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How to make shortcrust pastry

Good shortcrust is an invaluable asset to any cook's armory of skills. Soft, buttery, flaky pastry awaits… if you keep your cool.

By Lisa Featherby
  • 10 mins preparation
  • 25 mins cooking plus chilling, resting
  • Serves 10
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Shortcrust pastry
We've all met our share of tough, soggy and simply unamusing pastries. But a good shortcrust pastry, one that crumbles, flakes and can hold and deliver its filling - sweet or savoury, soft or firm - intact makes for a memorable moment's eating.
To understand what makes pastry react in certain ways, you need to know a little science. Nowhere in cooking is the science more apparent and more important than in pastry-making. Flour and butter are the main ingredients of a shortcrust. Flour contains protein which, when mixed with water, becomes gluten. The gluten in bread or pasta dough needs to be worked thoroughly to create a strong result. With pastry, it's quite the opposite. Like most of us, it responds best to gentle manipulation. And like all of us, it prefers light and careful handling. Delicate handling, in other words, produces a delicate result.
Butter is the shortening agent. When we say "short" in pastry terms, we're talking about the finished pastry's crumbly quality. The more butter, the shorter and flakier the pastry. For a good shortcrust pastry, the ratio is about two parts flour to one part butter. It's not wrong to add more butter if a shorter, crumblier pastry is what you're after. Just remember, the shorter your dough becomes, the more delicate the pastry.

Coldness, be my friend

The number one rule to making a good fine and flaky shortcrust pastry is to chill. And we're not just talking about keeping your cool. Chill your ingredients, too.
Shortcrust has little resilience to outside forces, especially heat. Heat is the enemy of most pastries, so chilling is essential. Always chill your butter, and if the weather is warm, also chill your flour, eggs, water and equipment. For this reason, many pastry-makers work their dough on a chilled marble slab. When butter is warm, it becomes incorporated into the gluten of the flour too readily, creating a less flaky result.
This applies to kneading, too. The more contact the dough has with the warmth of your hands, the more the butter will melt. A kneading action used frequently in pastry-making is called fraisage. This technique sees the the heel of the hand, its coolest part, used to push and smear the pastry gently along a work surface.
There's a key exception to the cold-butter rule. If a pastry case is very delicate, it may not hold its filling. If the filling is heavy or is to be added fresh to a pre-cooked tart case, a little extra strength is required. Beating room-temperature butter in a mixer to soften it before adding to the flour will produce a crisper, less flaky pastry.

Don't overwater

Egg yolks and water also affect pastry. Egg yolks contain fat and act as an extra shortening agent but are used more to add colour and richness to the pastry. When you're adding water to pastry, be careful to add only enough to bring the mixture from a crumbly dough to one that can be kneaded and rolled easily. Too much water in the mix means the pastry will steam as it cooks, making for a flimsy result, so add small amounts gradually until you have achieved the right texture.

Give it a rest

Finally, rest your pastry in the fridge after rolling out the dough. This will give the gluten time to relax, creating a more delicate pastry. The chilling also prevents shrinkage during cooking.

Tartlet filling ideas for canapés

1 Fill tartlet shells with a soft goat's curd or soft goat's cheese and top with a little spoonful of good-quality tapenade.
2 Char an eggplant over a gas flame or barbecue until blackened and soft. Cut across the base and sit in a colander for extra juices to drain. Halve lengthways, then scoop out flesh with a spoon and transfer to a food processor. Process with a finely chopped garlic clove, a tablespoon of tahini, a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil until smooth. Season to taste and serve in tartlets, topped with a chopped parsley, red onion and caper salad.
3 For a touch of Welsh and Scottish flavour, add slices of smoked salmon or smoked ocean trout to tartlet shells along with some laverbread.

The recipe

10 mins preparation ? 25 mins cooking plus chilling, resting
Serves 10
Makes forty 4cm tartlets, six 12cm tartlets or a 25cm tart.

Ingredients

  • 250 gm (1⅔ cups) plain flour
  • 190 gm unsalted butter, coarsely chopped, chilled
  • 1 egg yolk

Method

  • 1
    Process flour, butter and a pinch of salt in a food processor until fine crumbs form.
  • 2
    Add egg yolk and enough chilled water (about 3-4 tsp) and process until mixture just forms a dough (2-4 seconds).
  • 3
    Turn pastry onto a floured surface and lightly knead with the heel of your hand until the pastry comes together.
  • 4
    Form pastry into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled (2-3 hours).
  • 5
    Roll pastry, using a rolling pin, on a lightly floured surface to 3mm thick.
  • 6
    Brush excess flour from pastry with a pastry brush, then use pastry cutters to cut lining for individual cases or roll pastry backwards over rolling pin to lift pastry and line large tart case. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to rest.
  • 7
    Preheat oven to 200C. Blind bake pastry until golden (15-25 minutes), then cool on a wire rack.
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  • undefined: Lisa Featherby