When did flaky scones become a thing?
Growing up in Nova Scotia, scones in our house were always fried. We had tea biscuits, which are the closest in texture to what we now refer to as a scone, but they were dense and cakey, never flaky with discernible layers. We had heard of Southern biscuits, which were known to be flaky, and were served with savoury foods such as chicken and gravy, but they never graced our plates. If a bread product made an appearance at supper it was a nice white dinner roll, or possibly brown bread (made with molasses).
But the flaky scone is what we’re all after here in Toronto. I’ve no idea if flaky is what they go for at Betty Windsor’s house, but here, we can’t get enough of those layers and layers of rich, buttery dough. There are a few places now to buy gorgeous flaky scones, and it was after reading an interview with the owner of shop Baker & Scone that I resumed my search for a decent recipe.
You see, I’ve been looking for a flaky scone recipe for years. Everything I’ve ever tried before turned out to be more the texture of cake. Fluffy, tasty, but no lovely layers. It was from an article in the Toronto Star where Baker & Scone owner Sandra Katsiou revealed her secret:
All scones begin with flour, Stirling Creamery butter and buttermilk, “to make them lighter,” Katsiou says. The resulting dough is folded into layers, like puff pastry; without eggs or baking soda to help them rise, the scones become flaky from the air trapped between the layers.
Ah ha! I always figured it was about making layers (yet I’d never seen a recipe that mentioned it). And buttermilk “biscuits” are a staple of the South. So I explored the Internet, looking for flaky scone and flaky buttermilk biscuit recipes to see what worked. The recipe below is closely based on this one from Fine Cooking in terms of ingredients. I’ve reworked the instructions a fair bit.
I’ve tried this recipe half a dozen times, altering liquid amounts and emulating Katsiou’s eschewing of other leavening agents, so I can say conclusively that this works as written. But you absolutely must follow the directions and ingredients to the letter. Absolutely buttermilk and not regular milk – the recipe needs the acid from the buttermilk to rise. Cold things must be cold, hot things must be hot. Spacing of scones must be even to create the best rise.
Also, before you make these, go out and buy a new container of baking powder. Then mark your calendar to replace that thing once a month, regardless of how much is left. Buttermilk freezes well – pour the remainder into containers pre-measuring the correct amount so they can be just barely defrosted before going into your dough.
This recipe works equally well for sweet or savoury scones (do not remove the sugar when making savoury items) as long as additional ingredients remain on the dry side, as anything too wet (such as fresh fruit) will throw off the moisture level.
Flaky Buttermilk Scones
- 8 oz. (1-3/4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 Tbsp granulated sugar
- 2-1/4 tsp baking powder
- 3/4 tsp kosher salt
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 4 oz (1/2 cup or 1 stick) very cold unsalted butter (frozen works very well)
- 3/4 cup very cold buttermilk
- optional: 3/4 cup – 1 cup of dry mix-ins or flavourings (spices, herbs, fruit, cheese, etc.)
Pre-heat oven to 500°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a bowl.
Using a box grater, shred the cold butter, bit by bit, into the dry ingredients, stopping to toss the bits of butter in the flour after a couple of passes over the shredder. The goal here is to coat each bit of butter with flour instead of having one big clump of butter, and to not have to try and break up the butter too much with your hands, which will melt it. Cut the last bit of the butter with a knife into pea-sized cubes and gently and quickly use your fingers to distribute the butter throughout the flour mixture.
If you are flavouring the scones, add your mix-ins at this point so you’re not over-working the dough in order to distribute the flavourings.
Add the cold buttermilk and stir to incorporate – just until the dough comes together as one ball.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and pat gently into a rectangle 3/4 inch high. Sprinkle a small amount of flour onto the top of the dough and fold into 3 sections, as if folding a letter. Turn the dough 1/2 turn (90 degrees) and pat out again, repeating the flouring and folding. Repeat the process of turning, flouring and folding one final time.
After the final fold, pat or very gently roll the dough out to 1/2 inch height, trying to keep outer edges straight and outer corners sharp – use a bench knife to smooth edges and form corners if necessary.
Using the bench knife, cut the dough into 12 equally-sized rectangles. Cut swiftly with no twisting to ensure the layers of dough don’t stick together. Arrange on the baking sheet with 2 inches of space between scones to allow heat to reach the sides of each scone and encourage a good rise.
Brush tops with milk at this time if desired, but be careful not to get milk on the sides of the scones.
Reduce heat to 450°F and bake for 8 minutes. Then turn pan 180 degrees and bake for an additional 6 minutes. Scones should be a rich golden brown on top and should have doubled in height.
Shown above: cheddar dill scones.