Shortbread has its roots in medieval “biscuit bread”, which is rusk made from the leftover dough of bread. The leftover dough would be dried out in the oven until it becomes hard and dry. Gradually, use of yeast in this medieval biscuit bread was replaced with butter, and this is how shortbread was invented.
Both butter and oats were staples of the poorer classes during medieval and Elizabethan times. Hence, finely ground oats were used in early recipes. It eventually managed to draw the attention and liking of the upper classes, including Mary, Queen of Scots herself. The shortbread recipe we know of today is believed to be a refined version experimented by the French chefs of Mary, Queen of Scots’. Petticoat tails, a traditional shortbread of triangular shapes, is said to be the queen’s favourite.
The origin of the name, “petticoat tails” is much debated. Dorothy Hartley, an English social historian, illustrator, and author, says in her book Food in England that in the twelfth century, “They were called ‘petty cotes tallis’; that is, little cases, or ‘cotes’ (we have the word in sheep-cotes – small enclosures), made of pastry and cut into triangular pieces. ‘Tallis’ or ‘tallys’ were cuts made on sticks to count or measure by, so the word ‘tally’ came to mean any sort of cut-out pattern”.
Another theory argued that in the sixteenth century, Queen Mary’s French chefs divided an originally large round shaped pastry into triangles as individual servings. These shortbreads in triangular shapes were named as “petit gautelles” in French, which means “little cakes”. The name “petticoat tails” is actually a corruption of “petit gautelles”.
A suggestion of such a corruption is also discussed in the annals of the 19th Century Cleikum Club; a dining club founded by Sir Walter Scott, held at the Cleikum Inn in Peebles, Scotland. It states that “…in Scottish culinary terms there are many corruptions, though we rather think the name petticoat tails has its origins in the shape of the cakes, which is exactly that of the bell-hoop petticoats of our ancient court ladies”.
As to the invention of the name “shortbread”, it is believed to be referring to the biscuit’s texture as well as its high content of shortening (edible fat used in baking, typically butter). According to Oxford English Dictionary, “short” refers to a kind of pastry, containing “high proportion of fat or flour and therefore crumbly”. In The Oxford Companion to Food, by Alan Davidson, “…the concept exists, in the terms shortbread, shortcake, and short pastry, all of which require a high proportion of fat blended into flour giving a friable result”.
The buttery taste of the shortbread is such an important quality in this biscuit, that in 1921, the British government legislated that for a product to be called “shortbread”, it must have at least 51% of butter.
Shortbread has a buttery and crumbly texture, and is usually enjoyed with tea. Some shortbreads are flavoured by using coffee, chocolate or even spices.
The classic shortbread has only three ingredients; flour, butter and sugar. A typical shortbread recipe has the classic proportions of one part sugar to two of butter and three of flour. To enhance the melt-in-the-mouth texture of the shortbread, some recipes call for the use of cornstarch or rice flour.