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The Non-Brit’s Guide to Making Scones

If you grew up in a British household – either in the U.K. or elsewhere – chances are scones were part of your family’s cooking traditions. Often served with afternoon tea, a scone is believed to have been named for the Scottish “Stone of Destiny”, a place where Scottish kings were crowned for more than a millennium. (Though some say the name comes from the Dutch word for bread.) But a good scone certainly bears no resemblance to a stone!

A small biscuit generally cut into a diamond or triangle shape, the predominantly- British quick bread commonly known as the scone is dense but should always be flaky, not heavy. And while the recipe for scones isn’t difficult – ingredients generally include flour, milk, eggs, butter, salt, sugar, baking soda, and dried fruits - it often takes several tries to achieve the right texture in order to avoid a tough and chewy end result. Nevertheless, a few simple tips can put you on the road to scone perfection, and before long, you’ll be ready to serve them at your next tea or other social engagement, accompanied – of course – by clotted cream and fruity preserves.

  1. Always sift the dry ingredients. Doing so aerates the flour and makes for much lighter scones. Remember to measure first and then sift.
  2. Be sure the baking soda and/or baking powder are fresh. When these leavening agents have been open in your cupboard for a while, they tend not to work very well and the dough won’t be as light and soft as it should.
  3. When it’s time to add the butter, use it straight from the refrigerator and do not allow it to sit at room temperature beforehand. Like pie crust, scones come out best when the butter is cold. Before cutting it in, prepare the butter by quickly cutting it into small cubes, being careful not to let it melt due to the heat from your hands.
  4. Don’t overwork the dough. As with all pastries and breads, overworked dough makes for tough and rubbery scones. Instead, knead it very gently with just your fingertips; don’t press it with the heel of your hand or keep folding it over and over. A good dough is just lightly sticky to the touch.
  5. Don’t over-flour your cutting board. When you are kneading the scone dough or pressing it out for cutting, place only a small amount of flour on your cutting surface. Extra flour not only makes your scones taste flour-y but will also cut down on the flakiness.
  6. Be sure your scone cutter is sharp. When it’s necessary to keep twisting the cutter to loosen the scone completely, the twisting action tends to result in lopsided scones. Many experts suggest you invest in an official scone cutter rather than use a glass for cutting. A scone cutter resembles a biscuit cutter (the two can be interchanged) and can be purchased at kitchen/cooking specialty stores like Williams-Sonoma.
  7. Once you’ve finished mixing and cutting the scones, brush them with milk or egg (or whatever is indicated on the recipe) and bake immediately. Remember to pre-heat the oven as a hot oven is essential for flaky scones that are golden brown and evenly risen.
  8. Try to time the baking of your scones so that you and your guests can eat them within a few hours of baking. This is when they are at their best. If you must save them for a later time, you should place them in airtight containers or wrap them in foil. Scones can be kept fresh at room temperature for about 24 hours or may be frozen for up to 2 weeks or so. Thaw them before re-heating them in the oven for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees.