Pastry Doughs Explained

When you hear the word “Pastry”, what do you think of? Some just think of pies while others think of finicky French desserts. Even others think of something made by Sara Lee or Entenmann’s. In reality, the term “pastry” typically means a type of unleavened dough. However, “pastries” is a general term for sweet baked goods. There are different types of these unleavened doughs and they all have different purposes. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Different sources categorize pastry doughs in a slightly different manner. I hope you will find this categorization helpful and accurate. I will put these doughs into five categories.

The ingredient list for all types of pastry dough is very similar – flour, fat and liquid. The flour can be pastry, all-purpose or even bread flour. The fat is typically butter, lard, or shortening. The liquid is most commonly water but could be other liquids. Some doughs (called enriched doughs) may contain eggs, milk, cream, sour cream, crème fraiche or cream cheese. All doughs will probably contain a small amount of salt and sugar may be added to make a sweet dough. Which actual ingredients are used and the technique of putting them together is what makes the difference between these categories.

Shortcrust pastry

This is what most of us think of when we think of “pie dough” and it is the most common type used in our kitchens. I wrote an earlier Cooking Tip on pie doughs. You can get it here.

This type of pastry is probably the easiest to make. It may also be the most versatile. The basic ingredients are flour, fat, water and salt although sugar and eggs may be added if you want a sweetened shortcrust dough. The technique involves rubbing the fat into the flour before adding the liquid. Some recommend rubbing the fat until you get small pea-sized particles of fat coated in flour. Another technique, and one I think is superior, is snapping the flour-covered pieces of fat between your fingers to get flattened pieces. The important thing is to work quickly so the butter does not melt and to stop while you still have visible pieces of fat. Only after this step do you add your liquid and gently form it into a cohesive dough. For variations on this technique, see my prior Cooking Tip.

Puff pastry

This type of pastry contains the same basic ingredients but has a greatly different technique. It is what is termed a “laminated dough”. It has alternating layers of dough and butter. It is rolled out, folded, and repeated for a specified number of “turns”. All should be kept chilled throughout the process. When you bake it, the butter melts, producing steam and thus, flaky and puffy layers.

It is used for pie crusts, wrapping meat (such as a Beef Wellington), palmiers, vol-au-vents, cream horns, and mille feuilles.

Croissants are made from a type of laminated dough that differs from puff pastry in that it contains yeast, milk and a small amount of sugar. Danish dough is another variation of laminated dough that also uses eggs.

Making your own laminated pastry dough is certainly not as easy as making a shortcrust dough and takes much more time. It is also something that takes experience to perfect. It can be, however, a fun and very satisfying challenge.

Flaky pastry

The definition of flaky pastry is one upon which many disagree. Some use it to mean American-style pie crusts and others use it to refer to something called “Rough Puff Pastry.” This type of pastry is what you think of when you put your fork into your pie and you get wonderful, flaky pieces of the crust breaking off. It is hard to get this effect when you make a shortcrust dough. You can do it, though, with this much easier version of puff pastry.

It has all the basic ingredients (flour, butter, water, salt). It is the technique, though, that really sets it apart both from shortcrust and true puff pastry. It is made with cold, diced butter that you toss in the flour and gently smash flat. This is then rolled and folded like puff pastry. To read more about this technique and a link to Stella Parks’ excellent recipe, see this link. For King Arthur’s take on the flaky pastry, see this link. Their recipe is a bit unique as they add baking powder and sour cream to the basic ingredients.

Once again, all the large pieces of cold butter melt in the oven, creating steam and the wonderful flakes we all like. It makes a great crust for sweet and savory pies, sausage rolls and turnovers.

Choux pastry

This is also called Pâte à Choux and is what is used to make eclairs or profiteroles (cream puffs). The ingredients are flour, water, butter, eggs and salt. This type of pastry dough has a very different technique.

It starts with combining water, butter and salt in a pot and heating until the butter melts. This is followed by beating in the flour, which helps traps steam. The mixture is then beaten (usually with a stand mixer) until it is cool. At that point, eggs are added until the desired consistency is obtained. When the trapped steam is released in the oven, it creates a puffed up pastry.

The dough is typically piped onto a baking sheet. Once baked, this process produces a crisp outer shell and hollow interior that can be filled with a variety of fillings, most commonly pastry cream or just whipped cream. The finished pastries are also often topped with chocolate.

Phyllo pastry

This is a type of unleavened pastry composed of very thin, delicate sheets of dough layered with melted butter or oil between them. For more information on this type of pastry dough, watch for the next Cooking Tip.

All of us should know how to make a good shortcrust pastry, which is fairly simple and very versatile. I encourage you to branch out and try your hand at one of the other pastry doughs. If you are unsure about tackling them, contact me and we can arrange a cooking class just for you.