I grew up on the giant, sugar-crusted scones from Trader Joe’s, and I never ceased to be amazed at how the toaster oven could transform those soft, leaden, plastic-wrapped lumps into light and crispy slabs of craggy, buttery mouthfuls. After years of American scones, the first time I actually tried a British-style scone might have been on my trip to London last year, and it was quite a contrast in how relatively bready and less sweet they were.
In this American-style scone bake off, I was looking for a scone with the same qualities as my treasured toasted Trader Joe’s scones–crisp edges, a tender and light interior with a close, dry crumb and good flavor. This tasting was especially interesting to judge as all of my tasters have Americanized palates, and I wonder how these same scones would have fared with a different group of tasters. Read on to find out what our overall results turned out!
- 17 total tasters
- All 9 recipes were baked the day of and judged at room temperature
- All tasters ranked each scone on a scale from 1-10 for flavor, texture, and overall as a whole
- All scones were baked on a parchment-lined baking sheet
- Gold Medal bleached all-purpose flour
- Unsalted Land O Lakes butter
- Kroger heavy whipping cream
- Borden whole cultured buttermilk
- Daisy sour cream
- Diamond kosher salt
- Kroger sugar
What’s the difference between a scone and a biscuit?
This scone bake off was designed around an American-style scones (vs. British-style scones, which tend to have less butter, less sugar, and use a slightly different technique–read more about the differences here).
And so, while buried in scones, many tasters had a mini crisis of identity. WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN (American) SCONE AND AN (American) BISCUIT?? we wondered. The ingredients are very similar and particularly when cut into a round, biscuit-like shape, we found ourselves befuddled by the differences. So below, I’ve compiled some of the apparent differences according to a few reputable sources:
- Texture: Biscuits are flaky; scones are more crumbly with a finer crumb. Biscuits are also usually moister and lighter (although British scones are a different class from American-style scones)
- Fat: According to this excellent Food52 article, the fat in biscuits is flexible but not so much in scones. Scones typically include sugar and eggs and has a more flexible shape.
- Sweetness: Scones typically include sugar whereas biscuits do not
- Temperature: Biscuits should be served hot (and tend to stale faster with no egg) vs. scones are often found warm or at room temp
- Shape: Biscuits are generally round or square; scones can be any shape but often wedges or squares
- Dairy: Buttermilk is a signature ingredient of biscuits while cream or milk is a more typical moistening ingredient in scones
- Mix ins: A scone’s finer crumbs invites more mix ins whereas biscuits are usually plain
As always, take these results with a grain of salt! These results depend heavily on a small group of American tasters who may or may not have ever had a true scone before, and also rest on the baking capabilities of an enthusiastic non-professional baker (me).
Depending on your scone preferences (dry, moist, biscuit-like, crumbly, flaky, etc.), your preferences may not align with these rankings, which is why I have an in-depth description of each scone below! As just one example, my favorite overall scone was actually the America’s Test Kitchen scone.
Most scones are composed of varying ratios of flour, butter, leaveners, sugar, some type of dairy, and sometimes egg.
These 10 basic scone formulas covers the permutations of most scone recipes in terms of butter, egg and dairy. While I would have suspected that the recipe formulas high in overall fat (butter + heavy cream) would do better, this wasn’t necessarily the case.
This theory held true for the top scone (Violet Bakery) which had a high proportion of butter and heavy cream. However, America’s Test Kitchen and Bon Appetit had similar ratios of butter and heavy cream and scored much lower.
I also theorized that recipes that used milk instead of heavy cream (King Arthur Flour and Epicurious) would fare much worse due to less overall fat. This proved false as these recipes took second and third place. However, I think this was due more to the novel vanilla flavor in the KAF scones and perhaps the appealingly flaky texture of the Epicurious scones rather than the scone base itself.
Dairy: The dairy used in the scone recipes can be broken down into four categories:
- Heavy cream (grand majority): hydrates while adding a generous amount of fat, which helps lead to tender scones.
- Whole milk: provides moisture but provides significantly less fat. Surprisingly, recipes using whole milk still performed better in this bake off compared to similar higher-fat recipes using cream.
- Buttermilk: provides moisture and tanginess. Tartine’s recipe was the only one to use buttermilk in our group, but I can’t say I really detected a difference compared to recipes that used plain milk.
- Creme fraiche/sour cream: similar to buttermilk, but obviously tends to be less runny/higher fat. The only recipe we tried that used creme fraiche was Bouchon Bakery (again, didn’t really notice a difference here–this scone seemed very similar to ATK’s cream and butter scone). Sarah Kieffer has a recipe that riffs on Ina’s scone by replacing the heavy cream with all creme fraiche which we didn’t test, but I imagine this would make for a very rich and delicious scone.
Sugar: Aside from affecting the level of sweetness, sugar also affects texture. This was most evident in Jessie Sheehan’s scone, which had 18% sugar compared to an average of about 6% in other scones. This higher sugar percentage led to a cakier, more moist scone that most people enjoyed. Less sugar will lead to drier scones.
