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Do you like to experiment with scones? Try to take shortcuts or make improvements whenever you can? If so, this article is for you. We’re going to tell you which steps are crucial (don’t skip the rubbing in of the butter) and which can be flexed! So you can make your own ‘ideal’ scone!
Before we dig in though, let’s have a look at what scones truly are.
- What are scones?
- Why are scones light and crumbly?
- How to create a crumbly scone?
- Add fillings to a scone – An extra dimension
- Wait – Should I cut the scone dough?
- Scone troubleshooting
- Do's and don'ts of making scones
What are scones?
The ‘traditional’ scone comes from the United Kingdom. Served with clotted cream and jam, as part of a British afternoon or ‘cream’ tea. These scones are round, almost cylinder like shaped, often with a curved on the outside. They’re slightly sweet, but not overly so – hence the jam. Most importantly, scones are flaky. They break apart easily into tender, fluffy pieces of bread.
From there, scones have traveled the world. They don’t have to be round anymore and come in various shapes, sizes and even flavors. Compare a ‘typical’ British scones to an American one and you’ll likely notice a difference in size, sweetness and absence (or presence) of fillings.
But, all scones have that characteristic flaky texture. It unites scones.
Ever compared a scone to an American biscuit? You might have noticed that they’re very similar. Both are crumbly, light and moist and use very similar preparation techniques. But, biscuits tend to be savoury, even salty, whereas most scones are more neutral, or slightly sweet.
Why are scones light and crumbly?
Ensuring a scone is flaky, or crumbly, is crucial. So what makes a scone this way?
Absence of a gluten network
To understand, let’s first have a look at the opposite of flakiness. An example of a non-flaky bread would be a baguette, or a loaf of sourdough. You can tear a chunk from a baguette, but it won’t break or fall apart easily. You’ll have to pull, stretch and tear the bread.
The reason these breads behave this way is because of the formation of a gluten network. These breads are kneaded extensively, or left to rest for long periods of time. This causes the proteins in bread, the gluten, to form a network. This network makes a dough flexible and stretchy. It helps make the final bread strong as well.
When making scones on the other hand, you do NOT want this gluten network to form. The absence of a gluten network helps keep a scone flaky.
Do not create a gluten network when making scones.
Pockets of fat
Another important factor contributing to the flakiness is the presence of pockets of fat. Fat prevents proteins, but also starches in the flour from coming together and forming a structure. Instead, fat creates ‘ruptures’ in this structure. It’s easiest to break a scone at a spot with a layer of fat.
A little confused? A very similar principle occurs in croissants as well as puff pastry. The multitude of layers of dough within are formed due to the presence of thin layers of butter in between the dough! Of course, scones do not have as many extensive layers, but the underlying concept is the same!
Air bubbles create lightness
A final crucial ingredient in scones is some sort of leavening agent such as baking powder or baking soda. In the oven, these leavening agents will react and form carbon dioxide, a gas. This puffs up your scone – it’s why it increases in height in the oven!
To create a nice, light texture, it’s also important to add the right amount of liquid. Too much, and the dough will be sticky and not hold its shape. Too little, and the dough will be stiff and dry. It’s best to err slightly on the sticky side, as opposed to the dry side.
Not sure whether to use baking soda or baking powder? You can use baking soda if you’ve added an acidic ingredient to the dough (e.g. buttermilk, vinegar, lemon juice). Use baking powder if you have not added anything acidic. Learn more here.
How to create a crumbly scone?
If you’re making scones with wheat flour, you can’t prevent the presence of gluten proteins in your scone. Wheat naturally contains gluten. However, you can prevent them from forming a network! Combine that with some strategic incorporation of fats, and you’re good to go.
The next two steps are crucial when making scones. Don’t skip or neglect them. They truly add value!
1. Rub in the fat
Step one of most scones recipes tends to be to: rub in the butter (or other type of solid fat) into the flour. This way you can create those pockets of fat, spread out throughout the dough. These pockets of fat cover the flour, limiting further interaction between those flour particles. The fat serves as a barrier.
Which fat is best? – Solid over liquid
Remember that the fat serves two purposes: serve as a barrier and create crumbliness. To achieve the latter, it’s important that the fat melts in the oven. By melting, the fat leaves behind an empty pocket. This will become an easy location to tear apart a scone.
As such, scone recipes will use hard fats, fats that are solid at room temperature. Most commonly you’ll find recipes using butter, margarine, lard, or shortening. They can all make a good scone, with slight differences in texture.
