Scones are the most unappreciated member of the American pastry case. But don’t blame the scone, blame the recipe.
I’ve worked in many different bakeries across New York City over the past eight years, and most of them have the same assortment of fresh-baked morning pastries — staples such as biscuits, muffins, banana bread, and scones. Speaking from experience, muffins are generally the most popular selection. Biscuits also don’t stay in the case long, as they’re an ideal alternative if you want a quick bite for breakfast but maybe aren’t a fan of sweets first thing in the morning. Only the scones often linger past the morning rush, and I’ve always found that to be rather unfair.
In most American bakeries, scones are a misunderstood and underappreciated member of the breakfast pastry case. The reason is simple: Most places are making them wrong, giving them a reputation as rock-hard, stale, disappointing pastries that you only get when there aren’t any muffins left. I’ve seen scones made so poorly they could probably break a window. For the record, I’m only talking about American-style scones. One could write an entire article on the differences between British and American scones, but I’m sticking to what I know best.
In any case, it’s not supposed to be this way! Don’t blame the scone, blame the recipe. Scones are supposed to have a slightly firm exterior with a rich, buttery-soft interior that crumbles when you bite into it. A soft, just-right amount of crumble, not the kind where you immediately lose half of the pastry. A good scone has a delicate texture, one that is the opposite of rocklike. And it can be made all the more delightful by add-ins such as fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, and spices. Think of a scone as a buttery blank slate you can make your own.
So how do you make actually good scones? First, by avoiding two common errors: Don’t make the dough too dry, and don’t overbake them.
When it’s mixed, scone dough is supposed to be pretty wet; it should have an almost cookie dough-like texture. The key to this is using enough butter — an absurd amount. That’s what gives scones a perfectly soft texture with the good kind of crumble — think fat, buttery crumbs. Dough that’s too dry, on the other hand, is going to give you the bad kind of crumbs, dry and like sawdust. Using a lot of butter means that your dough needs some time to set in the fridge or freezer; doing this allows the butter to firm up so that when they’re baked, the blast of the oven’s heat melts the butter and releases steam, which helps the scones to rise and creates that lovely texture. Butter that isn’t sufficiently cold, on the other hand, will make your scones spread during baking. For that reason, I highly recommend prepping your scone dough the day before and chilling it overnight in the freezer.
As for overbaking, leaving scones in the oven way too long is what gives them the consistency of a rock and makes them (in addition to not enough butter) too crumbly. You want your scones to still be a little delicate at the end of their baking time, since they’ll firm up to the right consistency as they cool.
The best way to learn how to make great scones, of course, is to actually make them, so I’ve developed a summery strawberry scone recipe in the hopes of converting all of you into true believers.
Makes 8 scones
Note: This recipe can easily be made vegan by substituting butter with vegan butter, such as Earth Balance, and whole milk with non-dairy milk. I have done this many times and it works really well.
2 cups (260 grams) all-purpose flour
½ cup (99 grams) sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup (170 grams) cold, salted butter
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk
½ teaspoon apple cider vinegar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces coarsely chopped fresh strawberries (plus 1 or 2 extra strawberries, sliced, for decorating)
Step 1: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt and mix on low speed until combined. Cut the butter into ¼-inch cubes, add it to the mixer, and mix on low speed until the butter is in tiny, pebble-sized pieces, about 3 minutes. Alternatively, rub the butter into the flour mixture with your fingers until butter is in fine bits.
Step 2: Gently fold in the strawberries, taking care not to mix too hard or for too long as the strawberries will break down even more in the final mixing step.
Step 3: In a liquid measuring cup, combine the milk, apple cider vinegar, and vanilla extract. The vinegar is going to cause the milk to thicken a bit; this is normal, so don’t be alarmed.
Step 4: Gently fold the strawberries into the flour mixture with a rubber spatula. Add the liquids to the flour mixture and mix until a sticky dough forms, similar to a cookie dough. You may need to knead the dough once or twice by hand to bring everything together.
Step 5: Place a sheet of parchment paper on a baking tray. Turn the dough onto the tray and pat it into a round, flat disk about 2 inches thick and 7 inches in diameter. Slice the whole strawberries and press them into the top of the dough.
Step 6: Cut the scones into 8 equal wedges with a chef’s knife. Place the baking tray in the freezer and chill for at least 1 hour. This step is essential to keeping your scones firm so that the butter does not melt out while your scones bake, and so that they retain their shape in the oven. You can even follow the preceding steps the night before if you want fresh-baked scones first thing in the morning without the waiting time.
Step 7: About halfway through chilling, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Step 8: Once the scones have chilled for an hour and are nice and firm, take them out of the freezer. Separate the scones on the baking sheet, spacing them a few inches apart. Sprinkle extra granulated sugar on top.
Step 9: Bake scones for 15 minutes at 375 degrees, then turn the oven down to 350 degrees and bake for another 20 minutes. The scones will still feel soft coming out of the oven, but the bottoms will be brown and they will firm up upon cooling. Wait for 10 minutes before serving. Enjoy!
Irene Dambriunas is a pastry chef and baking teacher based in New York City. You can check out more of her work on Instagram at @blackmetalpastrychef.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Ivy Manning