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Mar 14, 2012 11:54 PM

What makes a crumb?

I've been on the hunt for the perfect scone recipe for probably 15 years now. What I'm really looking for is some combination between the Rock Buns at the old Bewley's in Dublin before it went chi-chi and the scones at Fortnum & Mason...but I digress. Everything I seem to try is either much too dry (despite copious amounts of butter) or basically a buttermilk biscuit. I tried a recipe that gave me hope the other day in preparation for St. Patrick's Day - the dough was nice and soft, and it was a nice throw-it-all-in-the-mixer kind of recipe which beats freezing grated butter any day of the week - and when they came out of the oven they split in half quite nicely and begged for clotted cream...but they were smooth and biscuit-y. Tasted fine, but I want that bit of crumb that leaves a mess on your shirtfront.

So what makes a crumb? I get that there's crumb in bread loaves and that's going to be different than crumb in scones, and I'm definitely still in the advanced beginner stage of baking...but if I'm going to be experimenting, I need to know what it is I'm trying to achieve! It's not just butter. Is there a certain ratio of butter to flour? Or milkfat?

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  1. I made soda bread the other day for the same reason, and it came out very different than usual. I have been making this recipe for many years, got it out of the newspaper before the days of the internet, and always softened my butter before adding. People usually remind me weeks before not to forget about them.

    This time I realized that I hadn't taken the butter out of the fridge, and looking carefully at the recipe, realized (after all this time) that it called for cutting it in rather than blending. So I did, first in the food processor and then by hand, and the results were much drier, while having more of a slight pie crust/pastry dough texture. So maybe that's what you're looking for, it was nice for a change although I'm going back to my old way next year myself.

    I also use buttermilk in case you used some other milk product, I would never sub on that.

    1. I've made many a scone in my lifetime working at a bakery.

      Here are some tips:

      1. Use the right flour. Use a soft, low protein flour, such as pastry flour.

      2.. Keep your ingredients cold. Start with very cold butter—it should chip when you cut it into chunks and your liquids should be ice cold. Before you start, measure your milk or water and put it in the freezer for ten minutes. Try chilling your bowls and utensils as well.

      3. Don't overwork the dough, and never knead the dough. Simply mix, and FOLD, and do so quickly to preserve the "coldness" of the ingredients.

      (To fold: roll the dough out, fold it in half, roll it out again, and fold).

      4. Don't overbake.

      5. Add some beer to your batter.

      Hope that helps.

      8 Replies
      1. re: ipsedixit

        Beer is interesting. What measurements do you use for your liquids approximately? I use 1 1/8 cup of buttermilk exclusively.

        I make mine the American way, with raisins, and I soak those in Irish Whisky to plump. Then I add a couple of Tbsp of the leftover whiskey to an egg yolk to glaze. I love theme food!

        1. re: coll

          1/2 cup of beer
          1/4 cup of milk
          1/4 of creme fraiche

          1. re: ipsedixit

            Thanks, maybe I'll sub the 1/8 cup for beer next time. That could make it a bit more "crumby". Although then I'll have to finish off the bottle, but it's a labor of love all around.

            1. re: coll

              Let me know. I'll come over and help.

              I'm told beer goes great with scones (in more ways than one, if you know what I mean ...)

              1. re: ipsedixit

                Maybe Saturday I'll find out while watching the parade on TV......instead of my traditional Irish Coffee!

        2. re: ipsedixit

          Beer. Interesting. My DH would approve.
          Lately, my scones have been terrible! Well only in texture because they're so FLAT. The issue has been overworking - just trying to keep it together - it's too dry and doesn't hold together.

          I always keep butter in the freezer for making scones.

          1. re: ipsedixit


            can it be root beer or soda water instead of beer beer?

            1. re: iL Divo

              Club soda, yes. But I fear root beer would impart too distinctive a flavor (i.e. too sweet and licorish)

          2. Aren't scones just buttermilk biscuits? or a slightly richer version?

            There have been lots of threads about scones. One thing they show is that different people have different ideas, especially when you compare opinions from both sides of the Atlantic, and throw in the modern coffee shop version.

            I like to make an oatmeal scone (from the 1997 Joy of Cooking). It has roughly equal parts flour and rolled oats, though of late I've buzzing my rolled oats first, giving me something closer to a coarse oat flour. These tend to be quite crumbly. They can also be dry if I bake them a bit too long. I also like to use white whole wheat pastry flour. But these are not the lightest biscuits/scones. Sugar and raisins can also be included if that fits your notion of scones.

            I've used a variety of fats and fat incorporation methods, and am not convinced that they make a whole lot of difference. The Joy recipe calls for melted butter, but of late I've rubbing Spectrum (palm shortening) into the flour. I've used the grated butter (pretty easy), heavy cream, rubbing butter in 'little disks' etc. You can even omit the fat entirely. Many sources claim that authentic Irish soda bread does not have any fat.

            When warm, fresh out of the oven, the fat probably makes little difference in taste, unless you seek flaky biscuits. When cold and a bit stale, the type and amount of fat matters more.

