"Plain Pastry" heads the recipe from a shaggy volume of Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook that's been around for a few decades. Fannie Farmer calls it "plain paste" in her Boston Cooking-school Cook Book, originally published in 1896. And it is a humble thing. Just flour and water bound together with fat and some elbow grease.
Upon this lowly base, great chefs, frugal housewives and fearless adventurers have built some of the most irresistible creations in culinary history. But a pie with a tough crust won't win any awards, no matter how fresh and tasty the filling is. Getting your pastry to turn out the way you want it to takes some practice, attention and maybe a family secret or two.
What you do with dough can also speak volumes about your culture and nationality. From the flaky, delicate Turkish phyllo to the sturdy wrapper of Cornish pasties, different countries each have a unique and traditional relationship with pastry dough.
In this article, we'll go through the long and varied history of pastry dough, focusing on how it's changed throughout the centuries and throughout other cultures. But first, we'll look at how dough itself works.
How Dough Works
Chemistry is the magical force that makes flour and water become dough instead of turning into a cloudy liquid. Gluten proteins in wheat flour don't dissolve in water because they form molecular bonds with it. In the presence of water, gluten proteins change shape and gain the elasticity characteristic of dough. Starch, which makes up 70 percent of the weight of flour, also grabs water to form chemical bonds. Starch bond networks weave themselves through gluten networks to tenderize the dough and hold its shape during and after baking.
If you want wafer-thin, flaky dough for one dish and sturdy, hardworking dough for a different dish, all you have to do is alter the way the chemical bonds form. Fats, such as lard, butter, shortening, oil, cream cheese and sour cream, are what differentiate pastry dough from pasta or bread dough. Fats work to break up gluten and starch networks. They literally shorten the bonds formed between flour and water, hence the term "shortening." The shortened bonds have a weaker chemical structure, making the dough more tender. Before baking, the flaky layers of piecrust and puff pastry actually float on microscopic layers of fat.
The type of flour you use and your technique in working the dough influence the finished product, too. Flour specifically for pastry is milled from soft red wheat. This wheat has less protein than other flours, so it will form weaker gluten networks when mixed with water. The temperature of that water is important for your dough's success and varies depending on what type of dough you make. Liquids are nearly boiling for cream puff pastry but ice cold for pie and tart crusts.
Shortening yields a lighter pastry than butter, but butter pastries have better flavor. Always use unsalted butter so you don't overdo the salt content and turn out tough dough. Fats such as cream cheese and sour cream make rich, moist dough.
Overworked dough crumbles instead of flaking. Underworked dough may be tough because the fat isn't dispersed evenly. Cooking at too-low temperatures melts fat out of the molecular bonds rather than boiling it in to create a delicate, flaky finished pastry.
Now that you know what makes dough work, learn how it's been employed through the ages.
Medieval Dough (Hot-water Pastry)
During the Middle Ages, pastry was plain and utilitarian. Europeans shaped it by hand into cooking containers that did double duty as storage for meat dishes. After crafting a pan made of dough and filling it with meat and seasonings, the cook rolled out a dough "lid" and sealed it around the edges. Cooking the meat inside the dough container stabilized it by killing microbes that break it down, and the thick, sturdy pastry enclosure protected the meat from airborne contaminants.
Basic Recipe for Hot-Water Pastry
- 2 parts flour (2 cups or 200 grams)
- 1 tsp (2 grams) salt
- 1 part water and milk, mixed (2 ounces [59 milliliters] water + 2 ounces [59 milliliters] milk)
- One-third part lard or other fat (2.4 ounces) [68 grams]
Mix the flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl, then form a well in the center. In a saucepan, combine lard and liquids and heat until just boiling. Remove the pot from the heat and pour the liquid into the flour well, stirring the mixture quickly with a wooden spoon until the dough forms. Allow the dough to rest until it cools, then turn it onto a lightly floured board and knead until it's smooth. You can hand raise the dough into a cooking vessel, or shape it by molding it around the outside of a pot, pie pan or jelly jar, depending on what size you need. Be sure to save some dough to flatten into a lid for your dish [source: Floyd, Green Chronicle, McGee].
Puff Pastry from the Middle Ages
Toward the end of the Middle Ages, pastry lightened up a lot. Instead of making dough that was stiff enough to stand alone, French cooks whipped up a two-step pastry that starts as batter and ends up as egg-rich dough. Baked, the little dough balls resemble cabbage heads, so the chefs called it "pâte à choux" -- cabbage pastry. When fried in hot oil, this pastry puffs up into light, airy beignets.
