Strawberry shortcake is a delicious cliché, isn’t it? Warmer weather (finally) rolls around, and your thoughts turn to that most classic of early summer desserts: shortcake. Yet who among us has a foolproof go-to recipe? Not me; I’m constantly tinkering with various biscuits for the base. But taking my chosen ingredients — base, berries, topping — and building a great strawberry shortcake? I nailed that process decades ago.
Great strawberry shortcake: start at the bottom
I’m a nearly lifelong New Englander. (Nearly lifelong because I didn’t move here until I was 5 years old and clearly I’m not dead yet, but you get the picture.) This means my shortcake base of choice is a biscuit, rather than the yellow sponge cake preferred by many around the country. So let’s start there.
Your biscuit base needs to support a full load of diced, sugar-sprinkled berries and their juice (or some simple syrup), to say nothing of a potential slather of butter and dollop of whipped cream. So, your biscuit had best be somewhat sturdy, while still retaining its inherent tenderness.
My current favorite shortcake biscuit recipe is our Biscuits for Breakfast. Originally developed as the foundation for sausage gravy, its headnotes say the biscuits are “rich and tender, yet strong enough to stand up to gravy without turning to mush.” Replace “gravy” with “strawberries and cream,” and you see why they’re ideal for shortcake.
I also like that these biscuits are cut in squares, not rounds. Why squares?
• You cut square biscuits all at once, without having to gather and re-roll any scraps as you do with round biscuits. Those re-rolled “scrap” biscuits can be pretty tough!
• Square biscuits are cut with a sharp knife or pizza wheel, as opposed to a round (not as sharp) biscuit cutter. The result: a cleaner cut and higher rise (read: lighter biscuits).
Two changes I make to the recipe: First, for enhanced flavor, I use all butter (1/2 cup) instead of a combination of 1/4 cup shortening + 1/4 cup butter.
Next, instead of patting the dough into a 6” square to make nine 2” biscuits, I shape two 5” squares (each a scant 3/4" thick) and cut eight 2 1/2” biscuits. I prefer larger (though not taller) shortcake biscuits: they provide a more generous base for filling, and a higher ratio of crunchy/tender crust to soft interior.
Warm, oven-fresh biscuits are delicious in shortcake; I split and butter them for an extra hit of richness and flavor. Still, if you want to make the biscuits ahead of time — go for it. Since they’ll be doused with juice or syrup, filled with berries, and smothered in cream, it’s OK to make these biscuits a day or so ahead; just keep them wrapped airtight on the counter.
If you’re set on serving warm biscuits with your shortcake but still want a head start, cover and refrigerate the pan of shaped (unbaked) biscuits and freeze overnight to bake the next day.
For longer freezer storage, up to a couple of weeks, bag the biscuits airtight rather than leave them on the pan. It’s fine to bake them straight from the freezer; just add an extra few minutes to their bake time.
The heart and soul of great strawberry shortcake: berries
Fresh strawberries — from your own patch, the farmers’ market, or another local source — are obviously best. But for those of you who simply don’t have access to farm-fresh berries, it’s no crime to use supermarket berries. With a bit of doctoring they can be pretty tasty.
Fresh strawberries have a shorter shelf life than many other fruits, so if you’ve purchased packaged berries you’ll want to pick through and discard any showing signs of softness or mold. Soak the remainder in a bath of 4 cups cold water and 1/2 cup vinegar for 5 minutes or so before draining and drying; this will kill any mold spores and help keep the berries fresh until you’re ready to make shortcake.
Several hours before you want to serve shortcake, slice the green tops off the berries, and dice them into 3/4” or so pieces. Small berries can be cut in half or even left whole, if they’re tiny; larger berries (including the packaged behemoths usually available at the supermarket) really need to be diced. First, they’re easier to eat in smaller pieces. And second, you want to get some juice flowing — which can only happen if the berries are cut.
Sprinkle the berries with some sugar. How much depends on how sweet they are to begin with; fresh local berries will be sweeter than packaged. Along with the sweetener (I use a stevia-based baking sugar substitute) it helps to add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, which brings less flavorful berries to life.
Set the berries aside for an hour or so at room temperature, stirring occasionally. They’ll release some of their juice — which is important, since when the time comes you'll be using it on both the shortcake bottoms, and as a garnish.
Once some juice has collected in the bottom of the bowl, refrigerate berries and juice until you’re ready to build your shortcake.
Great strawberry shortcake: layers of whipped cream
Strawberry shortcake wouldn’t be complete without cream. And not just on top: I like to add a wee bit inside, along with the diced berries. The more the berrier!
Start with heavy or whipping cream (or “heavy whipping cream;” some manufacturers like to cover all the bases at once). When you’re within half an hour or so of serving the shortcake, whip the cream to perfection; for details, see How to whip cream. Sweeten it to taste; I use 2 tablespoons sugar for 8 ounces of cream. Refrigerate until you're ready to serve.
If you over-whip the cream and it starts to break down (because we’ve all been there, right?), don't worry; we've got you covered. See How to fix whipped cream.
