I once took a work trip to Ireland to do nothing but learn about Irish milk, cheese and butter.
Lucky for me, the first thing I ate when I arrived, jet-lagged and haggard, was a scone. I still remember this scone because it was fluffier and richer than any scone I’d ever had. After spending a few minutes under the spell of this little morsel, I pulled myself together and asked the chef if it wasn’t in fact a biscuit. He insisted that these were his Irish scones, made with Irish butter and milk, and served with a soft pat of butter.
If it really was a scone, it was the best scone I’d ever had, so I asked the chef for his recipe and I spent the rest of the trip trying to figure out what, in fact, was a real Irish scone.
In the days that followed, I ate a dozen scones made from different recipes, and each was unique. I asked chefs, innkeepers, grandmothers and dairy owners for their methods, tips and secrets.
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Some said buttermilk is key. Others said, “Absolutely no buttermilk!” Most used “self-raising” flour (“self-rising” if you’re stateside), though some used “cream flour” (all-purpose) and some use cake flour. Some said the butter should be cold and others said to work softened butter into the mix. Those who insisted a traditional soda scone was the only way to go had no butter at all in their recipe.
My understanding of the difference between a biscuit and a scone is that a scone has a little sugar and an egg. But not everyone I spoke to in Ireland put an egg in their dough.
There are a few things, though, that all the Irish people I spoke to agreed on about scones: They are best served freshly baked, warm from the oven, with butter, homemade preserves, honey and even some cream. No one seemed particular about the shape or the time of day that’s best for a scone. Most people ate sultana (raisin) or plain scones for breakfast, savory scones with soup at lunch and sweet scones at teatime.
Back home, I put together a recipe using all the information I’d collected, plus my own bias for those first scones I gobbled in Ireland. They’re easy to make – only about 20 minutes from pulling out the ingredients to that first hot bite – but they rely heavily on the quality of the ingredients, so choose wisely.
I made my own self-rising flour by adding baking powder to fresh all-purpose flour and opted for softened Irish butter. Kerrygold is easy to find in the United States. I met many of the cows that are responsible for this butter and I can tell you they have a pretty cushy life. There is no confinement farming in Ireland and all of their cows are 100 percent grass-fed, which explains the vibrant yellow of the butter.
Sure, these scones are more biscuit-like than what you might expect from a traditional Irish scone, but what I learned is that there are infinite definitions of what a real Irish scone is. The memory of those very first fluffy dream-cloud scones I had when I sat down to my first Irish meal is so strong that, to me, these are now the truest Irish scones.
Slathered with unsalted butter, honey and a pinch of sea salt, they pretty much transport me to another level right here in my home kitchen.
Sara Kate Gillingham is the founding editor of TheKitchn.com, a website for home cooking.