Sugar Cookies, Butter Cookies and Shortbread…What’s the Difference?

Sugar, butter and flour are the ultimate cookie-baking staples. Find out how to turn them into three classic and distinctly delicious treats.

Holiday Cutout CookiesPhoto: Taste of Home
Photo: Taste of Home

There’s something uniquely special about sugar, butter and flour. Those three basic ingredients are the start of every sugar cookie, butter cookie and shortbread recipe I’ve ever seen. But it’s the proportions—how (and if) they’re combined with other ingredients and how they’re baked—that make the difference…and the magic.

So, What Is the Difference?

To the grocery list, not much. To the cookie lover, everything.

“While all three are very similar, it’s all about the ratio of ingredients,” says James Schend, a food editor at Taste of Home. Each cookie has a place on a holiday baking list. But every cookie has its strengths and limitations.

  • Shortbread cookies have the highest ratio of butter to flour. I have found (and Schend confirms) that shortbread—usually baked at a lower temperature than the other two cookies—tends to be crumbly and very tender. I always save those for in-person gift giving. Shipping shortbread is a recipe for disappointment.
  • While butter cookies still have a high proportion of butter, the amount of flour and sugar is increased, which means they will hold their shape better than a shortbread. Butter cookies are great for rolling and cutting into shapes, offer a sturdier texture, and tend to ship well.
  • But if you’re looking for a cookie for cutouts, sugar cookies have the highest ratio of flour to fat, giving them a very sturdy dough. Sugar cookies also hold their shapes well for decorative work and ship nicely, too.

“All three should freeze really well, but it gets tricky if they are decorated,” Schend says. “Some icings may crack or crumble during the freezing process, so you’ll have to try some and see how they do.”

Tips for New Bakers

For newbies with little baking experience, each type of cookie can yield delicious results.

“Most beginners can handle making all three pretty easily,” Schend says. “The trick with all of them is to not work the dough too much or you’ll end up with tough cookies.” He recommends starting with shortbread cookies because they are normally prepared in a pan instead of being cut into shapes. “In fact, they’re usually put in a pan, sometimes ‘scored’ before baking, and then re-cut after they come out of the oven.”

Butter cookies were the first cookies I ever made, as I came from a butter-loving family. (The first complete sentence I remember my niece saying is “Everything’s better with butter.”)

My holiday-baking shopping list, for about 18 to 20 kinds of cookies, usually includes a 10-pound wall of butter that holds back a potential avalanche of sugar and flour sacks in my pantry. The combinations are endless, but they all begin with butter, sugar and flour—and some holiday magic.

Next, we’ll show you how to make butter cookies.

Cathryn Jakicic
Cathy Jakicic has written about everything from business and bacteria to beads and baking in her career —but she greatly prefers the last two. She is a baker and a crafter and loves to try new recipes for both.