Eggs: Like dairy, eggs help hydrate the dough and provide additional structure. Our results didn’t reveal any patterns on whether using eggs benefit scones or not, but anecdotally, I did not prefer the recipes that used egg (found them slightly chewier and less crumbly).
Bon Appetit: beautiful crust, but a bit forgettable.
These scones are quite similar to the Violet Bakery scone, but with an added egg and baking soda, 1/2 cup more flour and 1/2 stick less butter. These scones baked up beautifully craggy on the outside, but for whatever reason, the flavor was fairly underwhelming for me–not particularly sweet or rich. The texture was also unremarkable–it was on the drier side (which I usually like) but a little bouncy with a crumb that verged on coarse.
Some tasters liked the crisp exterior of this scone, though most agreed that it was relatively lacking in flavor. “No flavor, crispy sponge,” said one taster. “Predictable, average,” said another. Overall, people seemed to enjoy the texture but felt meh about the flavor.
America’s Test Kitchen Dreamy Cream Scones (via Smitten Kitchen): dry, close-crumbed fluffy scones
Very similar to the cream biscuits we tried in the biscuit bake off, these differed in its incorporation of more sugar and butter in addition to heavy cream. These were one of my favorite scones! I loved the soft, melt-in-your-mouth interiors with a slightly crunchy exterior and the balanced cream flavor. When I tasted this side by side with the Bouchon scone, I could barely detect a difference.
Tasters mostly marked this scone down for being dry and a bit “chalky.” “Too soft, needs more crunch,” said one. A few thought it was too bready, though at least one other person agreed with me: “airy and crumbly, would eat by itself.” I beg to differ with most of the other tasters. Yes, they are on the slightly drier side, but they’re still fluffy, pillowy and a perfect neutral backdrop for the spreads of your choice.
Tartine (via Alexandra Cooks): a buttermilk-laced scone with a crisp exterior and subtly tangy interior
The only scone to use buttermilk, the Tartine recipe is eggless and falls under the Medium Butter, No Egg Formula. It’s hard to say if the buttermilk really made a difference in this scone. I detected a very, very subtle tanginess in the dough, but that may only be because I was looking for it. Buttermilk is said to help increase tenderness in scones, but I think fat is a better indicator of how tender the scone will be. With this scone, it seems that the relatively lower amount of butter led to a slightly breadier texture. This scone was quite crumbly and on the drier, not-too-sweet side.
“Feels very traditional in terms of flavor and texture,” said one taster. Many commented on the crumbly texture, particularly when cutting into it. “Slightly more distinct textures happening here, the top is more crumbly and the inside is more moist, not as buttery as some of the others, would have appreciated a little more sweetness,” said another taster. Most agreed that the taste was pleasant, but the texture was drier than ideal. I had high hopes for these scones, but just didn’t love them. Maybe they’d be better if you cut them into round shapes like Alexandra does?
Ina Garten: slightly spongy, moist scones with a more open crumb
Ina’s scones actually defy the 10 basic scone formulas–these are super high butter AND high egg. Where most scone recipes hydrate the dough with more heavy cream, she uses a slightly more modest dose of cream balanced with more egg. Accordingly, this led to eggier scones that were quite moist, soft, and a bit bready, almost spongy. With a full teaspoon of salt, the saltiness was notable (I might take it down to 3/4 or 1/2 teaspoon next time) and while there was a nice golden, glossy top, the exterior lacked any kind of crunchy crust.
Tasters praised the “good buttery savory flavor,” though some wished for a sweeter, thicker and flakier scone. Some thought this scone also leaned more biscuit than scone, almost like a “less buttery crescent roll,” an account I agree with. I didn’t prefer the egginess of these scones, but they are a great option for those who prefer moister scones.
Bouchon Bakery: enormously tender scones with a cakey mouthfeel
This recipe is a bit high-maintenance as it calls for all-purpose AND cake flour, heavy cream, butter AND creme fraiche (I used sour cream here). Mixing the dough is a fairly straightforward task via a mixer, though you do have to freeze the dough until solid, at least 12 hours. Out of the oven, these light, golden scones represented everything I expect from a scone: a rich cream flavor, crumbly yet pillowy interior and a very mild sweetness.
Tasters noted the crumbly texture and buttery richness. Several marked it down for being too dry, while others thought the texture was fine (noting that it would be excellent with toppings). “A slightly sweeter version of [America’s Test Kitchen],” said one. Echoing my earlier comment, if you’re looking for this style of a classic scone, ATK’s version is much easier and tastes nearly identical to me. I would make this scone again only if I had creme fraiche or cake flour to use up; otherwise, I would default to ATK.
