(Non) Recipe: How to make shortbread without a recipe

Yours in 20 minutes - spelt and whole wheat shortbread with cumin, lemon zest, and himalayan sea salt

I have the bad habit of alienating non-cooks who compliment my food by exclaiming things like "it's so easy to make! You just make a choux paste, and you'll need some piping bags, but after that blah blah..." at which point they either feel put to shame or their eyes have turned into glacé cherries in disinterest. Social grace, where art thou?

But shortbread! It really is very easy. I mean, really. I swear. If a friend says he's dropping by in 30 minutes, you can blithely say "ok, I'll make some cookies!" and mean it because it's 1) super likely you have all the ingredients and 2) easy to scale up or down (if you just wanted 4 cookies you could do that!) and 3) they only take 20 minutes - total. Here, I've broken it down into a simple ratio that you can memorize and apply to whatever you have on hand:


  • 1 part sugar/sweetener
  • 2 parts butter - room temperature
  • 4 parts flour
  • salt to taste (more if butter is unsalted)
  • flavorings/spices

By flour, I mean any type of flour! Whole wheat, spelt, pastry - a blend of any of these - all will taste great. There are two exceptions: almond flour, which is a great GF alternative but will only need half as much butter, and bread flour, which will make a tough cookie and should be avoided. 

By sugar, I mean any sweetener - white sugar, brown sugar, sucanat, powdered sugar (which make for extra delicate cookies), or even honey will work. 

By butter, I mean any fat that's solid at room temperature: salted butter (use less salt), unsalted, lard, duck fat, or coconut oil.

By flavorings, I mean any assortment of the following (which is by no means an exhaustive list): vanilla, almond, or lemon extract, citrus zest, lavender, cinnamon, nutmeg, rosemary, sage, black pepper, chopped nuts - either folded in to the dough with the flour or sprinkled on top of the cookies before baking.


Preheat your oven to 350.

In a big bowl, cream butter, sugar, and any wet add-ins. Really cream them. Cream them like you're a sixth grader who wants their 4th-grade lunch. The more you whip them, the lighter your cookies will be.

In a smaller bowl, combine flour, salt, and any dry add-ins. Slowly incorporate into wet ingredients, stirring only enough to combine. Don't overwork the dough! If you have a flour sifter, you can use it here - it will make your cookie extra tender.

With a gentle touch, gather the dough in the bowl until it's all one mass and set on a floured surface. Roll out to a cylinder as fat as you want your cookies wide.

If the dough's too soft to handle, wrap the cylinder and stick it in the freezer for a few minutes to firm up.

Slice the dough into thin (1/2 in) slices and arrange on a cookie sheet. Sprinkle with any additional toppings and bake 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown.