Shortbread or shortie is a traditional Scottish biscuit usually made from one part white sugar, two parts butter, and three to four parts plain wheat flour. Unlike many other biscuits and baked goods, shortbread does not contain any leavening, such as baking powder or baking soda. Shortbread is widely associated with Christmas and Hogmanay festivities in Scotland, and some Scottish brands are exported around the world.

A shortbread round
Place of originScotland
Region or stateNorthern Europe
Main ingredientsFlour, butter, white sugar


Shortbread originated in Scotland. Although it was prepared during much of the 12th century, and probably benefited from cultural exchange with French pastry chefs during the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland,[1] the refinement of shortbread is popularly credited to Mary, Queen of Scots in the 16th century.[2] This type of shortbread was baked, cut into triangular wedges, and flavoured with caraway seeds.

The triangular wedges became known as "petticoat tails" in Scots and this form of shortbread has become particularly associated with Mary, Queen of Scots.[3] It has been suggested that a French term for the wedges of shortbread was petits gâteaux or petites gatelles - little cakes, and this became "petticoat tails". It is now thought the Scots term derives from the decorated round edge of the segments which resemble petticoats.[4]

Evidence for Mary's baking and shortbread is sparse.[5]

The first printed recipe, in 1736, was from a Scotswoman named Mrs McLintock.[6]

Shortbread was expensive and reserved as a luxury for special occasions such as Christmas, Hogmanay (Scottish New Year's Eve), and weddings. In Scotland, it was traditional to break a decorated shortbread cake (infar-cake or dreaming bread) over the head of a new bride on the entrance of her new house.[7][8][9][10][11][12] Shortbread was also given as a gift.[1]


Shortbread is so named because of its crumbly texture (from an old meaning of the word "short", as opposed to "long", or stretchy).[13][10][14] The cause of this texture is its high fat content, provided by the butter. The short or crumbly texture is a result of the fat inhibiting the formation of long protein (gluten) strands. The related word "shortening" refers to any fat that may be added to produce a "short" (crumbly) texture.[15]

In British English, shortbread and shortcake were synonyms for several centuries, starting in the 1400s; both referred to the crisp, crumbly cookie-type baked good, rather than a softer cake.[16] The "short-cake" mentioned in Shakespeare's play The Merry Wives of Windsor, first published in 1602, was a reference to the cookie-style of shortbread.[16]

In American English, shortbread is different from shortcake.[16] Shortcake usually has a chemical leavening agent such as baking powder, which gives it a different, softer texture, and it was normally split and filled with fruit.[16] The most popular example of this difference is strawberry shortcake.[16][17]


Other ingredients are often substituted for part of the flour to alter the texture. Rice flour or semolina makes it grittier, and cornflour makes it more tender.[1] Bere or oat flour may be added for flavour.[1]

Modern recipes also often deviate from the original by splitting the sugar into equal parts granulated and icing sugar and many add a portion of salt.

Spices and ingredients such as almonds may be added.[1]


Shortbread fingers

Shortbread is commonly formed into one of three shapes:

  • one large circle, which is divided into segments as soon as it is taken out of the oven (petticoat tails, which may have been named from the French petits cotés, a pointed biscuit eaten with wine, or petites gastelles, the old French term for little cakes. This term may also reference the shape of a woman's petticoat[1]);
  • individual round biscuits (shortbread rounds); or
  • a thick (¾" or 2 cm) oblong slab cut into fingers.

Shortbread may also be made in farls.

In one of the oldest shapes, bakers pinched the edges of a shortbread round to suggest the rays of the sun.[1]

The stiff dough retains its shape well during cooking. The biscuits are often patterned before cooking, usually with the tines of a fork or with a springerle-type mold. Shortbread is sometimes shaped into hearts and other shapes for special occasions.

Cultural associations

In ancient Scottish folklore, sun-shaped cakes, such as shortbread, had magic powers over the Sun during the Scottish New Year's Eve.[1]

Shortbread is generally associated with and originated in Scotland, but due to its popularity it is also made in the rest of the United Kingdom, and similar biscuits are also made in Denmark, Ireland and Sweden. The Scottish version is the best-known, and is widely exported.

Scottish chef John Quigley, of Glasgow's Red Onion, describes shortbread as "the jewel in the crown" of Scottish baking.[18]

An early variety of shortbread, using ginger, was reportedly eaten during sittings of the Parliament of Scotland, and therefore the variety was sometimes called "Parliament cake" or "Parlies" into the 19th century.[19][20] The biscuits were sold in Mrs Flockhart's tavern and shop in Bristo Street in Edinburgh's Potterrow. Known as Luckie Fykie, the landlady was thought to be the inspiration for Mrs Flockhart in Walter Scott's Waverley.[21][22]

In the UK tax code, shortbread is taxed as a flour confection (baked good) rather than as a common biscuit.[1]

See also

  • Butter cookie
  • List of shortbread biscuits and cookies
  • Millionaire's shortbread, shortbread topped with caramel and chocolate
  • Nankhatai
  • Shortcake, a soft cake with a similar name
  • Sugar cookie


  1. Brown, Catherine (2015-04-01). "Shortbread". The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-931362-4.
  2. "History of Shortbread". English Tea Store. Retrieved 10 February 2015.
  3. Timothy G. Roufs & Kathleen Smyth Roufs, Sweet Treats around the World: An Encyclopedia of Food and Culture (Santa Barbara, 2014), p. 290.
  4. 'Petticoat', Dictionaries of the Scots Language
  5. Emma Kay, A History of British Baking: From Blood Bread to Bake-Off (Pen & Sword, 2020) p. 32.
  6. Hyslop, Leah. "Potted histories: shortbread". The Telegraph. No. 6 October 2013. Retrieved 18 February 2014.
  7. Historic UK - heritage of Britain accommodation guide. "Scottish Shortbread". Retrieved 2010-11-24.
  8. "History of Shortbread & Shortbread Recipes". Retrieved 2010-11-24.
  9. "Dictionary of the Scots Language:: SND :: infare".
  10. "Dictionary of the Scots Language:: DOST :: schort adj".
  11. "Dictionary of the Scots Language:: SND :: dreamingbread".
  12. McNeill, F. Marian (1929). The Scots Kitchen (2006 ed.). Blackie & Son Ltd. pp. 193–4. ISBN 978-1-84183-070-4.
  13. "Dictionary of the Scots Language:: DOST :: schort breid".
  14. "Of edible substances: Friable, easily crumbled." Oxford English Dictionary.
  15. "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2007-01-25.
  16. Mariani, John F. (2014-02-04). Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 1034. ISBN 978-1-62040-161-3.
  17. Clarkson, Janet (2015-04-01). "Shortcake". The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Oxford University Press. p. 1093. ISBN 978-0-19-931362-4.
  18. "Chef John Quigley discusses and bakes Scottish Shortbread". 2006-10-24. Retrieved 2009-05-29.
  19. Jamieson, John (1841). An etymological dictionary of the Scottish language (2nd ed.). Edinburgh: Andrew Shortrede. p. 191. Retrieved 10 May 2018.
  20. The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson. Oxford University Press, 2014
  21. Chambers, Robert (October 27, 1825). "Traditions of Edinburgh". W. & C. Tait via Google Books.
  22. "Traditional Scottish Recipes - "Parlies"". Retrieved 2018-04-16.
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