A pastry cutter, also known as a pastry blender or dough blender, is used to work solid fats like butter, shortening, or lard into flour to create a dough. It's most often used when making pie crust, biscuits, and some other baked goods. If you don't have that tool, there are several things—a fork, knives, or even just your hands—that you can use instead. Every kitchen has at least three of the five alternatives, so you can get right back to baking.
What Is a Pastry Cutter?
If you do a lot of baking, a pastry cutter may be a worthwhile addition to your collection of kitchen gadgets. It's a u-shaped, hand-held tool with a series of dull blades or wires at the bottom, and a handle at the top. It's designed specifically for cutting solid fats into the flour.
If you decide to buy one, opt for a model with blades rather than wire as it will be a lot sturdier. Additionally, choose stainless steel because it won't rust. For most cooks, one pastry cutter should last a lifetime.
Why Use a Pastry Cutter?
There's a good reason why recipes call for the use of a pastry cutter: The butter (or other fat) is supposed to be cut into tiny pieces and distributed throughout the dry ingredients rather than incorporated into them. If you cut the butter in properly, you'll end up with a crumbly texture and the result will be flaky baked goods. This is in contrast to making something like cookies or cakes, in which you cream the butter and sugar into a uniform texture, resulting in a softer product that doesn't flake.
Whether you're using a pastry cutter or one of the stand-ins, you need to ensure the butter doesn't melt into the flour while you're working with it because that will wreck the crumbly texture. Use cold butter, and try not to work the ingredients more than necessary, so the butter remains in solid form.
You can help keep the butter cold by wearing latex-free gloves or other gloves appropriate for food preparation. This will allow you to handle the butter a bit longer before it starts to melt from your body heat.
Pastry Cutter Substitutes
A few common kitchen tools can be used instead of a pastry cutter. You'll simply want to follow a few tips to make them work out as well and maintain the desired effect for your recipe.
- Fork: Cut the butter (or whatever fat you're using) into small pieces. Add it to the bowl with your flour and other dry ingredients. Then, use a fork to mash the butter into the flour, until you achieve a crumbly consistency.
- Butter Knives: Add small pieces of butter to the bowl of ingredients and hold one butter knife in each hand. Work both knives over the ingredients until the butter and dry ingredients are well combined.
- Food Processor: Pulse small pieces of butter and the dry ingredients in your food processor until you achieve a nice, crumbly texture. It won't take long—just a minute or two—so be careful not to overwork the dough.
- Your Hands: Work the butter into the flour with your hands. Just squeeze the ingredients between your fingers to break up the butter and bring everything together. Try to keep your hands cold and dry, and work quickly, so the butter doesn't melt.
- Cheese Grater: Grate the butter with a box grater, then mix it into the dry ingredients. Use cold butter, so it grates easily. You even can use frozen butter.