Delicious vanilla-flavored shortbread cookies made with only four ingredients! The perfect holiday cookie recipe to share with friends and family or give as a gift. Gluten-free flour can be easily substituted so everyone can enjoy.
December is a month-long celebration to honor the endless possibilities of the cookie. Pinwheels, snickerdoodles, peanut butter kisses, gingerbread. Oh my! I’m not complaining, quite the opposite, I’m embracing and slightly indulging. I’m a big fan of simplicity, and shortbread cookies are one of my favorites to make during the holidays.
Some years ago, after an incredible experience dining at the French Laundry, they sent us home with a small silver box filled with perfect rectangular shaped shortbread cookies dusted with just a hint of sugar. They crumbled wonderfully with each bite, and they had just the right hint of sweetness. Needless to say, Chef Thomas Keller and his team created something amazing.
I was searching through my Ad Hoc at Home cookbook and found the recipe for those very same shortbread cookies, whoot! You bet I immediately scavenged through my fridge and pantry to see if I could quickly make a batch. With only four ingredients, these are the easiest and tastiest vanilla shortbread cookies you will ever find.
What is the Purpose of Creaming?
These shortbread cookies consist of only four simple ingredients: butter, sugar, flour, and vanilla. There are no chemical leavening agents like baking soda or baking powder. Why? That’s because we’re going to use the sheer force of creaming the butter and sugar to create mechanical leavening.
Creaming takes place in a stand mixer which aerates the butter and sugar, allowing tiny pockets of air to be incorporated into the cookie dough. The air then acts an insulator when baking to prevent the cookies from heating too rapidly and spreading. The result after baking is a beautiful and thick cookie that has a nice height, lift, and holds its shape. During the creaming process, it’s best to use butter that is around 60°F so that the fat crystals can hold its shape and retain the air. If the butter is too warm, the cookie will become dense.
I’ve made this shortbread cookie recipe countless times and even tested out a gluten-free version. I used Bobs Red Mill All-Purpose 1:1 Baking Flour and noticed that the dough is less pliable and slightly more brittle as you roll it out. This is because there is no gluten in the recipe to develop and bind the ingredients together as it’s being mixed.
The gluten-free cookie dough will still roll out nicely without cracking if you let it rest for a little while at room temperature after being chilled. Just be careful when you’re transferring the cut out cookies to the sheet pan. If you notice lots of cracks in the dough, just wait a few more minutes until it feels more pliable yet still cool to the touch.
I’ve become obsessed with using vanilla bean paste ever since I tried it with my Danish butter cookies. The paste makes the flavor pop and lasts longer with each bite. Using vanilla extract is okay, I just love seeing the little speckles of real vanilla bean on the surface of each cookie.
I also like to use a fluted round cutter for the shape of these shortbread cookies, and lightly indent the centers with a flower or heart for more design.
I can’t stop eating these delicious cookies! They are tender and crumble in your mouth with each buttery bite. They are a fantastic treat or gift for those lucky loved ones. If you’re looking for more holiday cookies, try my hot chocolate chili cookie for a spicy surprise, or my beautiful and crispy French palmier cookies, or spiced persimmon cookies for a seasonal flavor.
What is Vanilla Bean Paste?
Vanilla bean paste is an excellent alternative to using whole vanilla beans which are much more expensive. The paste combines vanilla extract and real vanilla seeds from the pod mixed with sugar, water, and gum tragacanth (a thickener) to create a molasses-like paste. The concentrated flavors allow you to add more vanilla without thinning or diluting sauces and batters. To use vanilla bean paste, it’s a 1:1 replacement for vanilla extract or you can replace one tablespoon vanilla paste for one whole vanilla bean.
Vanilla Bean Shortbread Cookies
- 14 tablespoons (199 g) unsalted butter, softened about 60 to 65°F
- ½ cup (99 g) granulated sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste, or pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups (284 g) all-purpose flour, or gluten-free flour
- In a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, mix butter and sugar on low speed to combine, then increase to medium speed and beat until light and creamy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, and mix in the vanilla.
- On the lowest speed, mix in the flour to combine then increase the speed to medium and beat until the dough begins to cling to the paddle and no longer looks dry. Do not wait for it to form a solid mass.
- Transfer the dough to a board and use the heel of your hand to bring the dough together. Put the dough on a large piece of plastic wrap and pat into a rectangle ½ to ¾ inch thick. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Let the dough soften slightly, so it does not crack or break on the edges when rolling. Roll dough out between two sheets of parchment paper to about ¼ inch thick.
- Using a 2 ½-inch round fluted cookie cutter cut out about 30 cookies and transfer to parchment paper lined sheet pan. Trimmings can be pressed together and re-rolled once for additional cookies. Refrigerate for 15 minutes to allow the dough to chill before baking.
- Position the racks in the lower and upper thirds of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper.
- Using a small offset spatula, transfer the chilled cookies to the sheet pans, leaving, at least, 1-inch of space between each cookie. Sprinkle the cookies with sugar.
- Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, switching the position and rotating the sheets halfway through, until crisp and light golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool for 5 minutes on the sheet pan to firm the cookies up a bit.
- Transfer cookies directly to a cooling rack to cool completely. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 10 days.
- This dough can be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen up to 2 weeks; defrost frozen dough overnight in the refrigerator.