Scones & Scone Dough – Do’s and Don’ts

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 figuring out later that there was indeed a good reason, but that I just didn’t know it.

The good old British scone, is one of those foods which needs some instruction following. A scone, traditionally eaten with clotted cream and a sweet fruity jam. The three ingredients truly complement one another making it a great snack with your afternoon tea, your morning breakfast or a Sunday brunch. Making a good scone isn’t hard, but, you’d better follow most of the instructions or they’ll turn out dry and not as puffed up.

So let’s have a look at those steps and see what you should and shouldn’t do when making a scone dough and where you can be a little creative!

What are scones?

Scones are probably best known as being part of the British afternoon or ‘cream’ tea and they come in various shapes, sizes and flavours. Most seem to be slightly sweet (although American style scones can be pretty sweet). They actually have a somewhat similar structure to the American biscuit, both are crumbly, light and moist. Biscuits though tend to be savoury though, and are commonly served as a side to a meal.

The main challenge for making scones tend to be to achieve that same lightness and crumbliness. It should fall apart easily when you pull a part off, but it shouldn’t crumble apart in your hands.

Why are scones crumbly?

A crumbly scone is a scone that you can break apart very easily into smaller chunks, but it won’t fall apart into small crumb, instead, they’ll be decent bites. The opposite of crumbliness is a well baked baguette. This won’t crumble apart, instead you have to tear a part off. A bread isn’t crumbly which allows you to slice it easily, a scone on the other hand is hard to slice without it crumbling apart.

The main reason a good bread isn’t crumbly is because of the gluten network. A bread dough is kneaded extensively to organize the gluten. That gluten network holds everything together and makes it non-crumbly. With scones though you do not want this gluten network, so when making scones you try to prevent this network from forming, which is what the two main steps of scone making are all about:

1. Rub in the butter

It so happens that butter or another solid fat prevents a gluten network from forming. They prevent the gluten proteins to form that coherent network. Apart from preventing a gluten network, pockets of fat can also help with the crumbliness in another way. If there are little pieces of fat in a dough these will melt during baking. Because the fat melts away between these layers of dough, these layers won’t be attached to each other as strongly, and crumble apart more easily.

This is why making scones starts with rubbing in butter into the flour. This prevents the gluten network and creates these pockets of fats. Also, it makes it a lot easier to disperse the butter evenly throughout the scone and will create smaller lumps than if you would add it with the milk.

You should do this before you add any other moisture. This way, the butter can coat the flour particles and make sure the gluten cannot develop. Also, that way you can make those nice fat pockets which will melt in the oven and help that crumbliness. It’s a very similar process that you use when short crust pastry pie doughs. So no taking shortcuts here!

flour with rubbed in butter
Flour with rubbed in butter.

2. Do not knead/mix more than you need to

After you’ve kneaded in the butter, it’s time to add the rest of the liquid (e.g. milk, eggs). You shouldn’t mix is vigorously at this point. Just fold it through with a spatula or your hands. Using an electric mixer at this point will give you a higher risk of over mixing the dough, which is what you don’t want. So either don’t use the electric mixer or take care to really just mix shortly.

Again, this has to do with gluten formation. By kneading a dough you will give the gluten a chance to form a network. And as you know by now, that’s not what you want. Also, the mixture should be fairly wet, by not mixing it too much it will be easier to handle.

Scones, with clotted cream & jam.

Crumbliness trouble shooting

Even if you’ve done everything 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.

light fluffy crumbly scones
Very light and crumbly scones, they turned out great!

What makes scones light and fluffy?

The crumbliness caused by those fat pockets also contributes to its lightness and fluffiness. However, there’s more. A scone contains baking powder or baking soda (a leavening agent). These both aerate the scone by producing carbon dioxide gas when they’re baked.

In order for the baking soda and powder to work good enough, the final scone dough should be sufficiently flexible to expand properly. If the dough is very dry and stiff, it will not be able to expand well and not become so light. So even though you shouldn’t be adding too much moisture to your scone dough or it will become sticky and wet, you shouldn’t add too little either. Generally, you’re looking for a slightly sticky dough, one that’s just dry enough to roll out and cut into pieces, but can’t stand any further vigorous mixing or it will become too sticky.

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).

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!

scone dough ready to bake
One of many scone trials, the ones on the left have been shaped into a ball by hand, the ones on the right were just cut out. Both turned out fine. As may be able to see, some have a brushing of milk over the top and some do not, both turned out similarly as well.

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.

Definitely do…

  • 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.

And don’t…

  • 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.
scone trial results
One of many scone trials. In this trial, the scone dough was rolled out too thin, so they did not puff up as much. Apart from that we tested: Mixing everything in in one go; overall scone looked good, top right, but it tasted a little dry and bland. Substituting water for milk; turned out just fine, especially if you will be eating your scone will flavourful toppings. Adding two times the amount of butter, bottom two, these were more cookies than scones!

The scone recipe

It’s time to put all of it together and get to making some scones. As we mentioned, do take care to follow the steps here, even if you’re tempted not to, especially that kneading in of the butter. There are a lot of recipes for making scones on the internet. This is my personal favorite. It’s not that sweet (which I prefer) and give a nice crumbly but consistent scone.
You will see that in the article I’ve been talking about adding moisture to the scone dough, not necessarily milk. Milk enriches the scones and helps it to brown a little better (Maillard reaction), but you could use water if you’d prefer.

