Pastry can be used to make so many wonderful sweet and savory foods, and a few pastry recipes should be a part of every home baker’s repertoire. It is important to use the right type of pastry for the right product and filling however, and with so many different types of pastry coming from cuisines all around the world, it can be difficult knowing which to use. Here I will give an overview of some of the different types of pastry and their uses – along with some tips – so that you can be sure to get the qualities you desire in all of your home-baked goods!
Pastry or pastries?
First off, a clarification. Pastry, in this article and generally, refers to a type of dough used in baking made primarily of flour, water and fat. It can be sweet or savory, with other ingredients added, and is used to make baked goods such as pies and tarts. Pastries can however also refer to the (usually sweet) baked goods themselves that are made of pastry, such as croissants, tarts or a Danish.
Do you know the differences between pastry and cake? Learn more in our post that shows you how to differentiate the two.
Baking with pastry
The fat that is used to enrich a pastry can be butter, shortening, ghee, full-fat margarine, lard or other oils or animal fats. In some types of pastry these are interchangeable, in others they give key characteristics to the product, effecting texture, flavor, or the ability to work with the dough. In general, butter will give more flavor, while lard will give better texture. Try a mix of half-and-half to get the best of both worlds. Pastry also likes to be kept cold, and in most cases the fat should be solid at room temperature. There are always exceptions however, as you will find out at the end of the article!
Categories of pastry
Pastry generally falls into one of two categories – shortcrust and flaky or puff pastry. There are great variations within these categories, and a number of regional variations and outliers, so let’s start with the different types of shortcrust.
Shortcrust pastry is the most versatile type of pastry, and by far the most common and easiest to make at home. It does not puff up like flaky pastries, having a crumbly texture that is ideally suited to bases for both sweet and savory pies, tarts, flans and quiches. The pasty itself can be sweetened or savory, with the addition of sugar, eggs or specialist fats.
A shortcrust pastry is usually made with half the amount of fat to flour by weight, or a ratio of 1:2. The fat is first rubbed into the flour before adding cold water to form a dough, with the fat coating the flour to prevent the formation of gluten strands when the water is added. This gives the pastry its characteristic crumbly texture. After being chilled in the refrigerator, the pastry is then rolled or pressed out into shape and baked blind. This involves pricking the dough with a fork, weighing it down with some form of weight such as baking beans to prevent the dough from rising in the oven, and finally adding the filling once the pastry has hardened.
Specialist shortcrust pastries
Pâte à foncer – in this French shortcrust egg and a small amount of sugar are combined before being added to the flour to enrich the dough.
Pâte brisée – while similar to pâte à foncer, this dough has no sugar and incorporates a higher quantity of butter to produce a light and delicate shortcrust ideal for savory pies.
Pâte sucrée (sweet shortcrust pastry) – this shortcrust includes sugar and egg yolks which produce a rich, sweet flavor. The sugar also impedes the formation of gluten to create a pastry that melts in the mouth.
Pâté Sablé – a crispier, less crumbly shortcrust which adds creamed sugar and butter to the flour to fully incorporate it into the dough. The result is a less crumbly pastry that works great as a base for sweet tarts and tea biscuits.
Suet crust pastry – this traditional British pastry is tougher and more elastic than a regular shortcrust with a light and spongy texture. It is made with self-raising flour, shredded suet and a small amount of baking powder to help it rise. It is used in both savory dishes such as steamed dumplings and steak and kidney puddings, and sweet treats such as jam roly-poly and spotted dick.
Flaky and puff pastry
This second major category of pastry is an altogether trickier affair. These pastries, as their names suggest, have a flaky or puffy texture, rising in the oven to create light and crispy pies, parcels and sweets. Layers of dough and fat are rolled and folded, and the steam produced while baking fills the layers, giving them their airy consistency. These types of pastry use a higher ratio of fat to flour than shortcrust pastry, and the fat and dough should be kept at the same temperature throughout. While this can make them harder to handle, there are flaky pastries to suit all skill-levels, so you will be sure to find something below that you can make at home.
There is sometimes some confusion between these types of pastry, so I will begin by describing the differences between puff, flaky and rough puff pastries, before describing a couple of related types of pastry.
Puff pastry is a laminated dough, and the most difficult to make of these three. It is a professional pastry consisting of many layers, and while it can be made at home, the results are unlikely to be as good as when made using professional equipment.
