Shortcrust Pastry Recipe: Basic Cooking Techniques
If you’ve never made shortcrust pastry (or any pastry) before, don’t panic; it’s a lot easier than you may think, and the magical transformation from a bag of flour with a little fat to a light, crispy pastry will give your kitchen confidence a huge boost.
You will see that the recipe and method at the end are very short, and you can cut straight there; however, I’ve written the following notes and tips to help you on your way.
Different recipes will call for different quantities, but the basic measure for shortcrust pastry is always two parts flour to one part fat. The only other ingredients are a little salt to season (pepper too, if it’s for a savoury dish) and just enough cold water to bring it all together.
It’s worth expanding on the phrase “just enough cold water,” as this is the really crucial part of the equation. If you don’t have enough water in the mix, the pastry will break up and be impossible to roll out; too much water, however, and the resulting pastry will be hard and tough when cooked, rather than light and crispy. You can’t use measures here, though, as the amount of water needed will vary almost day to day, even if the other ingredients are consistent: some flours absorb more water, and some less. Ambient temperature and humidity also make a difference. That said, use the easy never-fail technique in the next paragraph, and you will never go wrong.
The Water: Once the other flour, fats and seasonings are mixed and ready, add a small amount of cold water; just a teaspoon or two at first. Mix again, then pinch a small piece of the pastry between the thumb and forefinger of each hand and give it a gentle pull: if the dough breaks, add some more water. If it stretches easily, the mix is correct. Continue to add a little water, doing the pull and stretch test until you have a nice pliable dough. If this sounds complex, don’t worry, it isn’t and will make perfect sense once you try it, and once you’ve made this shortcrust pastry a few times the method becomes second-nature.
The Flour: you simply need good quality plain/general purpose white flour for this recipe. Once you’ve weighed out the flour, pass it through a sieve into the mixing bowl; this obviously removes any lumps, but equally importantly gets some air into the flour, leading to a lighter pastry.
The Fat: I use butter or lard, or a combination of these. Many cooks use margarine, and indeed here in the UK and doubtless elsewhere, there are brands of margarine especially developed for baking purposes that are household names I prefer not to use margarine, which usually contains trans and hydrogenated fats and other unnatural chemicals that I don’t want in my kitchen or in my body.
Seasonings: I use Maldon Salt for pretty much all my cooking. It’s a lovely, flaky sea salt with no chemical additives. However, use any salt you like; the only criteria is that you may need more salt than you think – flour doughs, along with other starchy carbs such as potatoes, rice, pasta etc need quite heavy seasoning. If you are at all concerned about your own salt and sodium intake, then I’ll leave it up to you as an adult to make your own decisions. I also put pepper into pastry mixes intended for savoury dishes: ground white pepper is useful, but you can use ground black pepper if you don’t mind little black flecks in the finished pastry. A little pepper is also surprisingly good in some sweet dishes; be brave and try it.
Mixing: All the ingredients (and equipment such as bowls etc) should be as cold as possible to prevent the fats running and becoming oily. Traditionally, pastry is mixed by hand, just using the fingertips to keep the transfer of heat as low as possible, then with the blade of a knife once the water is added. Frankly, I see absolutely no problem with using a food processor or other mechanical mixer. It’s easier, quicker and the pastry comes out just fine.
"Resembles Breadcrumbs": Most pastry recipes, including mine below, tell you to mix the fats into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Be aware though that some days, particularly when it's warm, this breadcrumb stage will never happen as the fats are starting to run. Don't worry, just start adding the water as soon as you are sure everything is thoroughly mixed.
As I mentioned, quantities will vary with your recipe. Here I’ll give a typical set of ingredients for a simple tart or pie. Adapt as required.
Easy Shortcrust Pastry Recipe: ingredients
8oz/225g plain/all purpose flour
4oz/110g butter or lard, or a mixture of the two
A little cold water
Salt and pepper as required
Easy Shortcrust Pastry Recipe: method
Sieve the flour and seasonings into your mixing bowl. Add the fat, either cut into small chunks or grated. Mix with your fingertips or in a machine until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Begin to add the water, a very small amount at a time, mixing well, just until the dough becomes pliable, as described above.
Cover or wrap the dough and refrigerate for at least half an hour; this makes it easier to handle and to roll. Roll out and use as directed in your recipe; if at all possible, rest and refrigerate the pastry again once you’ve put it into the pie dish etc. This last tip is not essential, but it minimises the shrinkage when cooking.