Seven steps to perfect pastry

By Benjamina Ebuehi

Pastry is quite incredible when you think about it. It’s amazing that a whole myriad of pastry varieties – from crumbly, melt in-the-mouth shortcrust to glassy, flaky puff, to ethereally light choux – are all created using butter, flour and water (and the occasional egg).

People are often intimated by pastry, unnerved by the potential pitfalls and the threat of soggy bottoms – but there’s nothing more satisfying than mastering those fears and turning out a perfect pie every time.

If you’re new to the joys of pastry-making, I’d recommend starting with a good shortcrust. It’s quick to knock up, and it lends itself perfectly to savoury and sweet - from a classic chicken and leek pie to my easy cherry pie.

Get shorty

‘Short’ in baking terms refers to the high proportion of fat to flour, meaning a ‘short’ dough is rich, crumbly and tender. As a general rule, it’s double the amount of flour to fat, bound with water and egg for richness. A pinch of salt is essential for flavour. To get a really short pastry, you could swap out half the butter for lard. And to achieve a flakier pastry, you could increase the butter to about 2:3 butter to flour. But whatever the combination, the rules remain the same. Keep cool and handle with care.

The key to a crumbly shortcrust is to inhibit the development of stringy, elastic gluten. Gluten is created when two flour proteins called glutelin and gliadin bond (through water) and form long chains. Gluten is good in puff pastry as these sheets develop into flaky layers, less so for a crumbly shortcrust where it becomes tough.

The fat in the butter basically ‘coats’ the flour and stops these proteins forming bonds to create gluten, hence why we rub the butter into the flour, before adding as little water as possible.

Stay cool

It’s essential the butter isn’t too warm, it will leak liquid oil into the dough creating a sticky, greasy pastry (hence the tales of pastry chefs working on marble worktops in freezing rooms). You can pop the butter in the freezer for 15 minutes before you begin, and add ice cubes to your water, to make sure they’re nice and chilly.

To rub the butter in, I like to use the pulse function on a food processor for ease, as it reduces the butter to crumbs before it can get too warm. You can achieve the same results by using your hands, just be careful not to let the butter warm up too much. When you are crumbing your pastry, don’t worry if you have pea-sized pieces of butter in there. Bigger pieces of butter will make a flakier pastry thanks to the pockets of steam they create. But if you’re going for a really biscuity texture, try to rub the butter in in evenly.

Handle with care

The less liquid your pastry has, the more tender and crumbly it will be, but trickier to roll out. Egg white is mostly water, so the size of egg (or whether you use yolks or whole eggs) will affect the amount of water you need.

Pastry cooks say that as little as a 3ml variation in water can make the difference between a crumbly and a tough pastry – so go slowly and add as little as possible. It’s a tricky balance – making sure your pastry doesn’t become sticky, but ensuring it is pliable enough to roll out. If it does get a little wet, just cut up your dough and add a little flour to the pieces before bringing them back together – adding flour to the entire ball means extra kneading which might activate the gluten (which we know now means tough pastry).

If you keep kneading your pastry like playdough, those gluten strands will form creating elasticity and ‘bounce back’ or shrinkage. This will mean the pastry shrinks in the oven and will lack tenderness – so be gentle and don’t be tempted to knead it once it just comes together.

Rolling and resting

Resting the pastry by chilling it in the fridge relaxes any of our much-discussed gluten so the crust won’t shrink as much. Chilling allows the fat to resolidify, making the pastry easier to work with and ensuring it holds its shape. Be sure to wrap the pastry in cling film or store it in a plastic box to prevent it becoming dry.

Some recipes advise you to bring the pastry together and chill it immediately. If the pastry feels warm to touch, or it’s a hot day, it’s a good idea. But it can be very difficult to roll out once it’s chilled to a solid block. Keeping the block disc-shaped will help, and you can use the rolling pin to knock the disc flatter before you begin rolling to give yourself a head start.

If you’ve brought the pastry together quickly and it feels nice and cold, it’s fine to roll it out. Line the tin and chill/rest it already rolled. (It’s a lot easier to roll this way.)

Lightly dust your surface with flour so the dough doesn’t stick when you’re ready to roll, and dust the rolling pin, too. Work lightly and minimally, roll gently away from you and don’t put downward pressure on the dough (don’t squash it). Give it a quarter turn after every roll, which will make it easier to control the thickness and the shape.

Transfer to the tin or case with the pastry draped over your rolling pin, and unroll over the tin, it’s the most gentle and effective way to move it. I trim the excess pastry with scissors and then I like to neatly fold over the edges to get an extra thick crust (the best bit in my opinion!)

Stop those soggy bottoms

Blind baking is a trusted technique to avoid the much maligned and now well-publicised ‘soggy bottom’, it means the pastry is cooked before you add any filling. I would blind bake when I’m making a lemon meringue pie or custard tart – when the liquid filling would stop the pastry cooking completely. Just weigh the pastry down with ceramic baking beans (or you could use rice or dried beans) on a sheet of baking paper sat directly on the pastry. The weight will prevent the pastry puffing up in the oven.

My cherry pie is double-crusted – it has pastry on the bottom and top so we can’t blind bake. So it’s important to reduce the liquid by cooking the filling first, and cook the pie for long enough to ensure the bottom isn’t soggy. You can pre-heat a baking tray and bake your pie on top of it so that the base benefits from the direct heat.

Another tip is to add some ground almonds mixed with 1 tablespoon of cornflour to your raw fruit for about an hour before cooking, this will help to absorb the fruit juices. Don’t forget the amount of sugar you need will vary depending on how sweet and ripe your fruit is.

And finally, the oven needs to be good and hot when the pie goes in, so the pastry can set as the fat melts and not after.

Make enough pastry

Sometimes it’s hard to tell how much pastry you need to fill your dish – and believe me, there’s nothing more disheartening than realising you don’t have enough pastry.

Use the chart below to ensure you have the correct amount of sweet shortcrust pastry for your tin size – but eggs vary in size, so don’t be afraid to adjust the water up or down slightly depending how it feels. Don't forget to add your pinch of salt, which you can increase or decrease accordingly.

Tin DiameterTotal Pastry weightFlourIcing SugarFatEggWater
15cm/6in325g170g20g90g1 small1 tsp
18cm/7in390g200g20g110g1 small1½ tsp
20cm/8in430g225g25g120g1 medium2 tsp
23cm/9in500g260g30g140g1 medium2 tsp
25cm/10in540g280g30g150g1 medium2½ tsp
28cm/11in605g315g40g170g1 medium2½ tsp
30cm/12in650g340g40g180g1 large2¾ tsp
36cm/14in775g405g45g215g1 large1 tbsp

Experiment

You can of course play around with your shortcrust pastry once you’ve got the hang of it, you could add some cardamom for a floral note, or some ginger to complement a rhubarb pie. I like to add nigella seeds to my pastry for my potato and cauliflower curry pie, it adds flavour but is also visually impressive.

Plus pastry freezes really well, so if you have surplus, you can put it in the freezer and have it on hand to magic up something special in no time at all.

Have fun experimenting, allow your kitchen to be the place that you take time to slow down, and be present, and you’ll have something delicious to show for it.