            When talking about cakes, Harold McGee (Keys to Good Cooking) claims that flour and eggs provide the structure, the fat and sugar the tenderness. Often in a cake the goal is to make it as tender as possible (fine crumb) without compromising the structure (so it doesn't fall).

            4 Replies
            1. re: paulj

              As far as I've ever known, scones are soda bread in a smaller form.

              1. re: coll

                Yes, the modern version tends to be rich and loaded like scones

                "The basic soda bread is made with flour, baking soda, salt, and soured milk (or buttermilk). That's it!"
                discusses more varieties, including spotted dog.

                1. re: paulj

                  I've always made the American version, like my Ma before me.

                2. re: coll

                  To me, soda bread is leaner than scones, with a "breadier" texture - not crumbly or flaky or light, the way scones can be (depending on ingredients and technique), and also not as soft as cake. Soda breads I've made that include oil or butter use a much lower ratio of fat to flour than most scones. Definitely a different product, IME.

              2. I suppose I should clarify; sorry. I mentioned the scones more as background (though I do appreciate the tips! I'll have to try the beer!) but I'm really sort of interested in what makes a crumb in general...I love a good crumb on a scone, a crumb cake that slices too smoothly is simply coffee cake in my book, and even quick breads like banana are better if there's a little more crumb in a slice for the butter to melt into its pockets...

                I guess I'm just trying to figure out what makes crumb in baked goods overall - I always thought it was butter content, but that doesn't seem to do it.

                7 Replies
                1. re: thursday

                  I was mistaking 'crumb' for 'crumbly'. What you are talking about are the holes, their size and distribution.
         - shows the crumb for various types of yeast breads.

                  In that sense, cake has a fine crumb, lots of small, uniform holes. A quick bread or muffin made with the 'muffin method' (mix dry, mix wet, combine) tends to have a coarse crumb, with a mix of pocket sizes.

                  It almost sounds as though you want the kind of crumb that Americans see in English muffins, or the Brits in Crumpets. Both of those are yeast breads. Developing the gluten produces a structure that can expand and support large pockets.

                  I don't think that kind of crumb can be made with a biscuit dough, not even a rich 'scone' dough. In fact if you make a scone dough richer, with more fat, eggs, and sugar, you get a quick bread or cake.

                  1. re: paulj

                    Definitely not looking for English Muffin/Crumpet crumb...more like crumb cake, I guess, but denser, not as buttery, and not as sweet. The stickygooeycreamy...recipe below looks quite promising though! It's very similar to a recipe I got from a friend when I lived in Ireland - I think my flour may be a big part of the issue. They use graham flour, which is quite different than the AP or whole wheat pastry flour I use here...

                    1. re: thursday

                      I've been happy making biscuits and cookies (variations on Scotish oat cookies, perkins) using Bob RedMill WW Pastry flour. This is stoneground soft white flour. Scones with this aren't as light as the ones I just made, but still pretty good.

                  2. re: thursday

                    How about this recipe?

                    I found it by looking at Google Images for 'irish scones' and picking the image that had the largest 'crumb'.

                    1. re: paulj

                      I followed this recipe (not that it is all that different from other biscuit recipes), and got one of the best rises ever. Perhaps the only recipe that came close was the well known Touch of Grace biscuits, which uses a much wetter dough. The texture was quite close to the picture, with some good holes (crumb). They should absorb melted butter well, but they don't need butter, or even jam. There is plenty of butter and sugar in the dough as it is.

                      OK, I didn't use the recipe exactly. I made a half recipe (2c flour). Used AP flour plus a 1/4 oat flour. 3t of baking powder (up from the usual 1 tsp/cup) , and added buttermilk by feel. And to form the biscuits I patted the dough into a disk on the baking sheet, and cut the wedges in place.

                      Apart from the usual biscuit techniques (soft flour, lots of butter, lightly handled dough), the egg and sugar probably do contribute to the coarse crumb. The egg adds some structure, the sugar some tenderness (as well as the sweetness Americans expect in scones).

                      I used the oat flour to 'soften' the AP flour, plus I just like the taste oats. I didn't sift; just stirred the dry ingredients well. After rubbing in the butter, any 'lightness' that sifting created will be gone. And I used ordinary unsalted butter, not a special Irish brand.

                    2. re: thursday

                      This is a good question--it made me think about the difference between crumb in bread making vs other baked goods (even cake vs scones vs pie crust). In baked goods like scones, larger crumb, as in the holes, can be made by the size of the butter in the batter, that will then melt while baked. I also think if you were to fold the dough, you'd get better crumb. Try something along the lines of what Cooks Illustrated recommended.


                      Same idea of folding the dough, check out the crumb in this one:


                      Mixing more to develop gluten would give you the structure, as paulj said, for larger holes but you'd have the give and take of risking the final scone being tough.

                      1. re: chowser

                        Yeah, the toughness is my issue. The ones I make with my best recipe thus far have a good flavor if you grab one right out of the oven, but quickly get to be hockey pucks and are a little too dense even from the get-go. I'm not a big fan (personally) of the scones that flake like biscuits, and this seems to be what happens when I try a lighter recipe.