When there are as many recipes and techniques for pastry as there are cooks, it’s no wonder people think making it from scratch is rocket science. While it may take a little practice, it's a skill everyone can learn. Pastry calls for the most basic pantry ingredients: flour, fat, salt and cold water. When it comes to these ingredients, you have a couple of options that all yield slightly different results. However, it’s the technique that will take you the furthest in creating tender and flaky pastry. In the end, the outcome depends on which fat you use and how you work the dough (the key is getting to know the “feel” of the dough!). Once you master the technique of this simple pastry crust, you will never go back to storebought.
Please take note before going any further: The main enemies of a great pastry crust are warm ingredients, overworking or mixing, and not enough chilling or resting. Pastry crusts do not need to be perfect, they are easy to patch and repair.
ABOUT THE INGREDIENTS
The most common type of flour to use (and the one I recommend) is all-purpose flour.
Fat is the ingredient that leads to the most discussion. In my experience people lean into the fat that their mother or grandmother used. The familiarity of the flavour and texture one grows up eating, draws people to use either butter, lard, shortening or a combination. Each fat lends its own personality to the pastry, and you can play around with the different variations and decide what you like best. My choice is an all-butter crust.
Lard: Lard chills nicely and doesn’t break down under heat as quickly as butter. It yields a relatively flaky and tender crust, with a pleasant flavour.
Shortening: Very high melting point so less chance of overmixing and melting. This is a great option if you have a warm kitchen or warm hands. It yields a very flaky pastry but lacks flavour and can leave a waxy feeling in the mouth.
Butter: Best in class for flavour! It yields a tender, flaky crust as long as you do not overwork the dough.
Oil: This is definitely not a classic fat for pastry. However, liquid oil makes a good option for a vegan crust. It yields a mealy crust that is good for quiches and other custards. Not flaky at all.
All you really need is ice cold water. Having said that, some recipes swear by the use of half water and half vodka.
Why vodka? One of the enemies of a great crust is overworking the dough, as it develops the gluten in the flour too much and this creates a tougher pastry. Adding vodka inhibits the development of gluten. The alcohol from the vodka evaporates as the pastry cooks, leaving no flavour behind.
ABOUT THE TECHNIQUE
Cutting in the fat
Keep the fat chilled until you are ready to cut it into the flour. This is key. Work quickly to ensure the fat remains cold. Ideally, you should end up with pieces of butter that are roughly the size of black beans or peas.
Pastry cutter – This tool is classic and effective. Just work quickly until the fat is broken into pea sized pieces coated in flour.
Box grater – You likely already have this one at home. Grate cold butter into the flour and use your fingertips to mix through the flour until the fat is well-distributed.
Food processor – This is the easiest and fastest way to cut in butter. Pulse until you have a crumbly and uneven mixture.
Hands – Work quickly, alternating squeezing the pieces of butter into the flour with your fingertips and rubbing it quickly between your palms. If your hands run hot, it’s a better idea to use one of the above methods.
Adding in the liquid
Once you've mastered the fat, you can begin to add your ice cold liquid. Add a tablespoon at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon. The mixture will look raggedy, and may even not look like it’s going to come together. Pick up a handful of the dough and squeeze it together in your hand. If it holds together and doesn’t appear dry, you have added enough water and are ready to move on to chilling. If it falls apart when you open your fist, add another tablespoon of water until the dough comes together as above. Pour dough out on to work surface and bring the dough together into one large ball. I'll say it again: Do not overwork.
Once the dough comes together, be sure to chill– ideally in a round 1-inch disc for single crust recipe and 2 1-inch round discs for a double crust recipe–at least 30 minutes before you roll out the pastry.
Dust your work surface or a piece of parchment paper and rolling pin liberally with flour. Begin rolling, turning your pastry a half turn every so often and flipping it over to ensure the dough doesn’t stick. Add more flour as needed. For a standard pie plate, roll your pastry into a 12-inch circle. Tuck the pastry gently into the pie plate and chill until you are ready to bake.
This refers to pre-cooking your crust before adding a filling. This is a must for custard-based pies like quiches, pumpkin pie or when the filling doesn’t require cooking. Again, there are many methods for blind baking, from lining the raw pastry with parchment or aluminum and using either beans, sugar or pie weights to weigh the pastry down while cooking. Any of the above combinations work to keep the pastry crust in place, preventing shrinking, slumping or a puffy center.
My favourite technique for blind baking
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place the pie plate of chilled pastry on to a baking sheet and line with a sheet of aluminum foil. Pour in enough sugar to fill completely and place into the pre-heated oven for 30-40 minutes. Pastry should be golden brown. Allow the crust to cool and remove aluminum foil and sugar. Proceed with your recipe.