Jessie Sheehan: a sweet, muffin-like scone with notes of brown sugar
Jessie’s scone recipes stand out for their high sugar content and an unusual technique where you combine the dough to a crumbly texture, freeze the crumbs, and then press the crumbs into cookie cutters. Between her more traditional berry scone recipe and a brown sugar scone recipe, I went with the latter. Perhaps not the most fair comparison because brown sugar puts this scone into such different territory, this was still an interesting study in how much extra moisture from brown sugar (and just using more sugar in general) takes scones from the traditional dry and crumbly territory to a much moister, sweeter, softer muffin-like territory, which most tasters loved.
Note: I didn’t freeze the pucks for as long as I should have (maybe 45 minutes) which is why my scones look rounded instead of straight-edged like Jessie’s. Still, I don’t think this affected the flavor. While this close-crumbed scone is slightly moister than my ideal (I didn’t realize that was possible?!), the sweetness and craggy, caramelized exterior is dangerously addicting.
“Soft cookie texture,” commented several tasters. Most loved the crisp, sugary outside and dense, moist interior. Several commented that the sugary level probably took it this more into dessert territory rather than breakfast jam-and-butter territory. However, if you’re looking for a remixed, sweet breakfast treat, I definitely recommend giving these a try–I couldn’t stop eating them.
Epicurious: a salty, layered, ultra-buttery, biscuit-like scone
Advertised as an “Irish-style scone,” even the picture on on the Epicurious website looks like a flaky biscuit. This recipe uses an lamination-esque method of applying softened butter over the rolled out scone dough and applying a few folds to create an uber-flaky scone. I loved the tender layers of this scone fresh out of the oven (though the layers turned more brittle once cool). The flakiness–rather than a crumbly texture–of this scone was very biscuit-like. A sprinkling of flaky salt on top only emphasized this scone’s salty notes, which rendered it even closer to biscuit land.
Tasters likened this to “Pillsbury Grands” as the “salt on top reminds me of a biscuit.” Tasters loved the “crispy edges, buttery layers and soft, slightly bready interior.” “If you want your scone to be more like a biscuit, make this guy,” said one taster, and I agree. It’s tough for me to think of this as a traditional scone, but it would make an excellent biscuit.
King Arthur Flour: a picture-perfect crust with a vanilla-spiked interior
I was a bit skeptical of this scone recipe as it seemed like the lowest-fat recipe. With milk, a modest amount of butter and two eggs, this was a perfect example of the medium butter, high egg formula. The result? A perfectly crispy-edged scone (possibly due to instructions to bake these on the top rack) with a tender, slightly crumbly, very slightly chewier crumb. I was pleasantly surprised the golden, crunchy finish on these scones considering it only calls for a milk wash + sugar on top. Flavor-wise, this was the only recipe to use vanilla in the dough, which gave it a huge edge to many tasters.
“Love the vanilla,” “vanilla short cake,” raved several tasters; many commented that they liked the sweeter profile. “This seems like the right balance between what I know as the typical scone and what I enjoy. It seems like it’s just the right amount of sweetness, the perfect crust, but a cakey interior,” said one taster. This scone was definitely best fresh out of the oven and degraded fast as it cooled (though it is fine re-warmed). I would make this scone again mostly for the ease of ingredients, though for me, it’s a very slight compromise in terms of texture (the chewiness of these scones is barely detectable when warm, but at room temperature, it wasn’t quite as satisfying to me).
Violet Bakery: a fluffy, mildly salty, biscuit-like scone
This is one of the scones that kept us all questioning what the true difference between a scone and biscuit is. However, this recipe does come from a British Bakery, which might account for all of us confused Americans. Round, tender, and absolutely chock full of butter and heavy cream under a glossy, egg-washed lid, this scone had a very soft and plush crumb that melts on the tongue. A slightly more salt-forward profile that helped enhance the light sweetness–I think this sweetness and the slight crumbliness rather than breadiness were really the only things that set this apart from an American biscuit. Even though it lacked the crisp, sugar-encrusted exterior that I prefer in a scone, there’s an extremely addicting richness about these that kept me coming back. Next time I’d roll them a little thicker for more height.
Tasters almost universally compared this scone to a biscuit, but praised it for being “light and fluffy,” “buttery,” and with a subtle sweetness. “It thought about being crumbly and dry, but then thought again and got its life right. Tasty!” In a world where most scones are on the crumbly, drier side, this scone just edges over to the moister side of the scale. I would definitely make these again.
BEST SCONE RECOMMENDATIONS
Most decadent, crowd-pleasing: Violet Bakery, Jessie Sheehan
Easiest to make: King Arthur Flour
Best classic scone: Bouchon, America’s Test Kitchen
Best for savory applications: Epicurious, Ina Garten
Best for sweet lovers: Jessie Sheehan
Most biscuit-like: Epicurious, Violet Bakery
My ideal scone: America’s Test Kitchen pretty much nailed it! For my personal tea party, this is the one to beat.
Happy baking! As always, tag #pancakeprincessbakeoff on Instagram if you try any of these recipes–would love to hear your thoughts!
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