If you don’t want to whip your own cream, there are tasty canned whipped creams out there; Vermont-made Cabot is a test kitchen favorite. And if you’re eating vegan or dairy-free (and have already swapped out regular butter for dairy-free), there are dairy-free whipped cream substitutes aplenty available. Note: Yes, I’ve heard of aquafaba “whipped cream” (whipped liquid from canned chickpeas); no, I haven’t gone there (yet).
Great strawberry shortcake: the final assembly
Let’s put all the parts together and build some delicious shortcakes.
2 to 3 hours before
Clean and dice the strawberries. Toss them with lemon juice and your favorite sweetener in a bowl. Let rest at room temperature for 1 hour, then either serve or refrigerate.
Ninety minutes before
If you haven’t done so already, make the biscuits. If you got a head start and the shaped biscuits have been refrigerated or frozen, you don’t need to bake them until half an hour before serving the shortcake.
Thirty minutes before
Measure out 1/4 cup (57g) of the heavy cream, and whip the remainder. Refrigerate both unwhipped and whipped creams.
Just before serving
If the biscuits are fresh and warm, split them and spread the bottom halves with soft butter, letting it melt and seep in. (My fellow blogger, Chef Susan Reid, suggests adding a bit of orange zest and cinnamon to the butter, "thereby blowing people's minds when they have their first bite and wonder what that 'extra' flavor is.")
Top biscuit bottoms with a drizzle of the reserved heavy cream — which will also seep in, adding another layer of rich flavor. There's no such thing as too much cream!If you made the biscuits ahead and they’re not warm, substitute some of the collected strawberry juice and/or vanilla simple syrup for the butter. Add the cream as well. Biscuits that are a day or more old benefit by this additional liquid, which restores some of their original moistness and tender texture.
Spoon strawberries onto the biscuit bottoms, reserving some of their juice.
Add a small dollop of whipped cream atop the berries; this will help hold the top biscuit in place.
Put on the “lids” (the biscuit tops).
Crown with a generous spoonful of whipped cream.
Drizzle strawberry juice sparingly over the whipped cream; you don’t want to drown it, just garnish. If you have a particularly pretty little berry, put it on top like the cherry on a sundae. Or simply add some more chopped berries.
If strawberries haven’t already tumbled out of the sandwiched biscuit, arrange additional strawberries, whole or chopped, alongside the shortcake. Extra berries are always welcome.And after all of that — put down your phone, Instagram can wait. Dig in!
In case you're wondering...
What quantity of strawberries will I need? For six generous servings, a 1-pound container of berries should do it. For eight servings, spring for the 2-pound container — you'll have leftover berries for your morning cereal. If you're picking your own berries, a 1-quart container (especially if the berries are on the small side) should be sufficient for eight shortcakes.
What about whipped cream? A half-pint (8-ounce) container of whipping cream (minus a few tablespoons to brush onto the shortcake bottoms prior to whipping) whips up to a scant 3 cups — enough for six shortcakes. You'll need about 12 ounces of cream for eight shortcakes.
Can I prep the strawberries a day ahead? You can, but they may look a bit droopy. Best case scenario, you want to clean, trim, and sugar your berries about 2 to 3 hours before you serve shortcake. This gives them enough time to release their juice, but not so much that they start to wilt.
What if the strawberries don't give off any (or enough) juice? The more sugar you add to your berries, and the smaller they're diced, the more juice they'll yield. If you're worried about having enough juice both for the biscuit bottoms and drizzling on top, you can always skip the top drizzle, and/or augment the biscuit-bottom juice with additional cream or simple syrup. Keep in mind that fresh local strawberries are liable to be juicier than those that travel a great distance to your supermarket.
The biscuit recipe you use here is minimally sweetened. Shouldn't shortcakes be sweeter? Personal preference; I like my biscuits fairly plain, so their buttery flavor shines through. But if you like your shortcake biscuits sweeter and more cake-like, feel free to add a couple of tablespoons of sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla to the recipe.
Another option: Brush the unbaked biscuits with butter or milk and sprinkle with coarse sparkling sugar before baking. The sugar adds both flavor and pleasing crunch.
If I choose to make the biscuits ahead, can I rewarm them just before serving? Sure. Put them on a baking sheet, tent with foil, and rewarm for about 10 minutes in a preheated 350°F oven. Wait a couple of minutes before splitting them, as they'll be fragile right out of the oven. They'll be a bit drier than freshly made biscuits, so be generous when spreading them with butter or brushing with syrup or cream.
I really prefer sponge cake to biscuits. Can I make my own? Absolutely. Our Victoria Sandwich Cake is a lovely British-style sponge. Instead of filling it as directed, use a biscuit cutter to cut 2 1/2" to 3" rounds from the baked layers. Split each round into halves, top and bottom, and proceed with the shortcake instructions above.
This is my favorite way to make shortcake, but I'm sure many of you have forged your own path. Do you have any special tips or tricks for great strawberry shortcake? Tell us about them in "comments," below.