You should not use a liquid oil. The liquid oil won’t be able to make those larger pockets of fat. It will spread out too much!
How to rub in the fat? – A machine works great!
You can’t really overmix a fat + flour mixture. As we’ll learn in the next step, overmixing only becomes a problem once water joins the party. As such, you can rub in the fat by hand, but you might just as well use a food processor, or a stand mixer for instance. The machines sure speed up the process, especially for larger quantities!
2. Knead/mix as little as possible
For a gluten network to form, you need water, time and kneading. Water ensures the protein molecules can move freely, to find each other and interact. Without enough water, you can’t form a network.
The other major factor for creating a gluten network is kneading. When kneading a dough, you’re actively helping the gluten network to form. It’s why any scone recipe will caution you against extensive kneading or mixing once you’ve added the water.
How to knead a scone dough?
Once the water is in, be careful using any electric mixers. It’s very easy for them to mix too much. You can use them. Just use them at a (very) low speed and for as short as possible, until the liquid has just been incorporated. As soon as the dough starts to come together, stop the mixer and continue by hand.
Add fillings to a scone – An extra dimension
As long as you keep to the basic guidelines above, you actually have quite a lot of creative freedoms! You can jazz up a basic scone and include fillings.
Keep in mind though that some fillings help improve the flakiness of a scone, whereas other can do the exact opposite! Generally speaking, fat-based fillings will be easy to incorporate without ruining the texture. Water based, very liquid fillings on the other hand, should be handled with care.
Let’s have a look at a few examples!
You almost can’t go wrong when adding some grated cheese to your scone. 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.
Fruit contains a lot of moisture. So you should be careful when adding it. It is best to add the fruit towards the end, when you’re bringing the dough together. Try not to break the fruit. The more you knead and break it, the more moisture will be released and the more the scone will be affected.
If you want to add berries, use frozen ones. That way, they won’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.
Herbs & spices – Why not?!
One of the easiest ingredients to add to a scone that almost never impacts its overall texture? Adding dried herbs and ground up spices. You’ll only need small quantities to add flavor. As such, the overall texture is barely affected!
Add some cinnamon to fruit scones. What about some basil or oregano to add a more savory touch?
Wait – Should I cut the scone dough?
After all that hard work, your scone is just about ready to get into the oven. You’ve got a nice dough, ready to be baked. Just one more step: shaping the scone. How and why should you shape it?
There are roughly two ways to shape a scone.
- Roll out the dough into a thick sheet and cut it into pieces.
- Shape them into individual balls and flatten them
The first one is the ‘traditional’ method and it does show a lot of advantages. During baking, scones will rise up. A neatly cut side of a scone helps the scone to lift and reach higher heights. The edges at which the scone have been cut allow for easier expansion. It’s why the lift can be more vertical.
However, when shaping a scone into a ball, the lift can happen anywhere on the scone. It can ‘crack’ or grow on the side or top when expanding. A bit like bread does.
Once cut, all that’s left to be done is baking! This is where you can sit back and relax, and start to think of your next experiment!
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?
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.
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.
This can happen if you add too much butter. If you double the amount of butter in our recipe, they’ll turn out more like cookies (we tested it for you).
So, try to reduce the amount of butter. Keep in mind that after rubbing in the fat into the flour, it should give a crumbly texture.
To bring the scone together it’s important to use an ingredient that contains plenty water. You can just use water, that works well. However, you can also use milk, buttermilk, oat milk, and most plant based milks. Using milk instead of water can give a slightly browner scone and a little (but not much) extra flavor.
Two possible solutions for you:
1. Don’t roll out the dough too thinly. It’s best to maintain a thickness of at least 2,5 cm (about 1 inch). This ensures you have enough layers and flaky pockets. (It’s what happened to the scones on the image below.)
2. Add some extra baking powder/soda, they might not have raised 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).
Do’s and don’ts of making scones
By now, it’s hopefully clear that you do have a lot of creative freedoms when making scones. You can change out fats, tweak the flavor to your liking, change the shape. But, there are a few non-negotiables.
As such, we recommend to:
- Mix in the fat before adding the rest. This ensures an even distribution of the fat and the creation of those buttery pockets.
- Make a sticky, wettish dough, it will give a better rise.
- Add enough baking powder to puff it up well.
- Add something sour if you’re using baking soda.
- Knead a scone dough more than is needed for it to come together.
- Add all ingredients in one go.
- Add too much butter (unless you’d like a cookie).