Flavor aside, it's the texture that makes a shortbread memorable. Creating a shortbread that's crunchy, flaky and rich starts with quality ingredients, but it's how these ingredients are put together that will make or break the cookie. When shortbread dough falls apart before baking, disappointing cookies that crumble will be the result. Making sure the butter is the right temperature before mixing it into the dry ingredients will correct this problem.
The ingredients for shortbread are simple: butter, sugar, salt and flour. How can you go wrong? The key to making shortbread that holds together and also has a wonderful, flaky texture is the temperature of the butter. It must be cool or cold, not softened or melted. As does pastry crust, shortbread benefits greatly from butter that is chilled, grated or cut into small pieces, and quickly mixed into the dry ingredients. Overmixing will leave the dough tough, and the baked product will lack flakiness. For best results, use European butter such as Kerrygold Irish or Organic Valley European-style, found in specialty stores or the supermarket dairy section; these have a slightly higher percentage of fat than other butters.
Forming the Cookies
Whether you choose to roll out the dough and cut out the shortbread for cookies or make them into bars, it's important to avoid over handling the dough. For cut-out cookies, pat the dough lightly down instead of rolling it flat. Similarly for bars, lightly pat the dough into the prepared pan before putting it in the oven. The dough should have the consistency of pie crust. One last trick is to put the cookies or the unbaked bars back in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes before baking. This will help create the distinctive crunchy texture that's desirable in shortbread.