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Perfect Shortbread:
the Art and Science of Baking
By Ann Zuccardy
(Vermont Shortbread Company)

Contrary to popular belief, I did not grow up in a Scottish family with an old
family recipe for shortbread. Initially, shortbread appeared easy to me. How
difficult could it be to throw together butter, sugar, and flour to create a tasty
cookie?

It isn't difficult. But, there is some science involved and I'm here to tell you
about the science and history of shortbread. Imagine that, a literature and
creative writing nerd teaching science...I'm spewing coffee out my nose at the
silliness of it all as I write. This article concentrates on the science of shortbread
in unscientific language. My hope is that the insights gleaned from hours of
trial and error will be of use to all novice bakers.

Initially I was drawn to baking because it's an exact science. You follow the
recipe to the T and you get a perfect baked good, right? In the beginning, I
could bake a perfect baguette if I followed the directions, but heaven help me if
I had to be creative with spices and seasonings for a meal. When I first started
cooking, I never understood how people tasted their work and just intuitively
knew what it needed. Thus, I was drawn to baking. For this cooking novice, it
felt more exact and scientific than the creative art of throwing together a meal
from my imagination.

Originally Vermont Shortbread Company started out as a seasonal business
out of my own kitchen. Back in the mid-90s, I didn't even own a Kitchen-Aid
mixer. I mixed the dough by hand. And anyone who knows shortbread, can
attest to the fact that the dough is very heavy with no liquid ingredients. Back
in those days I had forearms the size of tree trunks from all that hand mixing.
The good thing was I learned exactly what consistency the dough had to be to
make the best shortbread. I learned exactly how much handling the dough
could take before it became overworked and made a tough shortbread round. I
learned not only by looking, but by feeling and of course, tasting.

As the business grew and people realized that shortbread was a perfect year
round gift for any occasion the call to bake during the warmer months became
apparent. However, summer shortbread did not always look as nice as winter
shortbread. Most people didn't notice, but having baked thousands of rounds
by hand, I was not satisfied with my summer shortbread. It took me a couple
years to realize there were four factors at work here contributing to the texture,
color, and taste of the final shortbread product: humidity, oven hot spots,
butter temperature, and mixing time.

Humidity:

I don't know the chemistry behind this, but I can tell you that it's much harder
to create a perfect shortbread round when the weather is humid. Perhaps the
moisture makes the flour less fluffy...I don't know. I can only tell you that
humid-weather shortbread is not as pretty, golden, and tasty as cold weather
shortbread. For this reason, when I built my commercial bakery, I installed
dehumidifiers in the bakery. So now, no matter what the season, we produce a
perfect shortbread every time.

Oven hot spots:

When I began baking shortbread out of my home kitchen in the 90s, I had only
a small household Whirlpool electric oven. I could only bake three 8" rounds at
a time and the production was slooooooow. I hate cooking with electric and
believe that the best cooks use gas, however, I have to hand it to that little oven
that served me well for nearly a decade. All ovens have spots that are hotter
than others. I intimately learned where all my oven's hot spots were and with
each batch of shortbread shifted the position of each pan halfway through the
baking time to ensure even browning of my product every time. The Whirlpool
electric model was retired to appliance heaven in 2005. Now with my
commercial oven (a big Imperial gas model), I can bake up to forty 8" rounds at
a time in an environment with better convection (air flow around the items).
Still, I shift the pans around in the middle of the baking period as I learn where
this new oven's hot spots are.

Butter temperature:

When I began baking shortbread, I liked to remove the butter from the fridge a
couple hours before I planned to use it so that it would be soft. Remember, I
was mixing by hand and wanted to make it as easy as possible. When I began
baking summer shortbread, however, the butter became runny and began
separating. This did not make for a good texture in the final product. I don't
know how to explain this scientifically; I can only tell you how it felt to me. The
final product was dense and too doughy. What I really wanted was a crisp
golden flakiness on the outside with a little bit of chewiness on the inside. I
learned that if I was going to bake in the summer I had to use butter almost
directly from the fridge. If the butter got too soft, I had to toss it in the garbage
and start over. That's when I bought my first mixer with a dough hook to make
the job of mixing hard butter easier. Butter directly from the fridge, not too
hard, not too soft is the only way to make perfect shortbread. Again, I just had
to learn by feeling my way how long to let the butter sit on the counter before it
was perfect. Longer in the winter, shorter in the summer.

Mixing time:

Any dough mixed too long or not enough affects the final product. With
shortbread, you first cream the sugar and butter together. That's the easy part.
The tricky part is knowing how to incorporate the flour. I like to do it a pound
at a time (remember I am now baking in pounds of flour, sugar, and butter
rather than cups). Once the dough is completely incorporated and forms a ball
with no bits of flour on the side of the mixing bowl, I know it's ready for
baking. Now, when I got Trixie (my commercial mixer), I had to relearn the
timing all over. Trixie can mix bricks. My hands and my old Kitchen-Aid could
not. Therefore mixing time is much shorter now. Shortbread dough (as with
any dough) becomes tough the more you mix it. The trick, which I learned by
trial and error, is to find the exact timing for your dough. I am not an expert on
all dough, but I've perfected shortbread dough.

You know, the funny thing about all of this learning how to make the perfect
shortbread is that I never had any real training. Now that I've hired a
professional baker, she's taught me a few things about making the process
more efficient and making the final product more tasty and beautiful. When I
think about it, that's pretty much how I learn: just doing it over and over.

When science and our imaginations work together, we create food art. With the
holidays quickly approaching, this scientist and dreamer must retreat to the
bakery to create new masterpieces. I hope that this essay provides you with
creative insights for your own dough (shortbread or otherwise) and a little
peek inside the art and science of perfect dough from a little Vermont company
that handcrafts every item with love, imagination, and tender care (with a little
science thrown in).

About the author: Ann Zuccardy, creative entrepreneur, food lover and owner of the
Vermont Shortbread Company, invites you to sample a taste of her buttery-rich,
authentic Vermont Shortbread. Place your online order for shortbread boxed fresh from
the oven and shipped right to your doorstep at
Vermont Shortbread Company
The Heart of New England
Celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine ~ New Hampshire ~ Vermont
Shortbread - Photo Courtesy Vermont Shortbread Company
©The Heart of New England online magazine
...celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine, New Hampshire & Vermont!
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