Puff pastry is made by using alternating layers of dough and butter. The butter is bashed or rolled into a flat rectangle, and the dough – made of flour, sugar, salt and water – is rolled out wider and made to envelop the butter in what is known as a lamination. This lamination is then repeatedly rolled out and folded to create multiple layers in the final dough. Both the butter and dough should be kept chilled at all times, and the lamination rested to allow the gluten to relax between roll-outs. If the lamination gets too warm, the butter will melt, while if it is too cold there is a risk of the dough ripping. Either situation can lead to poor layering and an inadequate rise, with the product becoming soft and doughy. Get it right, however, and the crispy, flaky, puffy layers make one of the most fantastic pastries you can taste.
Savory uses of puff pastry include pie crusts, wrappings for meat and vol-au-vents, whereas cream horns, mille feuilles and parmiers are examples of sweet uses of this pastry.
A sub-category of puff pastry exists in the viennoiserie tradition, which uses a variant of puff pastry leavened with baker’s yeast to create the likes of Danish pastries, croissants and pain au chocolat. The dough is often enriched with eggs, milk and butter.
Flaky pastry is a little easier to make than puff pastry, but still needs to be handled with care, and must be kept chilled during its preparation. When making flaky pastry the butter is not added in one single layer as with puff pastry, but is incorporated in stages, with a little being added after each fold. Neither does it have to be in a solid rectangle as with puff pastry, but can be spread out while soft with a palette knife and chilled before the next roll-out. Alternatively frozen butter can be grated onto the dough. The result is a pastry that forms flakes instead of sheeted layers, but still gives a good rise and a light, airy texture. Flaky pastry involves a fair bit of effort to make, but is more forgiving than puff pastry, so for some could be considered a more practical alternative. Crusts for savory pies and sausage rolls can be made using flaky pastry, along with sweets such as vanilla slices, turnovers, jam puffs and Eccles cakes.
Rough puff pastry
This is really a cross between flaky and puff pastry, and is a great hack or cheat’s puff pastry that takes a fraction of the time to make, and with a lot less hassle. It can produce great results however, and is perfect for the modern home baker that may not have the time to invest in producing a full puff or flaky pastry. It is made with either diced, chilled butter or grated, frozen butter which is mixed with flour, salt and cold water. The butter is not rubbed into the flour, but rather the water is used to bring the flour together into a stiff dough containing lumps of butter. This is then rolled and folded like with puff and flaky pastry before being chilled. It is likely to give a similar rise and texture to flaky pastry, but with a lot less risk.
Rough puff pastry can be used interchangeably with flaky pastry in most recipes, such as for sausage rolls, savory pie crusts and tarts. It will not give the rise achieved with puff pastry however, so go for store-bought puff pastry for your vol-au-vents!
Specialty and regional pastries
Filo pastry (phyllo)
A Middle Eastern relative of puff pastry, filo is an unleavened pastry of very thin, delicate sheets of dough, separated by layers of oil or melted butter. It becomes very crispy when baked but does not rise like puff pastry as it has a much lower water content. Another difference is that instead of being rolled out, the high-gluten dough is stretched to a very thin layer and brushed with the liquid fat, with additional layers being added to the desired thickness. This thin and fragile pastry is very difficult to make, requiring great skill, a large working surface and a long roller. It is most often bought ready-made, being made industrially with specially made machines. Even so, you must work fast when handling filo pastry as it dries out fast, brushing it with oil or ghee before shaping it.
The Turkish sweet pastry baklava is one of the most famous uses of filo pastry, but it is also used to create parcels for savory snacks such as samosas and spring rolls.
Choux is a light pastry made of flour, water, butter and eggs. A high moisture content is produced in the dough by boiling the water and butter before incorporating the flour, which has the effect of gelatinizing the starch and allowing the addition of more water. After cooling, the eggs are then mixed in, adding even more moisture to the dough. This moisture turns to steam when baked, causing it to puff up and treble in size. The result is a pastry with a crisp crust and a hollow center, which is often filled with cream and topped with melted chocolate.
Éclairs and profiteroles are classic examples of sweet pastries made with choux pastry.
Hot water crust pastry
This last pastry really bucks the trend in the pastry world, being handled while hot and using melted fat. This English pastry is rich and heavy, and is used to create raised meat pies and pasties. Lard is melted in boiling water to which flour is then added, forming a hot and sticky paste. This paste can be kneaded on a pastry board before being molded into pie forms, filled, covered and sealed. This wet, sticky pastry is ideal for keeping in meat juices and other wet fillings, and bakes to a golden brown after being glazed with beaten egg. While not as crisp as a shortcrust pastry, it is much stronger and therefore better suited to its traditional use in pork pies, and is a forgiving pastry for using at home.
So there you have it – now you know exactly which pastry to use where in your baking. The only problem now is choosing which one of the delicious pastries you want to make first!