Lofty, light, well-balanced, perfectly textured, and utterly delicious scones. This recipe produces such fantastic results that I rarely stray from the basic formula—with one exception and that involves the egg.
I planned to do a short post on how to make the best scones in the universe and then several days into research and testing realized that like most great things, superlative scones are not so simple after all.
This is not to say that they are difficult to make; just that there is a world of contradictory information available on the best way to produce them, plus dozens of basic formulas that run the gamut from doughs with no butter or eggs at all to doughs with large quantities of both. What is the bewildered cook to do?
Well, this bewildered cook pulled several dozen reputable baking books off the shelves and compared formulas and processes. I recalibrated over a dozen formulas based on a constant of two cups of flour. When the comparisons were complete, the testing began.
I tested the low end of the spectrum, then the high end, then went straight for the middle, which interestingly was not in any of the books. The middle formula proved to be my idea of the best scone ever: Golden color, crisp on the outside, and moist, tender, and flakey on the inside. Not a cake, not a muffin, and richer than most biscuits, a scone is an entity in its own right, and it has a long tradition.
Before I go further though, here are some of the must-have cookbooks that added immeasurably to my understanding of this quintessential quick bread. Highly recommend!
- Baking for all Occasions by Flo Braker
- Flour by Joanne Chang
- Grand Central Bakery by Piper Davis & Ellen Jackson
- Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from the La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton
- Once Upon a Tart by Frank Mentesana & Jerome Audureau
- The Craft of Baking by Karen Demasco
A scone (pronounced either skohn or skon, to rhyme with either cone or gone) was originally a Scottish quick bread that got its name from the Stone (or Scone) of Destiny, the place where Scottish kings were once crowned. It was made with oats, shaped into triangles, and fried on a griddle. Today, scones are usually made with flour and baked. And they now come in a wide variety of shapes.
While the word ‘scone’ goes back to the 15th century, the baking powder or baking soda leavened version that we know today, as with the American baking powder biscuit, dates only to the mid-19th century.
As my testing confirmed, although the formula is important, the MOST important aspect of making the best scone possible is the technique. No formula can make up for poor technique. And by poor technique, I mean use of less than VERY COLD butter and liquid, warming of these very cold ingredients in the creation or shaping of the dough, or over handling the dough while creating or shaping it. In addition, the way in which the butter is incorporated into the flour is CRITICAL to the flakiness and tenderness of the scone.
None of this is difficult, and you will soon be making the best scones you have ever tasted. Everything you need to know is covered in the next section. Be sure to read carefully before jumping ahead to the basic recipe.
Tips & Tricks for the Best Scones Ever
Layering the Butter | Mixing the Dough
- Just as with pastry, everything depends on HOW you mix the dough. For the flakiest scones, chunks of chilled butter are rolled with flour to create large, thin sheets. Butter should not be reduced to the texture of cornmeal or breadcrumbs as specified in many recipes. In addition, gently incorporating 1-2 letter folds (as for flakey pastry or croissant dough) into the process helps to build flakey layers in the baked scone.
- There are two methods for ensuring the butter is layered, rather than incorporated into the dough.
- Method 1: Cut the butter into 1½ teaspoon size chunks (16 chunks per 1 stick butter). Dump the mixed dry ingredients out onto a clean surface and scatter the very cold butter on top. With your hands, lightly coat the butter chunks with flour by tossing the two together a few times. Then, using a heavy rolling pin, roll over the mass, flattening the butter into thin sheets. Gather the mixture up into a loose mass and repeat twice more. Scoop the mixture into a mixing bowl and continue with the recipe. After the dough is formed, flatten somewhat and gently make 2 letter folds (as for flakey pastry or croissant dough) in opposite directions. This will help to build flakey layers in the baked scone.
- Method 2: Cut the butter into 1½ teaspoon size chunks (16 chunks per 1 stick butter). Add the dry ingredients to the workbowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Scatter the very cold butter on top of the dry ingredients. Pulse the mixer to cut the butter into the flour, making sure not to cut the butter pieces too fine. Peas-size pieces are just about right. Add the wet ingredients and pulse the mixer a couple of times only to barely incorporate the liquid. Turn the dough out onto a clean countertop and finish by hand. After the dough is formed, flatten somewhat and gently make 2 letter folds (as for flakey pastry or croissant dough) in opposite directions. This will help to build flakey layers in the baked scone.
- Just as the lightest bread is produced from the wettest dough, scone dough should be quite soft and almost paste-like. Don’t be tempted to work more than 1-2 tablespoons of additional flour into the dough—just enough to facilitate handling.
- Don’t overmix the dough. In fact, handle it as lightly and minimally as possible. Never knead scone dough. You don’t want to activate the gluten in the flour any more than necessary.
- Best results are obtained with premium-quality flour. I use King Arthur unbleached, all-purpose flour. Other flours may produce good results as well, but you will have to experiment to determine which ones you can rely on consistently.
- For an accurate flour measurement, weigh rather than measure the flour.
- For unsurpassed flavor, use premium quality, fresh, unsalted butter. And it must be used straight from the frig—very cold in other words.
- Regardless which liquid you decide to use in your dough, it must be very cold.
- If your butter or liquid or prepared dough has been sitting out too long at room temperature, put in into the frig for at least 15 minutes before continuing with the recipe. Never let the dough warm to room temperature.
- You can add frozen fruit to your scones, but make sure it is still frozen when added to the dough.
- To keep diced fruit or berries from clumping together in the dough, dust them with a little flour before adding them.
- Patting the dough to the shape you want produces lighter, higher scones than rolling the dough with a rolling pin.
