Homemade pastry is one of those things that a lot of people are daunted by because they think it’s hard or fussy or tricky. Which breaks my heart because it’s none of those things.
Making pastry is easy.
It’s as easy as four ingredients, all of which you probably have on hand. It’s as easy as about 10 minutes, which you can surely spare. And, if you use a food processor, it’s as easy as pushing a button.
Hoping I’ve convinced you to try, here’s how to make pastry.
1. Combine flour and salt in a food processor, then add pieces of cold butter.
That’s the first photo in the quartet above.
2. Pulse a few times to incorporate the butter.
The mixture should look like a coarse meal, with some pea-sized pieces of butter (second photo).
Why a coarse meal and pea-sized pieces? Because when those coarser pieces bake, they’ll steam a bit, creating little air pockets, which make for flakiness.
Why should the butter be cold? Because warmer butter is more likely to soften and melt as you’re working, which will make it more likely to be absorbed by the flour, which makes for tougher—in other words, less tender—pastry. Less flaky too.
That’s also, by the way, why the butter should be in pieces before adding it to the flour—pieces will take less mixing to incorporate, therefore less melting will happen.
3. Add ice water and pulse a few more times.
How much pulsing? Just a few times, enough to evenly incorporate the water (third photo). Don’t try and pulse until it becomes a doughball—it doesn’t need to and you don’t want to work it that hard or long.
I bet you can already guess why the water should be ice cold—yep, it helps keep that butter cold!
4. Test by squeezing a small handful.
If it holds together (fourth photo), you’re done. If not, add more water, a tablespoon at a time, pulsing and doing the squeeze test after each addition.
5. Dump the contents of the food processor onto a lightly floured surface or a sheet of plastic wrap, shape it into a disk, wrap it up, and set it aside in the refrigerator.
It will be crumbly when you dump it out (review the third photo), but it will come together as you shape it. Knead it a few times if you like, but not too much because you don’t want to develop gluten, which is antithetical to tenderness, and you don’t want to melt the butter.
Time in the fridge helps the butter reharden and also lets the dough rest, which also helps avoid developing gluten.
6. Congratulate yourself! You made pastry!
A few tips
Since cold butter is your friend, you want to make your pastry relatively quickly. Don’t make yourself nuts about it, but don’t dawdle.
Get all your ingredients measured and prepped before you start, including cutting up the butter and putting it back in the fridge until you’re ready for it.
For the ice water, I prep ice and water in a spouted measuring cup. When it’s time, I use a tablespoon to scoop out the amount I need or I measure it into a 2-ounce measuring cup (I have a bunch of these and love them).
A few enhancements
There are, of course, ways to gild the lily. Replace some of the water with vodka (the alcohol helps with flakiness) or vinegar (it helps prevent gluten development). Add some sugar for sweet applications, like fruit pies. Or add other flavorings like extracts, ground nuts, or citrus zest—for example, there’s almond extract in the pastry for these Peach Galettes.
A side note re: enhancements. I once created a Quince Tarte Tatin for Bon Appetit and Kristine Kidd, my editor there, said the crust, which has both a little sugar and a little cider vinegar, was the best she’d ever had. The Food Editor of Bon Appetit said that about my crust—and imagine how many she’d tasted in her 20 years there!
I tell you that because, years later, it still tickles me. But also so you know that I’m not just a guy in a diner when it comes to pastry.
In other words, I know of what I speak. Don’t be daunted. Pastry is easy.