You guys know I have polls on my website, right? Don’t go look right this very second, ’cause maybe they aren’t exactly updated right now, but still. Anyway, last month, one of the polls asked something along the lines of “What’s the most daunting task in the pastry kitchen?” Fully one third of you guys–maybe 10 of you–answered puff pastry. I wrote about puff pastry Long, Long Ago, but apparently the word isn’t out that puff isn’t that big a deal. So, because I am a Selfless Helper, I will now talk to you all about puff pastry–the ins and outs, the folds, the terminology: *all of it.
First, here’s a secret: it is more difficult to make a good pie crust than it is to make puff pastry. Honest. Most folks consider making puff pastry a daunting task because it is time consuming. That it is, but it is not difficult at all. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty mindless. You don’t even have to remember how many times you’ve turned the blasted thing–all the directions I’ve ever seen tell you to make marks in the dough after each turn to keep count!
I submit that, if you can use a rolling pin and you know how to Fold Things, you can successfully make puff pastry.
Puff pastry is a laminated dough. This means that the whole is comprised of layers that are all sandwiched together. In the case of plywood, you’ve got thin layers of wood sandwiched together with glue. In the case of puff, you’ve got thin layers of gluten-rich dough sandwiched together with butter.
To achieve the layering effect, you could just roll out ridiculously thin pieces of dough, brush some butter on them, and stack them up. That’s exactly what you’re doing when you use phyllo dough. Think of that process as sort of a deconstructed method of making puff pastry.
In order to make true puff (as opposed to rough puff), you take some lean dough (very little, if any, fat) and wrap it around a slab of butter. Then, you start rolling it carefully so it’s thin enough to fold. This first rolling starts you off with three layers–the bottom lean dough, the butter in the middle, and the top lean dough. If, once it’s large and thin enough to fold, you fold it into thirds like a business letter, you’ll have 7 layers: dough, butter, (dough, dough), butter, (dough, dough), butter, dough. The doughs are in parentheses because the two layers get mashed into one by rolling. If you fold both end into the middle and then fold at the middle, you’ll have 9 layers: dough, butter, (dough, dough), butter, (dough, dough), butter, (dough, dough), butter, dough. I’m starting to feel a bit like Homer Simpson with all the dohs, so I’m going to stop all of that now. Suffice to say that subsequent rolling and folding will give you a Very Ton of thin, thin layers of butter and doh.
Most pastry experts agree that classic French puff pastry is made by folding the dough into thirds and rolling it out again a total of six times. Keep in mind that you can make as few or as many folds and turns as you want, though. Fewer layers (although we’re still talking over 100) will rise higher but won’t be as flaky and ethereal. More layers will certainly puff, but not as high. The classic ideal is that the dough should rise 8x its initial height. So, if your dough is 1/4″ to begin with, you can expect the height after baking to be around 2″.
And look: I made a video to help you out!
Puff Pastry Minutiae That Must Be Addressed
Don’t let the minutiae scare you. They say that the devil is in the details, but why not be a glass-half-full kind of person and say that God is in the details?
- Rule number One for achieving Lovely Lamination is that the consistency of the butter should mimic as closely as possible the consistency of the dough (called detrempe, if you’re fancy). If the butter is too hard, it will just break up and poke holes in the detrempe. Rolling out will be Difficult At Best, and you won’t end up with a continuous sheet of butter. If the butter is too soft, it will just soak into the dough and guish out the sides, leaving you with an overly-rich dough with exactly one layer. Not good.
- Rule number Two: extra flour is mandatory. Make sure your rolling surface and the surface of the dough is lightly floured at all times. This means that you’ll have to keep adding more, a little at a time. Sticking can tear your delicate layers, allowing even right-consistency butter to guish out. Since the tough layers (lean-ish dough) are separate from the tender layers (butter), a little more flour isn’t going to hurt anything–you’ll still get an excellent rise.
- Rule number Two-A: brush off the excess flour before folding. See, that’s why this is rule 2A instead of rule 3. The time that you want the dough to stick is when the dough layers are being rolled together. ‘Member that (dough, dough) I talked about earlier. To make sure that those two layers become one, you need to make sure that the surface is as flour-free as you can make it before folding. They make a keen tool made especially for this purpose, but you can just as easily use a fairly stiff pastry brush or paint brush. Plus, bench brushes are expensive.
