Strawberry Shortcake

Buttery shortcake, juicy berries, and fluffy whipped cream make this a delicious way to enjoy strawberries at their peak.

Three strawberry shortcakes
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Where I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, strawberry shortcake was a big deal. Strawberry festivals are especially popular there during the summer months, and while these celebrations offer an array of berry-centric treats—jams, pies, ice cream sundaes—strawberry shortcake almost always steals the show.

For this strawberry shortcake recipe, I started by diving into my grandmother's trusty cookbook collection, and quickly discovered that today's strawberry shortcake hasn't changed much since the days of mid-century cookbooks like Betty Crocker and Better Homes and Gardens: The shortcakes are similar to biscuits, but not exactly the same as the tall, fluffy version typically enjoyed with gravy. Instead, they're like a sweeter, cakier cousin that's rich and buttery, with a crunchy, crumbly, sugary top. Once baked until golden, they're served with a generous helping of sweet berries and thick dollops of whipped cream.

Gif of strawberry shortcake being assembled
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Growing up in the United States, I assumed that strawberry shortcake was an American recipe. Then I moved to England and learned that it is also a quintessentially British dessert. And in fact, the earliest shortcake references date back to the Elizabethan era. In the late 16th century, author Thomas Dawson included a shortcake recipe in one of his cookbooks. It's remarkably similar to today's versions, calling for clotted cream or sweet butter (but recommending clotted cream more), though his also adds an egg yolk as well as mace, clove, and saffron for a more spiced flavor. Not long after, Shakespeare named a character "Alice Shortcake" in The Merry Wives of Windsor, indicating an established awareness of the pastry at that time (something similar in our era would be the Peppermint Patty character in Peanuts).

Contemporary British recipes often employ self-rising flour, but otherwise, the basic equation remains the same on both sides of the pond: buttery shortcake + juicy berries + fluffy cream = one of the most beautiful ways to enjoy strawberries at their peak of ripeness.

How to Make the Shortcakes

My ideal shortcake is rich and buttery, with a tender, cakelike center that's perfect for absorbing plenty of sweet macerated strawberry juice. Shortcakes typically include milk, cream, buttermilk, or a combination of the three. I experimented with milk and cream, and found that the cream version produces a richer cake (which makes sense, since heavy cream contains the most fat).

The amount of cream is also important; I tested several flour-to-liquid ratios before landing on a dough that isn't dry, yet rises more than it spreads. The finished shortcakes won't be overly tall, but a bit of a rise is important here: Flat shortcakes are impossible to slice! 

Baked shortcake
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Some recipes require a food processor, fork, or pastry cutter to incorporate the butter, but I prefer rubbing it in by hand. This helps keep tools to a minimum, and also gives the cook a better tactile sense of the butter's temperature and size. The "rubbing in" method is exactly what it sounds like—rubbing everything together with your fingertips. Like biscuits, cold butter is crucial. In a hot oven, pea-sized chunks of cold butter create pockets of steam, helping the shortcakes to rise and creating a tender, cakelike, and slightly flaky texture. Cold butter also takes longer to melt in a hot oven, so chilling the dough after working it with warm hands (or working in a warm kitchen) will help  the cakes to retain their shape as they bake.

How the shortcakes are formed varies too. I've seen a few recipes that have you bake the shortcake in a single piece, then cut it with a knife after, similar to a tray of brownies. Others have you scoop and drop a wetter shortcake dough onto a baking sheet in the style of a drop biscuit, or bake a cake-sized shortcake to serve for slicing at the table. And yet others have you stamp them out of the raw dough with a biscuit cutter before baking. My preference is to use a biscuit cutter because it produces round, evenly-sized cakes which make for a prettier plated dessert. The key to a clean cut is to use a sharp, metal cutter with an up-and-down stamping motion (rather than twisting it into the dough like a screw); periodically wiping the cutter with a paper towel guarantees clean cuts to the last shortcake.

Assembling Your Strawberry Shortcakes

Most of the work required to make strawberry shortcakes is making the shortcakes themselves. The other two components are much simpler, but they do benefit from some thought.

Simply slicing fresh strawberries and mounding them on the shortcakes with cream is an option, but not one I'd recommend. What really makes the dish sing is to macerate the strawberries with sugar first, which softens the berries and draws out their natural juices to form a flavorful syrup. This syrup acts as a sauce that allows for a much more delicious result. Some recipes suggest a 24-hour maceration, but I found four to eight hours optimal for creating enough syrup to moisten the shortcakes without drowning them in syrup.