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light fluffy crumbly scones

Scone Dough – Do’s and Don’ts

  • Author: Science Chef
  • Prep Time: 15 mins
  • Cook Time: 20 mins
  • Total Time: 35 mins
  • Yield: 4-8 scones
  • Category: baked good
  • Cuisine: British

Ingredients

  • 250g flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 50g cold butter
  • 30g sugar
  • 135ml milk (see Note 1)

Instructions

  1. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt.
  2. 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.
  3. Mix in the sugar.
  4. 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.
  5. Flatten the dough into a rectangle/circle, whatever you prefer. Keep it quite thick (about 2 cm) for a nice fluffly scone). Cut out 4-8 scones.
  6. Coat the top of the scones with some milk or egg wash for an even prettier top (although I always skip this!).
  7. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C for approximately 20 minutes. The scones should be a light brown when they’re finished.

Tip

  1. If you do want to use an electric (stand) mixer, that will work, do the following: Mix the butter and flour mixture until it’s a sandy consistency, mixers tend to be quite good in this and patient enough. Add the moisture and mix it for only a few seconds (! really short!), until it just comes together. Then take it out and finish it off. Super simple.

Note 1

  1. If you’re using American flour, use 170ml, it tends to need a lot more moisture for the same consistency!
  2. Also, if you don’t have milk in the house, feel free to use water. We tested it out and the scones taste just fine, maybe even a little better even than milk.

15 Comments

  1. Alex

    This is not the clearest of recipes to follow. You haven’t stated what type of flour, neither have you stated what type of butter (salted or unsalted?). In your ingredients list you have stated to use milk but in your top tips you have talked about addding water?

    • Scienchef

      Hi Alex,
      Thanks for coming by! I’d be happy to clarify. The flour that you’ll need to use is just plain white flour. Using whole grain will make it very dense and if you decide on using self raising flour, cut down on the baking powder. Butter is always unsalted in pastry here, unless we mention otherwise. It gives you a lot more control over the saltiness of the final product. With regards to milk & water. I’ve clarified that in the post now, you can use either one, depending on your preference, milk will contribute a bit to taste as well as colour. Overall, feel free to play around with the recipe and make it work for you!
      Hope that helps.

  2. Vicki Patterson

    Hello and thanks for this brilliant advice. I have a question about the scone bottom. I made a batch today that were pretty great (if I do say so) – every element just worked out really well – except I feel as though the bottom of the scones were a bit cakier than the very slightly firm/crunchy (not really crunchy – but I’m not sure how to describe it) that I was looking for. Would this have to do with oven temp or greasing vs baking paper? Any advice would be much appreciated.

    • Scienchef

      Hi Vicki,
      Glad to hear the post was useful for you!
      With regards to the ‘cakeiness’ of the bottom, good question. Personally, I always use baking paper and don’t grease, but a little oil on the bottom would most likely make it a bit more crispy if that’s what you’re looking for. The oil will help the transfer the heat more efficiently.
      If it’s only the bottom you’re not happy about, I wouldn’t change the oven temperature or you might risk drying out the top, which is shame. What could maybe help you there is the position of your rack of scones in the oven (that is, if you’re using bottom+top heating or a gas oven, for a convection oven is shouldn’t really matter). Placing it closer to the bottom, so closer to the heat source, should help it crisp up a little.
      Last but not least, I’ve read that the type of baking tray you use can impact the colour of cookies, so I’m guessing it can do the same for scones, although I haven’t tested it out. A darker sheet tends to bake the bottom faster, making it a little darker but also more brown.

      Hope that helps and again, thanks for coming by!

  3. Janet Sigman

    This is great advice. Do you have any advice on how to prepare ahead of time. (Freezing the dough rounds vs Freezing and reheating the cooked scone). Do you have any recommendations? Thanks

    • Scienchef

      Hi Janet,

      So happy to hear it helped you! I must say I haven’t tried preparing scones ahead of time. That said, my recommendation would be to freeze the dough, thaw it overnight and bake them in the oven the next day. Your main challenge would be to freeze them well. Place them on a tray, covered in a plastic bag. After a few hours or so, you can take them from the tray and place them in the bag only. When you defrost them, take them on a tray again, well separated, so they don’t stick together again. Make sure to really completely defrost them before baking or you’ll risk a raw center. They can’t be store indefinitely due to freezer burn, they’ll dry out over time.
      You could also bake them and then re-heat them. However, you might risk drying them out too much then.

      Good luck!

    • Scienchef

      Hi Lara,

      Thanks for hopping by and this interesting question! Leaving you scone dough on the counter for half an hour shouldn’t matter that much. The following things might happen, but shouldn’t impact your final scones that much.
      – Butter will become softer, if it’s really hot outside it will melt, making the dough stickier and harder to handle.
      – Your dough will start drying out. This isn’t much of an issue if it’s just a little, but don’t leave it out for hours or it will negatively impact the dough.
      – Since you’re not using yeast, but leavening agents it won’t rise or proof.
      – The flour will hydrate some more, however, since you’re not using whole wheat flour that won’t really impact it that much.

  4. Mary

    I’ve just made my first batch of scones following the recipe on the back of the flour packet. Whole meal flour, salted butter softened, mix all together but only for a short time. I couldn’t roll out as so wet so added more flour and more flour! Disaster. I found your site once they were in the oven and realised why they turned out flat and dry and tasteless. I’m determined to learn how to make scones so shall try again following your advice. Thank you for this page, really helpful

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