Basics that aren’t: Scones

This recipe doesn’t come with pictures, because the first thing you need to know about making scones is that the faster you make them, the better they taste.  That means no stopping at every step to take the lens cap off the camera, switch it on, figure out the light levels, and take a photo, or at least, not if I want a creditable scone at the end of the process.

Scones are one of those things that are incredibly quick and easy once you know what you are doing.  Prior to that point, they are… rock cakes.  At least in my experience.  I figured out how to make good scones about two years ago.  This coincided with me getting a new oven that actually cooked things at the temperature it claimed to, and also with me being given three pieces of advice on scone making. Scientifically speaking, therefore, I cannot be conclusively sure that one actually does need to do all the things I think I need to do to get a successful scone (for example, I have my doubts about the need to wear a complete set of sequinned undergarments during the process) (yeah, OK, I made that bit up, and I’m pretty sure it’s poor advice anyway, because I can’t help suspecting that sequinned undergarments would be really uncomfortable, which might slow down your scone-making).  On the other hand, I do know that when I follow all these steps I get good scones, and as my spirit of scientific enquiry is  regrettably outweighed by my culinary ego (which refuses to take the risk of making bad scones, even for the greater enlightenment of you, O my readers), the truth about scones must necessarily wait to be revealed by a more rigorously-minded cook than me.

The recipe that follows is taken from Margaret Fulton, but with excess verbiage because I’m the one writing it.  Well, also because there are a few details which she misses out and which I think are important.  Still, I stick religiously to her quantities, because these are also the first (and so far, only) scones I have made successfully.  Which isn’t to say I don’t add all sorts of things to the recipe, of course…

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60g butter (at room temperature, or chilled – either works, but room temperature is easier)
3 cups of self-raising flour
a pinch of salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
a little milk, to brush on top

Now what do you do with it?

There’s the question, isn’t it?  First, preheat your oven to 230°C.  I can’t stress enough how much easier it is to make scones if your oven is actually at the right temperature; if you think your oven tends to be on the slow side, consider an oven thermometer, or just randomly raising the temperature up to a point just below ‘sets the kitchen on fire’.  Line a baking tray with paper, and make sure you have your rolling pin, a bowl of milk and a brush, and a round cookie cutter at the ready.  I like a 2 inch round cutter, but feel free to go larger.

Chop your butter into pieces and use your fingers to rub it into the flour and salt until you can’t feel any big pieces of butter between your fingers.  Pour in most of the buttermilk (you may not need all of it, but I usually do), and use a knife to quickly stir it into the flour and butter until it comes together.  Don’t use your hands yet!  Incidentally, the quick part of this equation is the one thing I do know is not superstition – scones rise through a chemical reaction from the baking powder in the flour which starts as soon as the flour meets the liquid.  So the moment liquid meets dry, the race starts to get the scones into the oven before the baking powder finishes reacting and starts sulking.  Or, to put it more plainly, the faster you work, the better they rise.

Tip the mixture out onto a floured surface and push it together into a pile.  You are about to briefly knead the dough, but before you start, you need to know that you must not overwork it.  What I do is push it all together and press it down a little (it’s still part sticky dough, part flour at this point), then fold it messily over, and press down with the heel of my hand as though kneading bread – but only once.  Then I turn it 90 degrees, and repeat this three more times.  That’s all the kneading it gets, and it does actually come together quite well in this time.  Sometimes I give it another couple of turns, but I don’t push my luck – these scones may look a little messy on top, but they will be really light..

You can then pat it down or roll it out with a rolling pin (this doesn’t seem to cause the same problems that kneading does) until it’s about 1.5 – 2 cm thick.  Use your cookie cutter to stamp out circles, making certain you do NOT twist the cutter as you lift it – this seals the edges of the scone in some way, which prevents it from rising or makes it rise lopsidedly.  If the scone doesn’t come out with the cutter, you can lift the dough around it until it comes loose.  Put the scones onto the tray as you go.

When you’ve stamped out all the circles you can, press the dough together again and pat or roll it out – no kneading! – and keep cutting circles until there is no dough left.  I find I get 16-20 small scones in this way.

Brush the tops of the scones with milk, and put into the oven as fast as you can.  Bake for about 10 minutes, during which time they will rise to double or triple their size.  If you have a glass door and an oven light you can watch this.  It never stops being exciting, or at least, not to me.

