The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

Everything you need to know to make this perfect classic summer dessert

Prep: 25 mins

Cook: 20 mins

Total: 45 mins

Servings: 8 servings

Living in the Pacific Northwest means strawberry season doesn't start in earnest until June. Our cool, wet springs keep the berries at bay until nighttime temperatures rise consistently above 60 F. This means watching as much of the rest of the nation digs into their strawberry desserts while you're still trying to be satisfied with rhubarb alone.

But come June, it's all strawberries all the time, and the first thing I want to make after I've given myself heartburn by eating a pint of plain berries is strawberry shortcake. This recipe is one I've perfected over 10 strawberry seasons and served to countless dinner guests, always to rave reviews. It's perfect and simple and all about the berries.

What is Strawberry Shortcake?

The definition of strawberry shortcake depends on who you ask, but the components follow a predictable formula: some kind of biscuit or cake topped with juicy strawberries and whipped cream. Sometimes the biscuits are single serving and sometimes they’re baked into large layers to make a sort of tall biscuit cake.

Sometimes strawberry shortcake means a lightly sweet vanilla sheet cake with strawberries and cream. The original strawberry shortcake, first recorded in the 1830s in New England, was a sort of biscuit (referred to only as “short-cake”) split and topped with strawberries. In the UK, “shortcake” was used interchangeably with “shortbread,” but in the United States the term denotes a soft biscuit, not a cookie.

The History of Strawberry Shortcake

Double-acting baking powder was invented by Eben Norton Horsford in the 1860s. it almost certainly resulted in baked goods of all kinds getting a literal lift. What would have once been leavened with yeast, eggs, or the labor-intensive pearlash, made by boiling down homemade lye until nothing remained but the salts, could now be lightened with the flick of a measuring spoon. 

This change in baking habits was not spontaneous, but rather the result of intense marketing by baking powder companies. In 1877, the Royal Baking Powder Company published The Royal Baker and Pastry Cook, which touted baking powder’s ease of use and versatility. This pamphlet-style cookbook also contained a recipe for none other than strawberry shortcake.

Other “Strawberry Shortcake” Recipes

What’s Short About Shortcake?

While shortcakes are indeed usually short in the sense of being the opposite of tall, they are so named because of their structure. Unlike yeast breads, which are chewy, and cakes, which are fluffy and spongy, shortcake biscuits are crumbly. This is because they contain a higher proportion of fat and the fat is worked into the flour in such a way that fat coats the flour, inhibiting the proteins in the flour from forming strong gluten strands.

Shortcake differs from shortbread in that shortbread is only flour, fat, and sugar. Shortcake contains the additional ingredients of baking powder and some kind of liquid, usually milk or cream, which adds bulk and height and results in a softer texture.

How To Make the Best Shortcake Biscuits

There’s more than one way to make a biscuit. Some biscuits are made with the intent of being able to sandwich a filling, like a breakfast sandwich. These biscuits need to be sturdier and taller. Others are made for topping with gravy. These biscuits don’t need to be as sturdy, since you’re eating them with a fork and knife.

Shortcake biscuits have one primary job: soaking up all those berry juices. You want a tender, rich-tasting biscuit with a mild sweetness. For this, I prefer a cream biscuit. Cream biscuits are made with heavy cream instead of milk or buttermilk. Some cream biscuit recipes don’t include any butter because in theory the extra fat from the cream replaces the fat from the butter. I like to add some butter to my cream biscuits because that’s the only way to achieve a buttery flavor, and the butter helps with browning.

The nicest thing about cream biscuits is that there’s no rolling or cutting. You just mix in the cream and use a spoon to scoop the biscuit dough onto a sheet pan. Cream biscuits look a little more irregular than your typical buttermilk biscuit, but I love the homey, craggy look of these biscuits for strawberry shortcake because it’s a supremely unfussy dessert.

The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

How To Choose Strawberries

Strawberry shortcake is an edible ode to strawberries, so they should be the main event. Buy the ripest in-season berries you can find. Unfortunately, this will probably not be at the grocery store. Farmers markets and natural foods grocers will have fresher, riper fruit. 

Those supermarket strawberries are bred for high yield and their ability to travel long distances without spoiling before they get to the store. Farmers selling strawberries direct to consumer can grow berry varieties that have been bred for flavor vs. their ability to store for a long time. Farmers can also pick their berries at a riper state. 

Strawberries, unlike bananas or avocados, do not ripen once they are picked. They just start to rot. Those jet-setting berries? They are not picked fully ripe because they would just spoil. They are picked underripe so they can make their long journey intact.

All that said, if farmers market berries are not accessible for you, your strawberry shortcake will still taste wonderful, and here’s why.

You Want the Juice

Classic strawberry shortcake is made by macerating sliced strawberries with sugar, which makes them juicy and creates a rich strawberry syrup from the strawberry juices themselves.

What does macerating mean? It’s a big word for a super simple process. You’re just allowing sliced strawberries to sit with sugar, stirring them occasionally to coax out the juices. This is happening via osmosis: the high concentration of sugar outside the berries is moving towards equilibrium, drawing liquid out of the fruit. All the sciencey stuff is well and good, but what if your berries aren’t as ripe or flavorful as you’d like them to be?

How To Work With Underripe Strawberries

The reality is that sometimes even farmers market berries can be less than you’d hoped for. Strawberries, like all crops, are subject to the whims of weather. In a particularly rainy spring and early summer, you may find even perfectly ripe, local strawberries taste watery and underwhelming.

Maceration makes even subpar berries taste pretty good by adding some sweetness, softening hard fruit, and creating a more concentrated strawberry flavor in the juices that accumulate. But if you really want to give your berries some TLC, you can roast them with sugar to concentrate their flavor and create a thicker syrup.