- Rule number Three: as you roll, flip your dough over fairly frequently. Because of friction, the top layer will always roll farther than the bottom layer. In order to keep the layers even, flip frequently.
- Rule number Four: Chill out. The refrigeration periods between folding and rolling (turns), allow for the butter to maintain Optimum Plasticity–not too cold; not too hot–and for the gluten formed by all the turning (which is really just a type of kneading) to relax enough to be able to roll out multiple times. Don’t think you can get away with making more than two turns at a time. Either your butter will start guishing out or the detrempe will become too sproingy, making it very hard to roll out. Thirty minutes to an hour under refrigeration will take care of Both Issues.
- Rule number Five: It’s hip to be square. As much as I love the rustic look of Free Form Baked Goods, puff pastry requires fairly strict adherence to the Ideal Rectangle. Roll with finesse, and when finesse fails pull gently with your hands, to square up the dough as much as possible before folding. Keeping the dough square with all the edges meeting up more or less perfectly gives you the maximum amount of dough containing all possible layers. If you don’t keep the dough square, there will be some areas around the edges that could lack as many as hundreds of layers, causing uneven rising. This is especially crucial if you want to bake a large sheet of puff, but for consistency’s sake it’s always good practice to Shoot for the Rectangle.
Helpful Tips from Your Friend Jenni
- If you can find it, use a high protein pastry flour. You want a lot of protein to develop a lot of gluten. You want pastry flour because it is finely ground and sifted.
- For the best puff in your puff, you’ll want to use a “European style” butter with relatively low moisture. Granted, water releases steam which causes the puff in the first place, but there’s already some water both in the detrempe and in Special Butter. Using plain old store brand or even name brand Amurkin Butter pushes you right over the edge to soggy. Plugra is an excellent US-made brand that is widely available and that I’ve had very good luck with. Regardless, look for a butter with a butterfat content of 82%. And, no, 80% butterfat isn’t close enough. That’s what “normal” butter contains.
- Once you’ve finished making all of your turns, trim off all the edges of your sheet of puff pastry. If you bake the folded portions, it’ll end up puffing like a book with a warped cover with leaves fanning out only in one direction instead of rising High and Even.
- If you’ll be using cutters to cut your puff pastry, or even if you’re cutting with a sharp knife, cut straight down rather than twisting or pulling the blade. You might also have heard of this in directions for making biscuits. In both cases, the rule exists to keep you from accidentally gluing your edges together and impeding the rise.
- If you egg wash your puff pastry, be very careful that none of it drips down the sides. This too can impede the rise. If you don’t believe me, egg wash a whole piece of puff, sides and all. It’ll bake up all dome-shaped and stupid. You really don’t want your efforts to be thwarted when Victory is Within Your Grasp.
- After you cut your pieces of puff, turn them over before baking. This will also help with even rise.
- Chilling the pieces before baking is a Good Idea. I usually let mine hang out in the fridge on parchment-lined baking sheets for half an hour or so.
- DO NOT USE a convection oven to bake small pieces of puff. You’ll end up with Slinkies as the air blows the layers over. I know; I’ve been there. Second practicum in one day? Sure, no problem…
- To make a classic Napoleon, or just to make a crisp layer of puff that doesn’t puff very much, place a few baking sheets on top of your sheet of puff. Every fifteen minutes or so, take all the baking sheets out of the oven and push down on the top ones to keep the sheet of puff from rising to Great Heights.
- If you need to cut puff pastry after baking, a serrated knife is an Excellent Tool.
*So Where’s the Recipe?
I’m not giving one. So there. There are tons and tons of recipes out there for puff pastry. Oh, fine. Go look at my other Puff Pastry Post. There’s a recipe there, as well as rules. The rules are the important part, though. Like so many other Pastry Items, puff pastry is all about technique. Pretty much the only ingredients are flour, salt, water and butter. The Magic of the Puff is in knowing how to combine them to achieve the Desired Results.
- Be Not Afraid.
- The refrigerator is your friend.
- Keep it nice and square. Puff pastry is the Anal Retentive Chef’s favorite thing to make.
- Do Not Stress. Repeat: Do Not Stress.
- Don’t forget to pick up your Puff Pastry Prowess Certification.