Cover your scones with a tea-towel as soon as they come out of the oven, and serve warm with jam and cream or with lemon curd.  Or you could make homemade butter to go with them (and use the buttermilk in the scones) – I made a lovely paprika butter today with the gulasch spice mix I got yesterday, which was fabulous with cheese scones, and a sweet spiced butter with the Viennese Christmas spices which was lovely on the sultana scones.  Yes, actually, I did make several batches of scones today.  Four, to be precise.  And lemon curd and two kinds of butter.  But what could I do?  There was a baby shower, and I said I’d bring scones…


My absolute favourite scone variation involves pounding up a tablespoon of dried lavender and adding it to the flour mixture with a tablespoon of sugar.  This scone is gorgeous with blackberry jam.  Sultana scones are a classic – a tablespoon of sugar, half a cup of sultanas, and, if you choose, some spices or orange zest (these are nice with half and half wholemeal and plain flour, too, though they won’t rise as much).  Cheese scones have half a cup of cheese, and maybe some paprika.  Lovely.

Obviously, these scones are egg-free.  I’m not at all sure how gluten-free scones would work – these are such a chemistry set that messing with them might be unwise.  To make self-raising flour, you need two teaspoons of baking powder per cup of  plain flour, so if you do try a gluten-free version, make sure there are  6 tsp of baking powder in there too.

Dairy free… look, I haven’t tried this, but Nuttelex would probably replace butter quite well, though I’m not sure about the flavour implications.  I don’t think it would do for a plain scone.  I’d use a really good soy milk and add a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar a few minutes before use, to thicken it and curdle it a bit in place of buttermilk.  But I have to admit, I don’t know how it would work.  Sometime, I’ll try making these and get back to you.  I’m a little dubious about the premise, though – scones are pretty much an excuse for dairy – they are full of buttermilk and butter, and you eat them with cream.  Or butter.  Or cheese.  So a vegan version may be a bit of a lost cause.

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10 comments for “Basics that aren’t: Scones

  1. 5-tails
    July 3, 2011 at 8:32 am

    Good grief, did the new oven really arrive two years ago? How time flies when you’re having a life… *wry smile*

    • July 5, 2011 at 3:19 pm

      Nearly two years ago, yes. I think it was about September 2009.

  2. July 4, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I love scones and never have felt anxious about them but I have been making them with my mum for a long time. I smiled at your comments about making haste because I do stop to photograph and let sylvia help which slows down the process even more than a camera – I do draw the line at her bashing at my scones with a fist or sticking fingers in them.

    I think my favourite sort is pumpkin scones which we make quite a bit. They are great because the pumpkin gives so much flavour and moisture. But even with plain scones I sometimes just fancy them with peanut butter or promite so with my tastes I wouldn’t suffer too much with vegan versions.

    I was surprised at you saying you prefer your butter at room temp – I much prefer mine fridge cold when I rub it into flour!

    • July 5, 2011 at 3:19 pm

      My mum and Oma didn’t really do scones, that I recall. And learning them from books is surprisingly hard! This is probably why I am now so superstitious about them…

      I suspect that cold butter is what one is supposed to use, but I go with what’s easy.

  3. July 13, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    I have been scarred by scones in the past, but I tried this (helpfully detailed) recipe last weekend and it worked brilliantly!The scones looked great, and were appreciated by all and sundry – the only problem now is that I have half a jar of lemon honey left, and I want to make another batch and eat them ALL myself. Yum.

    • July 13, 2011 at 11:33 pm

      I’m so happy to read your comment! As someone who learned most of my cooking from books, I’m mindful of the need to specify stuff that might be obvious to people who have grown up cooking at home. I’m really glad to know that the details are useful and really do work for people other than me!

      As for your other issue, I’m not sure how that’s a problem…?! Sounds like the perfect breakfast to me.

  4. Caroline
    August 29, 2011 at 10:56 am

    I followed your advice and served lavender scones with blackberry fruit spread (couldn’t find blackberry jam or preserves) to friends today. They approved (and so do I)! I also served the almond butter blondies, nearly against my will, since I really wanted to keep them all for myself. Thank you!

    • August 29, 2011 at 11:36 am

      Oh, lovely! I’m so glad they worked for you!

      Almond butter blondies sound wonderful (they also sound like the perfect vehicle for my dried cherries). Any chance you could send me a recipe?

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