How To Roast Strawberries

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. 
  2. Halve or quarter the berries depending on their size. 
  3. Toss them in a baking dish with the sugar called for in the recipe and spread them out in an even layer. The thicker the layer of strawberries the longer they will take to roast and concentrate. For the best flavor, I recommend not roasting so many strawberries at once that they form a thick layer in the baking dish. 
  4. Roast the fruit for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes, until the berries are tender and juicy and the juices have concentrated somewhat into a syrup. Remember that these juices will continue to thicken as they cool.

The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

How To Make Perfect Whipped Cream

Because strawberry shortcake is such a simple dessert, all the components deserve care. As simple as whipped cream supposedly is to make, I’ll just speak for myself in saying that I’ve overwhipped more cream than I care to admit. I know I’m not alone. Come, learn from my mistakes!

Tips for Whipping Cream

  • Start with cold cream. If your kitchen is hot, freeze your mixer bowl for 10 minutes as well. For temperate or cool kitchens (anything 72 F or below) freezing the bowl doesn’t make much difference.
  • Beat the cream on medium speed. I know the temptation is there to use high speed, but the cream will splatter quite a bit more and you’re more likely to miss the perfectly-whipped window and get into grainy whipped cream territory, if not full-on butter.
  • Stop at soft peaks. The whipped cream should not be runny at all but it should be softly whipped, not firm enough to fully hold its shape. This is because softly whipped cream creates a more cohesive dessert where the different components mingle deliciously together.
  • Finish whipping by hand. When you think you’re getting close to soft peaks, stop the mixer and switch to a balloon whisk (a large whisk with lots of tines—using a small whisk will just be frustrating). Switching to the whisk will allow you to better judge when the cream is perfectly whipped. It’s easy to overshoot when using a mixer.
  • Fixing overwhipped cream. If your whipped cream is too stiff or grainy-looking, add more heavy cream and gently whisk it in by hand. Keep adding cream until you have the perfect consistency.

Use the Shortcake Formula All Summer Long

Strawberry shortcake is the Beyoncé of shortcakes, but there’s no reason to limit this dessert to strawberry season. Any kind of ripe fruit can make a great shortcake. All berries can be swapped in with almost no changes (though you should always taste fruit for sweetness–you may want to add more or less sugar depending on the sweetness of the fruit).

Stone fruits, like plums (and apriums, and pluots…), apricots, and peaches make wonderful shortcakes. Add a skosh of almond extract to the whipped cream. Tropical fruits like papaya, mango, guava, and pineapple are also perfectly at home in the shortcake format. Bananas foster shortcake can also be a thing if you want it to be. There is virtually no fruit that doesn’t taste wonderful with whipped cream and sweet biscuits.

“I love strawberry shortcake, and this recipe was a winner! You can’t go wrong with fresh, syrupy strawberries and freshly whipped cream on slightly sweetened biscuits. The biscuits were crumbly, so I recommend letting them cool before slicing. I used a 1/3-cup scoop and mounded them pretty high, too, so they were easier to cut horizontally.” —Diana Rattray

The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

A Note From Our Recipe Tester


For the Strawberries:

  • 1 pound ripe strawberries, hulled and sliced

  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar

  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

For the Shortcakes:

  • 2 cups (240 grams) all-purpose flour

  • 4 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

  • 1 tablespoon baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt

  • 4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

  • 1 1/4 cups heavy cream

For the Whipped Cream:

  • 1 1/2 cups cold heavy cream

  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

Steps to Make It

Make the Macerated Strawberries

  1. Gather the ingredients. 

    The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

  2. Gently stir the strawberries with the sugar and vanilla in a medium bowl. Set aside while you make the biscuits and whipped cream, stirring the berries occasionally to help bring out their juices. You can make the strawberries up to 4 hours ahead of time. More than that and the berries start to become limp.

    The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

Make the Shortcakes

  1. Gather the ingredients. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 400 F. Line a large, rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper.

    The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

  2. Whisk together the flour, 3 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.

    The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

  3. Add the butter cubes to the flour and use your fingers to rub the mixture together until the butter is in tiny pieces evenly dispersed throughout the flour.

    The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

  4. Add the cream to the flour mixture and stir in until the mixture comes together.

    The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

  5. Use a large spoon or 1/3 cup measure to scoop up dollops of the dough and drop them on the prepared sheet pan, mounding the dough up tall. You should have 8 biscuits. They will look craggy and imperfect–this is what you want!

    The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

  6. Sprinkle the biscuits with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.

    The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

  7. Bake the biscuits until browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Set the pan on a cooling rack while you make the whipped cream.

    The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

Make the Whipped Cream and Assemble the Shortcakes

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

  2. Combine the cream, sugar, and vanilla in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.

    The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

  3. Beat the cream on medium speed until thickened to medium peaks. When you lift up the beater, the whipped cream should curl over on itself but mostly maintain its shape. You’re going for a softer whip.

    The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

  4. When the shortcakes are completely cool, use a serrated knife to cut them in half horizontally. Top the cut side of the bottom piece of shortcake generously with the macerated strawberries, their juices, and the whipped cream. Close the shortcakes with the remaining biscuit half. Serve immediately.

    The Ultimate Guide To Strawberry Shortcake

Nutrition Facts
Servings: 8
Amount per serving
Calories 654
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 49g 63%
Saturated Fat 31g 155%
Cholesterol 150mg 50%
Sodium 349mg 15%
Total Carbohydrate 49g 18%
Dietary Fiber 2g 7%
Total Sugars 24g
Protein 7g
Vitamin C 34mg 170%
Calcium 196mg 15%
Iron 2mg 11%
Potassium 235mg 5%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.


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