Making pastry dough for pie or tart crust can be a tricky proposition. It seems simple and with so few ingredients, how can you fail? Home cooks often do and it is usually because the dough is overworked. Enter the pastry cutter: This underused tool is a baker's best friend, and if you use it correctly, you will never have a terrible crust again.
Check the pastry cutter to confirm that it's impeccably clean. Because pastry dough contains so few ingredients, every imperfection stands out even more than in a complex recipe with dozens of ingredients. Also, a pastry cutter has small parts that trap old flour and butter tightly. A quick rinse is never good enough. It must be scrubbed thoroughly after each use and left to dry in a dish rack to discourage any unsavory flavors it may impart during its next use.
Chill the pastry cutter before using it. It's true that the best pie crusts are made from ingredients that are chilled before assembly. It then makes even more sense that the implement used to mix said cold ingredients, should also be chilled. If you were using ice cold butter and chilled water, why would you use a room temperature pastry cutter to mix the ingredients and warm them up? Stick the pastry cutter in the freezer for at least a half an hour before using it and remove it only just before you are ready to make the pastry dough.
Mix the ingredients carefully. With flour and cubed butter in the bowl together, begin rocking the pastry cutter back and forth through the two ingredients as you slowly trickle in the ice water. It is important to add the water slowly, so as to control the moisture level of the dough. It is equally as important to be mindful of the amount of times you rock the pastry cutter through the mixture. Every time you work the cutter through the mixture, you are working up more and more glutens in the flour. While high gluten levels are desirable in bread, the opposite is desirable in a flaky crust. You want to mix it as little as possible while still incorporating all of the ingredients.
Find other uses for a pastry cutter. While the pastry cutter does not have the versatility of a blender or even a chef's knife, there are other creative uses for this kitchen tool. If you are making a large shortbread, to be broken after baking, scoring the enormous cookie is a cinch with the pastry cutter. Also, when making homemade gnocchi, creating the indentations on each piece of pasta is quite a bit easier if you use the pastry cutter. Use your imagination and you can find many more uses for this underrated kitchen staple.
- On Cooking; Sarah Labensky