slightly crumbly texture. It shouldn't be as crumbly as when making a fruit crumble, a slightly coarse sand is what you could compare it to. You could do this with a stand mixer, continue mixing until there's no large pieces left.
- Pour in all the milk and mix it through gently, either with your hands or a spatula/wooden spoon. It is important to stir as little as you can and stop stirring at soon as you have a cohesive dough. You can again do this with a stand mixer. Mix at the lowest speed until it just comes together, that happens in just a few seconds.
- If you're adding the fillings, now is a good point to add them. Knead the dough just a little so it comes together well and isn't too crumbly anymore.
- Flatten the dough into a rectangle/circle, whatever you prefer. Keep it quite thick (about 2 cm/1 inch) for a nice fluffly scone). Cut out your scones, we tend to just shaped the dough in a circle and cut out pie pieces, little triangles.
- Coat the top of the scones with some milk or egg wash for an even prettier top (although I always skip this!).
- Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C for approximately 20-25 minutes. The scones should be a light brown when they're finished.
*If you don't have milk at home, feel free to use water. We tested it out and the scones taste just fine, maybe even a little better than using milk.