Sometimes you feel like you can’t win with people. Take kitchen shortcuts, for example. You suggest a shortcut or store-bought item to make a dish easier or faster, and you get dinged by purists who complain that this is just another sign of laziness or the collapse of modern society. Or, instead, you insist that something is worth making from scratch even if it is longer or takes more effort, and then you get harangued for being too complicated. It’s a tough line to walk.
But I feel pretty confident that most people — most reasonable people, anyway — will agree that store-bought puff pastry is an excellent, totally acceptable shortcut. And that’s not only for the average home cook. Plenty of chefs and restaurants rely on this freezer staple, too.
Puff pastry takes time, effort and skill, three things which can be in short supply for any type of cook. Puff pastry is exactly what it sounds like: Pastry that puffs into beautiful layers. It’s made by enclosing butter in dough and then executing a series of rolls, folds and turns to build up many layers. When the pastry is heated, steam, generated by the melting butter, pushes apart the layers of dough, creating the characteristic flake.
Even experienced bakers can struggle with puff pastry (myself included), but, thankfully, the store-bought stuff can be just as good, or better. Use it to make tarts, turnovers, cookies, elegant hors d’oeuvres and more. Here are tips for getting the best results:
Choose butter, if you can. The two brands of frozen puff pastry you’re most likely to find: Dufour, made with butter, and Pepperidge Farm, made with vegetable-based fats. If you’re a Trader Joe’s shopper, the chain also sells an all-butter version. Butter-based puff pastry will deliver better flavor, especially if there isn’t a whole lot else to distract you. Still, if no butter-puff is to be had, don’t worry. In a taste test, Serious Eats staff found the two types to be pretty close, with a slight edge to Dufour.
Mind your temperatures. Anyone who knows me can tell you I’m a better-safe-than-sorry kind of gal, which is why I think it’s preferable to defrost your frozen puff pastry in the refrigerator. It will be fine in 3 to 4 hours, but if you’re thinking ahead, the night before works, too. You can try to defrost on the counter for less than an hour, with the timing somewhat dependent on your kitchen’s temperature, but you run the risk of it getting too soft. As with biscuits, chilled dough is important so that the butter stays relatively cool — not melting — to generate those irresistible layers. You want the dough pliable enough, though, because if it’s too cold, it can tear or break when you are unfolding or rolling it. A brief stint on the counter after defrosting in the refrigerator can help. Once you’ve cut or shaped your puff pastry, you can pop it back in the fridge or freezer to firm back up so that it holds its layers and shape in the oven.
Stay sharp. Whether you’re using a knife or cookie cutter to cut your dough, make sure its edge is sharp. Dull blades can crush the layers so that they don’t puff up properly. You can also hinder layers if your otherwise clean-cut edges are sealed shut with excess egg wash that has dripped down the sides of your pastry, according to Lauren Chattman in “The Baking Answer Book.” Egg washes (beaten egg, with or without a bit of water mixed in) are great for shine and color, as long as you’re judicious about how much you brush on the dough before baking.
Roll carefully. Lightly dust your counter and rolling pin with flour. Or, for sweet pastries, you can consider using confectioners’ sugar, as Jacques Pépin demonstrates in this video from Food & Wine. You want enough to keep the dough from sticking, but don’t go overboard. If you get a little too heavy-handed, brush off the excess flour or sugar. As you roll, apply firm, even pressure. Just don’t press down too hard or, again, you’ll crush those beautiful layers.
Prepare to bake. Baking puff pastry on parchment paper is a good idea for easy cleanup, Chattman writes. Even generally well-prepared puff pastry can leak some butter or have a little egg wash run down the sides, and it’s nice to not have to clean that up or worry about the pastry sticking to the pan. Plus, when you’re done baking, you can slide the sheet of parchment, pastries and all, onto a wire rack to cool. (Cooling on a wire rack ensures a crisp bottom crust.)
Don’t fear the brown. “When baking puff pastry, you want to go past golden and well into brown, so that the dough underneath the crust is fully dry,” Chattman writes. And browned pastry is flavorful pastry. Chattman also suggests baking in the lower third of the oven as extra insurance that the bottom is cooked. And to further ensure crisp pastry, she shares a tip from former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier, who props open the oven just as the pastry is starting to brown so steam that might soften the crust can escape.
Use it in all kinds of dishes. Puff pastry is an ideal base for tarts, big or small, sweet or savory (Dufour even sells a chocolate puff pastry.) The ability of puff pastry to, well, puff — eight times its original size, according to Dufour — means you have a built-in rim. To created a raised crust, score a line in the pastry about an inch away from the sides of the dough; more or less depending on how wide you want the edge to be. Then prick the dough inside of that line all over with a fork (docking, in pastry talk), so that the steam quickly escapes in lots of places rather than causing the layers to rise. For heavy or soggy fillings, you can partially bake the crust so that the dough starts to rise and set. Especially if you’re adding them directly to cold dough, use cool fillings to keep the butter from melting.
Small rounds or squares of puff pastry can be tucked into a greased muffin tin for appetizer-friendly tartlets. Add a filling that needs to be cooked, or bake the shells completely (definitely dock the dough so you end up with a hole to fill), and then scoop in raw or already cooked fillings just before serving.
In her new season of “30 Minute Meals,” television personality and cookbook author Rachael Ray offers a clever idea for a riff on chicken pot pie. She makes a stewlike filling and then tops it with a cooked square of puff pastry.
Keep your scraps. If you’re cutting shapes and have leftover dough, don’t toss it! Pressing scraps together and rerolling them isn’t a recipe for flaky pastry. But there’s no reason you can’t cut strips that you twist and dust with cheese to make cheese straws. Or sprinkle the scraps with cinnamon and sugar for a sweet treat. Who knows, maybe you’ll decide these gussied-up leftovers are the best part.
Want some puff pastry recipe inspiration? Check out these options from our archives, which you can search for even more ideas.
Grape Tarts. So simple, filled with honey and grapes.
Tomato Galette With Savory Oat Crumble. Looks like a cobbler, but tastes and eats like dinner.
Pailles. Puff. Pastry. Jam. Sandwiches.
Moroccan Chicken Cinnamon Rolls. A classy appetizer, for sure.
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