Fun fact: the word ‘pastry’ is derived from the word ‘paste’. A baker’s ‘paste’ is created from a mixture of fat, flour and liquid. Therefore the broad category of ‘pastry’ is any combination of these three components. It’s the ratio of these ingredients, the manner in which they’re mixed, and how the dough is used that creates specialty pastries. There’s a huge variety to choose from — but here we’ll discuss techniques that can improve your classic pie pastry.
There are two styles of pie dough: flaky and mealy. Decide which you prefer before you start mixing — because you can create either using the same ingredients, but with different mixing techniques.
Flaky pie dough
Must be mixed by hand, and the fat rubbed or cut into the flour until fat particles are pea-sized. The liquid is then added and absorbed by the flour. When rolled out, the lumps of flour and shortening create the “flakes” of this pastry.
Mealy pie dough
Thsi one is mixed more completely to the crumb stage — or even to the point of becoming a paste (think food processor dough). This type of dough is ideal for pies that tend to have a soggy bottom (custard or fruit) because by coating the flour so completely with fat, the crust is unable to absorb moisture. Add the water slowly when making mealy dough, it tends to require slightly less water.
Why do you need to keep your ingredients cool?
Mixing pie dough is a fine balance of developing just enough gluten to create a stable dough, but not so much that it will be tough. Gluten develops slowly at cooler temperatures, allowing you time to rub your butter and flour together with minimal gluten production. That is why everything has to be cold!
Why do you have to use unsalted butter?
Unsalted butter tends to have a fresher, slightly sweeter flavour. Salt is a tenderizer, and so small amounts are added to pie dough — however it is preferred to add salt as a separate ingredient to control how much is added. If you must use salted butter, reduce how much is added in the remainder of the recipe.
When do I use butter and when do I use shortening?
My grandma swears by shortening in her pie dough, however, the majority of bakers would swear by butter. The truth is they both have a point. The plasticity of shortening makes it very easy to rub and cut into flour — resulting in a very flaky crust. The downside of shortening is it’s often lacking in flavour. Butter will yield a tasty crust, but is often tough because it is harder to work into the flour and contains slightly more water. Many cooks opt for a 50/50 split of butter to shortening — so they can get the best of both worlds.
Two rules to follow when choosing your fat:
1. Butter contains more water than shortening so decrease your moisture slightly if using butter in place of shortening.
2. Substituting all butter into a recipe that calls for all shortening means the amount of butter must be increased by 1/4. Therefore one cup shortening will become 1 1/4 cup butter.
Why should I let the dough chill before rolling it?
Any time flour, fat and a liquid are rubbed together gluten is developed. Allowing the dough time to chill gives the gluten time to relax and become more elastic, making it easier to roll out. Although some recipes say 30 minutes, an hour is ideal. When you remove your dough from the fridge, leave it wrapped in plastic wrap and pound it gently with your rolling pin. I learned this handy trick in my bakery years that helps make the cold dough more malleable, and easier to roll out.
How much flour should I dust my surface with?
Remember that every teaspoon of flour you roll into your dough will make it slightly tougher. Use just enough to keep it from sticking, but not so much that it alters the composition of your dough. Re-rolled dough will be tougher, so try to do it minimally, let it rest between rolls and add as little additional flour as needed.
What heat should I bake pastry at?
Whether you are blind-baking an empty tart shell or baking a filled pie … bake it hot! Pies are typically baked between 400F and 450F. For pies with a more fragile centre (such as custard) a recipe may call for the heat to be reduced after the initial baking period to prevent curdling. But for the most part you want the heat cranked until the pie is cooked. This prevents your crust from absorbing liquid and getting the dreaded soggy bottom.
Now that you know how to make pastry, here are four great recipes for summer pastry (and pies):
Raspberry pie with an all-shortening crust
This all-shortening crust is supremely flaky but subdued in flavour, which lets the filling (like tart raspberries) shine. Get the all-shortening pastry recipe.
5 ways to stop your pastry from shrinking
How to weave a lattice pie crust
10 (other) things to know about baking a perfect pie