Big Little Recipes

The Lightest, Fluffiest Scones Skip This Important Ingredient

We were pretty shocked, too.

January 23, 2019

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today’s menu: foolproof cream scones, thanks to an unexpected missing ingredient.

A good scone is hard to find. It should have a confident crust and fluffy center, be moist (yes, I said moist), and extremely buttery. So you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a raved-about recipe that included no butter at all.

Could it be?

The standard scone-making approach is the same as with biscuits: Stir together dry ingredients (flour, a little sugar and salt, plus any leaveners—baking powder, baking soda, or both). Cut in cold butter with your fingertips, a pastry blender, or a food processor. Then stir in your liquid of choice; cream and buttermilk are the popular picks.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“However, when I make scones, I prefer the Cooks Illustrated recipe using frozen grated butter and the croissant method of folding the dough and chilling several times before cutting and baking them. I always use a crunchy sugar topping on my scones and muffins. It just adds that xtra touch!”
— Robin B.

But a couple months ago, I was re-reading A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus by Renee Erickson, and the Boat Street Scones’ ingredient list caught my eye: flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, kosher salt, dried currants, lemon zest, heavy cream, and demerara sugar. Where was the butter?

Sorry, butter—you can't sit with us. Photo by Ty Mecham

In the headnote, Erickson writes about how she learned the recipe from the since-closed Boat Street Café, and how it’s become her go-to: “I always have excess cream in my refrigerator, so on a Sunday morning when I wake up hungry, [these scones are] my go-to when I know friends might stop by.”

Because there’s no butter in the recipe, there’s no butter-incorporating. And because there’s no butter-incorporating, there’s no fuss. Just dump dry ingredients in a bowl, mix in cream, pat dough into a circle, cut into triangles, and bake.

Turns out, there are other butterless lookalikes out there. One day, the Food52 team was sampling some scone recipe tests and Director of Partner Content Cory Baldwin remarked that she makes biscuits in a similar way.

Specifically, the cream biscuits on Smitten Kitchen. Blogger Deb Perelman adapted the recipe from James Beard’s American Cookery, originally published in 1980.

Sugar crusts for the win. Photo by Ty Mecham

“That's been my go-to biscuit since 2009, when the recipe was posted, and it’s never failed me,” Cory told me. “It’s so hard to mess up.”

Indeed, the risk with cutting butter into flour—for scones, biscuits, and even pie dough—is overworking the butter, and ending up with a dense result. Skipping the butter and increasing the cream takes away all the guesswork.

Which is exactly why our contributor Alice Medrich skips the butter in her easy-as-ever shortcakes: "no butter to cut in and no worrisome biscuit-making technique to deter you!"

Another person on the Food52 team who loves this method? Our cofounder Merrill Stubbs. She posted a recipe for cream biscuits in 2010—and, how about this, it was adapted from Marion Cunningham, who adapted it from James Beard.

The cream, Merrill writes in the recipe, “keeps them from being even remotely dry. And more great news for non-bakers like me: the recipe is completely forgiving.”

This recipe for cream scones is, too. Like the versions listed above, it has no butter and a lot of heavy cream. But from there, I made a few Big Little tweaks:

Instead of all-purpose flour, I swapped in white whole-wheat. If you’ve never worked with this ingredient before—it’s just like regular whole-wheat, but milled from white wheat flour instead, which means a lighter color and subtler flavor. I love how it makes the scones heartier, with a toasty, nutty flavor.

I also call for raw sugar instead of granulated. Like the whole-wheat, this means deeper flavor—in this case, caramely, molasses-y vibes. It also means a crunchier, crustier crust.

You could, of course, serve these with jam and butter. But my favorite is clotted cream or crème fraîche—more cream, because why not?

What’s your favorite way to make scones? Tell us in the comments!

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Jennifer J. September 24, 2020
Can I substitute yogurt for the heavy cream?
Pamela L. February 15, 2020
It's apples and oranges, cream scones are and always have been a different baked product. Not "something left out".
Mary M. July 15, 2020
Exactly. Heavy cream contains butter; it is a combo of milk and butter.
judy March 30, 2019
I like cream scones, but I prefer butter. Because I LOVE the flavor that butter brings to the recipe. Both are light, airy, crispy outside and delicate inside. Just depends on what one is looking for.
Nancy J. March 9, 2019
Would it work if I omitted the sugar to go the savory route and add cheese, bacon and onions?
Emma L. March 11, 2019
Yum! I haven't tried that, but since it's such a small amount of sugar in the dough itself—it sounds like a pretty safe bet to me. If you try it out, please let know how it goes!
Liz March 1, 2019
I don't have access to white wholewheat flour where I live. Would regular wholewheat flour, or even white flour, work equally well in this recipe?
Emma L. March 1, 2019
Hey Liz! You could do a mix of half AP flour and half whole-wheat flour. Or you could do all AP flour.
Liz March 9, 2019
Great! Thanks for the solution -- looking forward to trying it out!
Sarah P. February 11, 2019
Like E.M. I have been making and riffing on Marion Cunningham's Dried Fruit Scones for many years. Cinnamon chips were the most popular variation when my kids were young. They make a nice mix to give as gifts (or keep on hand). Just add cream.
Linda February 3, 2019
Just made these. Easy, quick, and delicious. Was a bit worried about using all whole-wheat flour, but texture was not heavy and the nutty flavor was good. Great way to use up extra cream.
Emma L. February 3, 2019
Thanks, Linda—so glad you enjoyed!
Allison February 3, 2019
King Arthur has a great recipe using sour cream in place of butter.
Emma L. February 3, 2019
Yum! That sounds so tangy and so good.
Margaret February 3, 2019
Joy of baking has a similar recipe. Works well with full fat coconut milk if you’d prefer a vegan scone.
Emma L. February 3, 2019
Whoa to the coconut milk variation! Can't wait to try that.
Kate February 3, 2019
Hi, I have tried many recipes, the Good Housekeeping Baking recipe was my 'go to' for many years - great variations. i recently discovered Dorie Greenspan's Cream Scones. If I happen to have heavy cream in the house I make these, they are a bit more forgiving, and the recipe makes a smaller batch.
E M. February 3, 2019
Marion Cunningham published a very similar recipe for dried fruit cream scones in "The Breakfast Book" (Alfred A. Knopf 1987). Also in the book is a recipe for cream biscuits, which she attributes to James Beard. The basic concept yields excellent results and can be varied in many ways - use all AP flour, or substitute some whole wheat flour or ground oats or oat flour... add different dried fruits. Put sugar or a glaze on top or whatever. It's a good template and fun to play around with. (I'm particularly fond of using ground oats and chopped dried apricot.)
Robin B. January 24, 2019
I have made cream biscuits using this method and they were fine as I am sure these are too. However, when I make scones, I prefer the Cooks Illustrated recipe using frozen grated butter and the croissant method of folding the dough and chilling several times before cutting and baking them. I always use a crunchy sugar topping on my scones and muffins. It just adds that xtra touch!
mrslarkin January 23, 2019
And also similar to Genius Recipes KAF Never Fail Biscuits. So easy, so delicious!

I’ll stick with some butter in my cream scones. It’s what makes them so buttery and tender.
BerryBaby January 23, 2019
Hands down, the recipe I use (and posted last year) Fluffy Scones. Ironically, I'm making them today. So easy, even incorporating the butter and flour with the food processor. They freeze beautifully as well.
Ben F. January 23, 2019
Peter Reinhart has an all-cream scone recipe in Crust and Crumb (1998), easy and delightful.
Emma L. January 23, 2019
Cool! Thanks for sharing that—love his recipes.