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The very nature of most pastries is to be light, airy, flaky, and buttery. All pastry starts out as a combination of ingredients, such as flour, water, salt, butter or other fats, and is made by using different ingredients, mixing and baking techniques.
In puff pastry, a certain amount of gluten formation is essential, but all of the gluten strands must lie in one plane to give strength to the horizontal sheets. Here, the folding and rolling technique is used.
Pastry depends heavily on the types of flour used, its amount and how it is handled. When moistened and stirred, wheat flour develops strands of gluten, which are what give an elastic structure to the baked good that stretches and rises. Too much flour results in a tough, dry and flavorless recipe, and too little results in a flat, tough and flavorless baked good.
Gluten strands make it tough to roll out for flaky pie crust dough, to stretch it for phyllo or strudel dough, or to make more layers for puff pastry, but on the other hand, gluten strands make it possible to stretch a pastry recipe for flakiness and texture. Gluten is like a rubber band, and when stretched from rolling or pulling, they want to snap the dough back into their original shape. To counteract this, it is essential that the pastry dough relax for 1 to 2 hours or more in the refrigerator to relax the gluten, making it easier to stretch or roll it further. If done properly the dough will shrink less and will be flakier.
In the case of a pastry, you add large amounts of fat to coat and separate the flour particles from each other, but you then add just enough water to make dough. Since much of the starch in the flour is not in contact with any of the water, the resulting cooked dough is crumbly and flaky. The role of the fat in making a pastry is to give texture to the final product. Depending on the kind of fat used, the pastry will also have a certain flavor. Pastry chefs use various types of fats, like vegetable shortening, butter, or lard. Though they are all are fats, they have major differences.
Vegetable shortening, such as Crisco®, is a blend of partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oil, fully hydrogenated cottonseed oil, and soybean oil. The result of hydrogenation is oil that is solid at room temperature. The "working" temperature range of vegetable shortening is 53 degrees to 85 degrees F. This means that it can be worked (kneaded or mixed) without getting too soft within this temperature range. The working range for butter, an animal-based dairy product, is 58 degrees to 68 degrees F. The working range for lard (which comes from the fat of a pig), is 58 degrees to 75 degrees F. Outside of the working range, the fat doesn't hold its shape, leaks oil, and just sticks to the dough.
Fats contribute to the flakiness and tenderness of pastry by being layered in between sheets of thin dough. It can also be cut in or rubbed into the flour as pea-sized shapes before the final dough is made. The fat melts during baking, leaving air spaces. When placed in the oven, the flour starches set around the fat, leaving a layer or space when the fat melts which is reabsorbed back into the dough. The longer the fats take to melt in the oven, the more well defined the air cells. The melting point of shortening is higher than that of butter, and it stays solid longer. As a result, it forms better flaky pastry, but without the butter's wonderful flavor.
Cold butter or fats and the flakiness of the pastry are intricately connected. Because butter has such a low melting point, it must be well-chilled to ensure that it can withstand being rolled and handled without melting to produce flakiness. Butter that is too soft surrounds the flour particles rather than forming spaces, and the final texture of the pastry is flat and greasy.
Don't use low-fat or reduced-fat products in your pastry recipe. Their water content is too high for pastry making.
Steam acts as the raising agent in puff and flaky pastries. In choux pastry the raising agents are eggs plus steam. Baking powder and baking soda can be used to leaven. The yeast in Croissants and Danish depend upon the thin layers of butter to "help" the yeast; the fat particles produce steam from the water in the butter (butter is 81 % fat and 19 % water) when baked, and that from yeast, gives them their light and flaky texture.
WATER OR LIQUIDS
A minimum amount of cold water or liquids, such as milk, should be used. However, too little water in pastry causes the pastry to be crumbly and dry; too much, plus overmixing, develops too much gluten which causes a tough pastry.
Salt improves and enhances the flavor of all the foods; don’t leave it out.
OTHER INGREDIENTS MAY BE USED
Eggs: Use only fresh, large eggs in baking recipes. The yolks emulsify the dough, and which all add fat, giving the crust a tenderness, richness and browning. Fat found in egg yolks also tenderizes by coating the flour proteins and then preventing them from becoming moistened when water is added, hence preventing long, interconnecting gluten strands from forming.
If the recipe is simply written with the word “eggs”, use large which have a volume of about 1/4 cup each. Check the expiration date printed on the side of the carton and discard if the date has passed. Store eggs in the coolest part of the refrigerator which is the back of the middle shelf.
Sugar: Either referred to as crystalline or table sugar or liquid sugar contributes to leavening, depending upon how it is introduced and the type used, browning, flavor, tenderizes, keeps the crust moist and of course, sweetens. When a recipes calls for “sugar” it means white “table” sugar.
Acidic ingredients: Cider Vinegar/Lemon Juice as well as buttermilk, sour cream or other acidic ingredient can be found in pie crust recipes.
They tenderize the flour's gluten, formed in the dough when wheat flour is moistened and stirred, as well as when rolling and handling the dough. Gluten is a toughener and acidic ingredients weaken the gluten that forms, making the crust tender and less likely to shrink. (Keeping well chilled ingredients and dough also helps with preventing shrinkage).