Choux is also known as cream puff pastry, because the hollow, crispy shells are perfect for filling with pastry cream to make éclairs and, of course, cream puffs.
Basic Recipe for Choux (Cream Puff Pastry)
- One-fourth pound (113 grams) unsalted butter
- One-half to 1 cup (118-237 milliliters) water (or mixture of 3 parts water to 1 part milk)
- One-fourth teaspoon (.52 grams) salt
- 2 teaspoons (4 grams) sugar
- 1 cup (200 grams) flour
- 4 eggs, broken into individual cups and beaten
Combine the water, milk, salt and sugar in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the butter and stir. When the butter melts fully, add the flour, stirring vigorously until it forms into soft dough. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool slightly. Reduce heat, return the pan to the burner and beat the eggs into the mixture, one at a time, until it's smooth. Remove from heat.
In the 1500s, many innovations spread across Europe and the Middle East. See how pastry transformed from a culinary workhorse into a sophisticated delicacy on the next page.
Renaissance Pastry Innovations
The Renaissance era ushered in renewed interest in learning, lush furnishings and expressive art. Pastry dough also got a rise when the Arabs came up with their own recipe for puff pastry. This extravagant and labor-intensive creation quadrupled its height during baking, rising up into hundreds of microscopically thin layers separated by air. Of course, this result required the fat, traditionally butter, to be worked into the dough through six successive bouts of folding, rolling and chilling. It took the better part of a day.
Traditional Puff Pastry Recipe
- 2 parts flour (3 cups or 300 grams)
- 1 part ice water (1.5 cups or 0.7 liter
- 1 to 2 tsp (5-10 milliliters) lemon juice, if desired
- 1 part unsalted butter (1.5 cups) [149 grams], brought to room temperature but firm enough to roll flat
In a large bowl, mix the flour with water and lemon juice to form moist dough. Turn it onto a lightly floured board and form a square. On a separate work surface, use a rolling pin to flatten the butter into a rectangle with the same consistency and width of the dough, but half the length. Place the butter rectangle on the bottom half of dough and fold the top half of dough over it, pressing the dough edges together to seal air inside along with the butter. Roll the dough-butter rectangle to one-fourth of an inch (6.4 millimeters) thickness. Fold the dough in half from left side to right and refrigerate for one hour. Repeat five more times, alternating the direction of folds from left-to-right and top-to-bottom. Changing the direction of the fold helps ensure that the butter gets worked through all layers [source: Editors of Cooks Illustrated, Farmer, McGee].
The point of all the turnings is to work the dough into 729 layers of dough suspended between 728 microscopic layers of butter [source: McGee]. Puff pastry relies on steam escaping from the boiling butter layers to lift it up as it bakes, so it needs a fully preheated and consistently hot oven temperature. If you cut the dough before baking, be sure to use a very sharp knife. Otherwise, you'll mash the layers together and the pastry won't rise at the edges.
More challenging but irresistible pastries that originated during this time are on the next page.
A close cousin of puff pastry is sheet pastry. The Turks get credit for coming up with this, but the best-known examples of sheet pastry are phyllo, a Greek word meaning "leaf," and strudel, a German word meaning "whirlpool."
Sheet pastry has a stiff dough that's one part flour and two-fifths part water, with a little salt and a small amount of olive oil. The sheets dry out quickly, so you'll need to brush them with olive oil or melted butter as you stretch them. It's difficult to make and takes up a lot of time and space, which is probably why commercially prepared frozen phyllo dough is substituted in many recipes. This recipe for phyllo dough is from "Flavors of Greece" by Rosemary Barron:
Basic Phyllo Dough Recipe
- 3 cups (300 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon (2 grams) salt
- Three-fourths to 1 cup (177-237 milliliters) cold water
- 2 tablespoons (30 milliliters) olive oil
Sift 2.5 cups (248 grams) of the flour and the salt into a large mixing bowl and gradually add enough of the water to make a firm but moist dough. Transfer to a floured work surface and knead for 15 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Sprinkle half of the olive oil on the dough and continue kneading, then sprinkle on the rest of the olive oil and knead until it's all incorporated. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate it for one hour.
You'll need a large work surface, like a table top, to stretch the dough. Sprinkle a light layer of flour over the work surface. Working with handfuls of dough at a time, roll it out in one direction, rotate the dough, and roll again, adding flour to your work surface as needed to keep the dough from sticking. As the sheet becomes too big and thin to turn easily, roll it up onto the rolling pin (or Barron suggests a broom handle when it gets really big), turn the rolling pin 90 degrees and unroll the dough onto your work surface, then start rolling again from your original position. When you stretch the pastry to a paper-thin transparency, square up the edges and cut the dough into 12- by 18-inch (31- by 46-centimeter) rectangles. Separate the dough sheets with lightly floured kitchen towels and let them dry for 10 minutes. Pinch off another handful of dough and repeat these steps until all of the dough is stretched.