When it's time to serve, just remember that these are meant to be rustic so don't fuss too much over a perfect presentation. The strawberry shortcakes of my childhood were crumbled in a bowl, doused with milk, and eaten with a spoon, and they were absolutely sublime. Tossed together with a bit of a free hand, and these will be too.

For the Strawberries: In a large bowl, combine diced strawberries, granulated sugar, and lemon juice and stir until well combined. Cover bowl, transfer to refrigerator, and let macerate, stirring periodically, for at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours.

Two image collage of strawberries before and after in sugar
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Meanwhile, for the Shortcakes: Using a fine-mesh strainer, sift flour into a large bowl, then add sugar, baking powder, and salt. Whisk for 30 seconds to combine. Add butter and, using your fingertips, press the butter into the dry ingredients until mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs with some pea-sized pieces of butter remaining.

Four image collage of shifting, whisking an dadding butter to flour
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

In a measuring cup, stir together heavy cream and vanilla extract. Form a well in the center of the flour mixture, then pour cream into the well. Using a wooden spoon, stir until a shaggy dough forms, about 30 seconds (you might still see some crumbly flour bits in the bottom of the bowl, that's okay).

Four image collage of adding cream to flour
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Turn dough and any unincorporated flour out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using your hands, pat dough into a mound; this should only take 10-15 seconds as the goal is not to knead, but to gently bring the dough together. Gently pat dough into a rectangle approximately 5- by 7.5-inches in size and about 1 inch thick.

Dough in a rectangle shape
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Using a 2.5-inch round biscuit cutter, punch out dough into circles; for the cleanest cuts, try to press directly down instead of twisting the cutter and periodically wipe the cutter clean with a dry towel. Using a floured metal spatula, transfer dough circles to a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet, allowing 2-3 inches between the cakes. Bring dough scraps together with your hands and repeat the process. Transfer baking sheet to the refrigerator and chill for 30 minutes.

Four image collage of cutting our biscuits
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

While shortcakes chill, preheat oven to 400°F (205°C). Once chilled, use a pastry brush to brush tops of cakes with cold heavy cream, then sprinkle lightly with Demerara sugar. Bake until shortcakes are slightly risen, golden brown, and slightly cracked on top, 15 to 18 minutes. Allow shortcakes to cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool until slightly warm while you prepare the whipped cream.

Two image collage of biscuits before and after in the oven
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

For the Whipped Cream: To a large metal mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, add cold heavy cream and whip on medium-high speed until soft peaks form, about 4 minutes. Use a fine-mesh strainer to sift in confectioners' sugar, then add vanilla extract. Whip on high speed until just combined, about 10-15 seconds.

Two image collage of shifting sugar into whipped cream
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

To Assemble: Using a serrated knife, slice each shortcake in half horizontally. Place bottom halves on dessert plates. Top each with a spoonful of macerated strawberries and a dollop of whipped cream, followed by the top half of the shortcake. Top with another spoonful of berries and another dollop of whipped cream.

Gif of strawberry shortcake being assembled
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

If desired, dust with confectioners' sugar and/or sprinkle with extra Demerara sugar (for more crunch), and garnish with fresh herbs and/or whole strawberries. Serve immediately.

Dusting strawberry shortcake with. sugar
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Special Equipment

Pastry brush, wire whisk, serrated knife, 2.5-inch round metal cutter, metal spatula, rimmed half-sheet pan, wire rack, parchment paper, fine-mesh strainer, stand- or hand-mixer.

Notes

Refrigerate the cubed butter until you are ready to incorporate it into the flour mixture. Do not let the butter sit at room temperature or it will become too soft.

Flour countertop as sparingly as possible. A generously floured countertop can add too much extra flour to the dough, resulting in dry shortcakes. 

If your rimmed half-sheet pan does not fit in the refrigerator, you can chill the circles on a smaller parchment-lined plate or tray, then transfer to prepared sheet for baking.

A hot oven is very important, so preheat it for the entire 30 minutes the shortcakes are chilling. However, do not begin preheating until shortcakes are in the refrigerator: This is to prevent butter from softening, as the kitchen must stay as cool as possible while working with the dough.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Strawberries should macerate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. If desired, the strawberry mixture can be prepared up to 8 hours in advance.

Shortcakes are best enjoyed on the day they are made, and ideally while still slightly warm.

Bake the cakes no more than 4-6 hours in advance, and don't assemble the finished dessert until you are ready to serve.