- The best shaping technique is one in which the dough is minimally handled and there are no scraps. I usually shape the dough into a disk at least 1-inch deep and cut the disk into wedges.
- With wet dough, you can also use a release-style ice cream scoop to shape balls of dough. Place the balls on an oiled cookie sheet and then flatten each one slightly with your hand. If you want to get really fancy, make an indent in the center of each little disk and fill it with your favorite jam before baking
- If you use a biscuit cutter, don’t twist it when you cut the dough. Twisting seals the edges of the dough and prevents the scone from rising as high as it might otherwise. Fluted and glass cutters have the same effect, so don’t use them. Here are my favorite biscuit cutters. They’re made of quality stainless steel and have handles that make them easy to use. But most importantly, they have the depth needed for a biscuit. Typical cookie cutters are too shallow.
- If you use cutters to cut shapes from the dough, gently push together the scraps to make the second cut.
- If you use an egg, milk, cream, or buttermilk glaze on top of your unbaked, cut scones, don’t let it drip onto the sides of the dough. This may inhibit the rise.
- Demerara sugar is a nice finish for sweet scones, as it adds a crunchy top.
- You can either brush the finishing glaze over the entire disk and then cut it into edges or glaze individual wedges after cutting. A soft, natural bristle pasty brush is indispensable for this task.
- Don’t overbake scones. If you overbake, the scones will be dry and crumbly, rather than moist and tender. The bottoms should be golden brown and the tops set but only golden. The timing will vary depending on the temperature of the oven, the pan you use, and the size of the scones.
- Add ¼ cup of water to an ovenproof container and put on the lower rack of the oven 10 minutes before you bake the scones. The steam will assist with the rise.
- Bake scones in the upper third of the oven.
- Scones should be eaten right out of the oven. They are not nearly as good even only an hour after baking. The good news here is that you can make them ahead and keep them in the refrigerator for a day or even longer before baking, usually with no deleterious effect.
- If you do have leftover baked scones, simply warm them one or two at a time in the microwave for around 10 seconds. The texture will soften beautifully.
- The setting in which you eat the scone definitely affects the experience. Have your loveliest English bone china, hand crafted pottery, or Asian iron tea pot heated and at the ready, along with water brought just to the boil, a hauntingly fragrant loose leaf tea, and a beautiful tea plate on a tray, with unsalted butter and the most delicious jam you can find (preferably homemade) alongside. When you pull the scones from the oven, brew the tea, and then arrange the still hot scones on your plate. Retire with your tray to a secluded spot, such as the garden in summer or near the fireplace or a view window in the winter. Now savor fully over the next half hour.
- You can freeze scones after cutting and before baking. Completely defrost before baking and increase the baking time as necessary.
- Leftover baked scones can be frozen. When you want to serve them, thaw completely and reheat in a 350° oven for 4-6 minutes or in a microwave for around 10 seconds, just to warm through.
Ten Basic Scone Formulas
Note The following formulas are based on a constant of 2 cups of unbleached, all-purpose flour. Leavener, sugar, and salt quantities are variables. Formulas were extrapolated from cookbooks of respected culinary authorities (listed below).
Note Notice that the higher the proportion of butter, the less total liquid (eggs + liquid) is needed to hold the dough together, just as with pastry. The Balanced Formula in red text produces a fairly wet dough, which helps assure a tender, moist scone with good height. However, if the dough is too wet, it will spread, as well as rise, in the oven. So a balance needs to be achieved here.
No Butter, No Egg Formula (Yankee Kitchen Cooking School)
No unsalted butter
1 cup cream
Low Butter, No Egg Formula (Karen Demasco)
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup cream
Low Butter, High Egg Formula (Joanne Chang)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large egg + 1 egg yolk
½ cup buttermilk + ½ cup crème fraiche
Medium Butter, No Egg Formula (Flo Braker)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup buttermilk
Medium Butter, Medium Egg Formula (My Balanced Formula)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large egg
¾ cup buttermilk, cream, or half of each
Medium Butter, High Egg Formula (Grand Central Bakery)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large eggs
½ cup buttermilk or cream
High Butter, Low Egg Formula (Flour Bakery, Joanne Chang)
10½ tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ large egg
1/3 cup cream +1/3 cup crème fraiche
High Butter, Medium Egg Formula (Once Upon a Tart Bakery, Frank Mentesana & Jerome Audureau)
10 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large egg
½ cup cream or buttermilk
Super High Butter, No Egg Formula (La Brea Bakery, Nancy Silverton)
12 tablespoons unsalted butter
½-¾ cup cream or buttermilk
Super High Butter, Low Egg Formula (Once Upon a Tart Bakery, Frank Mentesana & Jerome Audureau)
12 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 large egg
6 tablespoons buttermilk
More LunaCafe Scone & Biscuit Recipes
- Chocolate Shortcake with White Chocolate Crema, Strawberry Lime Sauce & Strawberry Lime Salsa
- Grandma Mary’s Heavenly Light Buttermilk Skillet Biscuits
Inspiration from around the web
- Evil Shenanigans: Buttermilk Brown Butter Scones
- Food History: Scones
- Guardian: Dan Lepard’s Ginger Beer Scones
- La Belle Cuisine: Classic English Scones
- Lavender Blue: The Fluffiest, Lightest, Most Delicious Scones Ever
- My Bizzy Kitchen: Craisin Scones
- Our Best Bites: Basic Baked Scones
- Picky Cook: Raspberry White Chocolate Scones
- Scones on TasteSpotting
- The Amateur Gourmet: Everybody Ought to Have a Scone
- Word of Mouth Blog: How to Make the Perfect Scone