Scones Primer

Scones are delicious and seem simple enough, but they can be a little finicky and the dough hard to work with. Scones can fall flat if the dough is overworked or if the ratio of liquid to dry ingredients is off. The ideal scone should rise high and have lots of air pockets in it. So, how do you achieve this? I have baked hundreds of scones, so I am sharing what I’ve learned from all of this experience to help you learn to bake great scones. Basically, as with any baking, it’s a combination of the right ingredients and the right techniques.  The gallery at the end of this post shows some of the steps.


  • Like all baking, scones require the right balance between liquid and dry. My husband and kids laugh at my exactitude when measuring ingredients, but it’s really important when baking. You can’t wing it like you can with soups or stews. So that is the first piece of advice for successful scones: measure precisely. 
  • You also need the right baking powder. Use double-acting baking powder if at all possible. There are a few on the market but the best baking powder I have used is Bob’s Red Mill Double Acting. Why double-acting? This page at the The Art of Gluten-Free Baking explains.
  • I subscribe to the “butter only” school of thought when it comes to scones. They can be made with other types of fat, but my preference is always butter because it gives the best texture. If you find a recipe that uses something else, like coconut oil, go ahead and use it, but direct substitutions of another fat into a recipe that calls for butter may not turn out as well.
  • Measuring butter can be a pain–scooping into a measuring cup, then scraping it out again–so I suggest either weighing the butter or using a butter ruler. (Actually, weighing ingredients is better for all baking, but in North America we tend to measure by volume instead.) A small digital kitchen scale is affordable and handy to have. A butter ruler works the same way as the measurements on the wrapper of a package of butter, but there are more increments and it can be washed and re-used. I like this one from Lee Valley but there are cheaper plastic versions available at other stores. 
  • The butter must be cold. For an explanation as to why, I will cite Samin Nosrat. In her book Salt, Fat, Acid Heat she wrote about the impact of cold butter on pie crusts, but the same applies to scones: “…the fat must be very cold so that some of it can remain in distinct pieces…When you slide the pie [or scones] into a hot oven, the cold pieces of butter, entrapped air, and steam from the water released by the butter, all push apart the layers of dough to create flakes.” And further, butter is about 15%-20% water by weight so if it gets too warm while preparing dough, the water is released at that point, meaning the dough’s layers will “not steam apart and flake” in the oven. (pp. 90-92.) 


  • Because the butter used in scones has to stay cold, you have to use the right tool to cut it into your dry ingredients. I’m not going to lie here, cutting in the butter is the worst part of making scones. It seems to take forever and, until you have a good deal of experience, it is hard to tell when you are done. The basic guideline is that the butter should be about pea-sized. As Ms. Nosrat says, you should be able to see the pieces of butter when you roll out your dough. 
  • I use a pastry blender or cutter, shown below. They are available in a wide range of prices at dollar stores, kitchen stores, or department stores. You can also use a fork or knife. The key is to avoid using your hands because the heat from your hands will melt the butter. (Some people suggest using frozen butter and grating it. If that works for you, great, but I’ve found it just makes a mess and results in butter pieces that are too small.)
  • Cutting in the butter is tough, but so is patting out the dough. You don’t want to handle the dough too much, but scone doughs tend to be very dry so it can be hard to pat them out to the right thickness. In the case of a really dry dough, you can add a tiny drizzle of the liquid used in the recipe, e.g. cream or milk, to add just a bit more moisture, but not too much or your dough will be too wet. And you may need to knead the dough a little bit, just to pull the loose pieces together. A rolling pin may seem like a good idea, but it will likely flatten the dough too much, so I recommend using your hands to pat it into shape. This is why pea-sized pieces of butter are better: the bigger size means they are less likely to melt into the dough while you are shaping it. 
  • The basic scone recipe I use asks you to shape the dough into circles, then cut it into wedges, like a pie. It is really hard to get a perfect circle, so don’t stress about that. The most important thing is even height, which will ensure even baking. You can also pat scone dough into a square and cut it into smaller squares to make smaller servings. 
  • Baking times are always guidelines. You really have to watch to see how your oven performs. Scones should be just starting to brown on the edges and evenly, lightly browned on the bottom. You can insert a cake tester or toothpick into the centre of a scone to test whether it is done. A few moist crumbs are fine, but stickiness is a sign they need more time in the oven. And remember, the internal heat of any baked good means it will continue to “cook” for a few minutes after leaving the oven, so if scones are a little under done, that should be fine.
  • Let scones rest for 5 minutes or so on their pan before removing them to a wire rack to cool completely. 
  • Place the parchment from the baking sheet under the wire rack to catch the drips when you ice the scones.

Freezing Scones

Scones freeze beautifully! The key is to freeze them on a tray individually and then package them in a freezer bag or container. My technique:

  1. Place the parchment used for baking the scones on a small baking tray, then lay the iced scones on it and stick in the freezer for a few hours. This will harden the icing so the scones can be packed together without making a mess.
  2. Take a scone out of the freezer in the morning and it will be thawed in time for a coffee or lunch break.

Scone sketch by Netsign33 | Dreamstime.

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