Want to try your hand at something a bit less labor intensive? See the recipes on the next page.
Industrial Age Pastry Advancements
As people got busier, time got tighter and machines and electricity made life easier, pastries became simpler and quicker to make. Industrial age cooks borrowed from earlier eras to create flaky pastries with everyday utility. Crumbly French shortcrust pastry supports quiche and savory pies.
Shortcrust Pastry (for quiche and savory pies)
From "Traditional French Cooking" by Larousse Curnonsky
- 1 teaspoon (5 grams) salt
- 1 tablespoon (12 grams) sugar
- 1/2 cup (100 milliliters) water
- 1 stick (100 grams) unsalted butter, softened
- 1.5 cups (200 grams) all purpose flour
Dissolve the salt and sugar in the water and set it aside. Sift the flour into a mixing bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and mix it into the flour with your fingers. Pour the water into the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead it gently for two or three turns. Wrap the dough and allow it to chill before using in your recipe.
Flaky American piecrust is too delicate to support itself outside a baking pan, but it's a star attraction of dishes as diverse as the iconic apple pie and the irresistible chicken potpie.
American Flaky Pie Pastry (one crust)
- 1.5 cups (200 grams) all purpose flour
- 1/2 cup (100 grams) cold fat (butter, margarine, shortening)
- 1/2 teaspoon (1 gram) salt
- 1 teaspoon (2 grams) sugar
- Cold water to moisten (4-5 tablespoons or 59-74 milliliters)
Combine the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Cut the butter or other fat into the flour with a pastry cutter, fork or two knives until the texture resembles coarse crumbs. (You want to use the tools instead of your fingers because you don't want to melt the butter with the heat from your hands. Your crust will turn out flakier if the ingredients stay cold during the mixing process.) Gradually sprinkle cold water over the mixture and gently fold it in until the dough holds together. Gather the dough into a ball and refrigerate for one hour before using so that any softened fat can re-solidify. On a lightly floured surface, roll the chilled dough to the thickness called for in your recipe and use a sharp knife to cut it to the shape you need [source: Better Homes and Gardens, Editors of Cook's Illustrated, Farmer]
Ready to start cooking? Turn to the next page to get even more information on dough.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Barron, Rosemary. Flavors of Greece. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991.
- Better Homes and Gardens. Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. Publishing information unavailable.
- Cornish Mining World Heritage. "Communities and Culture." February 6, 2009. (accessed 02/10/2009). Cornwall & Scilly Historic Environment Service, 2009. http://www.cornish-mining.org.uk/story/comcult.htm
- Curnonsky, Larousse. Traditional French Cooking. New York: Doubleday, 1989 translation.
- Editors of Cook's Illustrated Magazine, The. Baking Illustrated. Brookline, Massachusetts: America's Test Kitchen, 2004.
- Elliot, Valerie. "Cornwall protects its pasties." The Australian: July 28, 2008. (accessed 02/10/2009) http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,24085686-27646,00.html
- Farmer, Fannie Merritt. The Original Boston Cooking-School Cook Book 1896. Facsimile of original published by Weathervane Books, New York, date unknown.
- Filippone, Peggy Trowbridge. "Puff Pastry Recipes and Cooking Instructions." Home Cooking. About.com. (accessed 02/11/2009). http://homecooking.about.com/cs/atozfoodindex/a/puffpastry.htm
- Floyd, Keith. "Hot water crust pastry." BBC Food. (accessed 02/11/2009) http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/database/hotwatercrustpastry_8196.shtml
- Goldman, Marcy. A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.
- Green Chronicle, The. "Hot Water Crust Pastry Recipe." (accessed 02/11/2009) http://www.greenchronicle.com/basics/hot_water_crust_pastry.htm
- McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, updated and revised edition. New York: Scribner, 2004.
- Shulman, Martha Rose. The Foodlover's Atlas of the World. London: Firefly Books, Ltd., 2002.
- Smith, Cathy. "British Food -- Cornish Pasties." Suite 101.com. (accessed 02/10/2009) http://european-culinary-travel.suite101.com/article.cfm/british_food_cornish_pasties
- Stradley, Linda. "History of Kringles." What's Cooking America. 2004 (accessed 02/12/2009) http://whatscookingamerica.net/Bread/Kringle.htm