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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
- 250g flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- ⅛ tsp salt
- 50g cold butter
- 30g sugar
- 135ml milk (see Note 1)
- Mix the flour, 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.
- Mix in the sugar.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 minutes. The scones should be a light brown when they're finished.
- 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.
- If you're using American flour, use 170ml, it tends to need a lot more moisture for the same consistency!
- 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.