Puff pastry is a light, buttery, flaky dough used in both sweet and savory dishes, from appetizers to main courses to desserts. It contains only three ingredients—flour, butter, and salt—yet it rises to a great height with no added leavening agent. The French perfected the technique but puff pastry dough appears in recipes from around the world.
- Defining Characteristic: Hundreds of flaky, buttery layers
- Preparation: Moderately difficult and time-consuming
- Substitute: Frozen puff pastry dough
What Is Puff Pastry?
Puff pastry resembles a croissant, with visible airy layers. Though both are laminated doughs, puff pastry does not include yeast or any other leavening ingredient. To make it, bakers mix a simple dough of flour and water, roll it out, put dabs of butter on top, then fold the dough over the butter and roll it flat again. Repeated rolling and folding results in a finished dough with hundreds of layers. In the oven, the water in the dough and in the butter produces a burst of steam that lifts the layers. The separation of hundreds of layers gives the pastry its light, flaky texture.
It's not difficult to make puff pastry, but it's a painstaking process. It takes an elaborate rolling technique to form those hundreds of layers, and because the butter must be cold, it takes considerable pressure to roll the dough flat. Also, the dough needs to chill between each round of rolling and folding. The effort is physically demanding and time-consuming.
Puff Pastry vs. Phyllo Dough
Both contain the same ingredients and use layering techniques, but phyllo and puff pastry differ. Phyllo is stretched and stacked rather than rolled and folded. When phyllo dough bakes, it becomes airy and crispy, but since it contains less water, it does not rise to the same height as puff pastry.
Widely available frozen puff pastry lets home cooks use puff pastry without making it from scratch. It comes in sheets, which must thaw in the refrigerator overnight, or pre-formed cups or shells. The sheets come folded (usually in thirds or in half) and if you try to thaw them at room temperature, you risk unfolding the sheets too soon and breaking them, or thawing them to much the point that they become too sticky to work with easily.
Puff Pastry Uses
Puff pastry can be used for sweet and savory foods. Big sheets work for larger foods such as beef Wellington, baked brie, or savory tarts. For smaller items, such as pastry puffs, palmiers, or miniature hors d'oeuvre shells, simply cut the sheets of puff pastry to the right size or purchase a pre-cut variety.
You can use puff pastry scraps to garnish a dish such as beef Wellington; cut them into decorative shapes and use an egg wash to glue them to the outside of the pastry.
How to Cook With Puff Pastry
Beyond thawing it overnight in the fridge, there are two important tips for working with puff pastry:
- Keep the dough and your work tools cool.
- Dust your work surface with flour.
Keeping the dough cool prevents stickiness and makes it easy to cut. Leave it in the fridge until you're ready to use it or bake it. It also helps to work on a chilly surface such as a naturally cool marble slab and to stash tools such as your rolling pin and cutting implement in the freezer for 10 minutes before you start working with the dough. Avoid working with puff pastry dough on hot, humid days or in a heated kitchen.
Dust your work surface and rolling pin with flour to prevent the dough from sticking. It's fine to roll out the sheets a little bit; follow the specifications in your recipe. Don't roll it thinner than 1/8 inch, though, or it won't rise properly.
Use a sharp blade (a pizza wheel works well) to cut puff pastry evenly. With round or fluted cutters, press straight down, applying even pressure. Puff pastry dough should always be cut along the edges; folds prevent the dough from lifting into layers.
To prevent puff pastry from rising, such as for a filled tart, use a fork to prick the surface of the dough where you want it to stay flat. The tiny holes allow steam to escape rather than puffing up the layers of pastry. A good recipe should guide you on whether and where to dock the pastry.
What Does It Taste Like?
Puff pastry tastes buttery, with a slightly crunchy crust, and a light and airy texture. The neutral flavor skews sweet or savory depending on the use.
Puff Pastry Substitute
Frozen puff pastry saves time and effort, and good brands produce similar-to-homemade results. Otherwise, phyllo dough can sometimes be swapped for puff pastry. It's crispier and won't rise at much, so it works well for pie crusts or tart shells.
Puff Pastry Recipes
Give homemade puff pastry a try, or use packaged frozen puff pastry to make quick but impressive appetizers and desserts.
Where to Buy Puff Pastry
Look for frozen puff pastry sheets in a long skinny box near the pie crusts in the freezer section of most grocery stores. You may also see pre-formed puff pastry cups or shells, which work well for individual-serving desserts or savory hors d'oeuvres.
Keep store-bought puff pastry in the freezer until you are ready to use it. Homemade puff pastry can be refrigerated for several days or frozen for up to a month tightly wrapped in plastic.
You can freeze assembled but uncooked pastries in an airtight container for up to two weeks; when you're ready to cook them, transfer them directly from the freezer to the oven.