As part of our series of troubleshooting articles, we called upon some of our famous baking friends to solve your common kitchen disasters. We have all the answers you need to give your bake a picture perfect finish and satisfying flavour. Read on to discover Richard Burr's advice on creating perfect pastry...
Problem one: My pie base is wet and paste-like
Richard's solution: Soggy bottoms can be a right nuisance, even though they don’t really alter the taste of your bake. They are usually the result of either a filling that's too wet in your bake or an under-cooked or thin pastry base. These are easily remedied though using a few simple tips.
Firstly, if you’re making a fruit pie, reduce your filling down first. Fruit by nature is full of water that is liberated when heat is added, so do this in a saucepan first. If you want to retain juice for your filling, add a little cornflour or arrow root, just to thicken it up and you can keep control of a leaky problem. For meat, fish or vegetarian pies, reduce your filling down for a little longer; this will not only stop your pie leaking, but also give you time to develop more depth of flavour. I like to add flour to either my gravies or white sauces to help thicken too. Also, don’t forget to slash your pie crust when you bake as these holes allow steam to escape.
Problem two: My pastry has shrunk away from the side of the pan.
Richard's solution: There are multiple reasons that cause this to happen. Adding too much water in the initial stage when you mix it with the butter and flour can mean that as the water evaporates in the oven, the structure of the pastry tightens up and shrinks, so be patient in the early stages and add the water gradually. The pastry will also shrink back if your oven is too cool during baking. Once again, this will happen if the water evaporates out of the pastry before the heat can set it in shape. This will result in the all-too-common side collapses for blind baked tarts. So to recap – go easy on the water, chill until firm, and heat your oven to 180-200C to set your shape.
Problem three: My pastry is crumbly and difficult to roll.
Richard's solution: The trouble with pastry is that you need to be accurate; too much water and you’re left with shrunken, tough pastry, too little and it stays dry and crumbly. When adding the water to the butter and flour, use very cold water and add it a tablespoonful at a time. If it’s too crumbly, add a little more water. Once your pastry has come together, don’t then ruin it when rolling it out. It's always tempting to shovel loads of flour onto a work surface when rolling out pastry. If you’re in a warm kitchen, the fat in pastry can melt easily and stick your pastry to the work surface, so this is why people will often add extra flour. Try to avoid this by rolling out gently on a lightly-floured surface, regularly turning (ideally every one to two rolls). This can seem pretty tedious at the start, but once you get the hang of it you’ll have solved the problem of sticking pastry to your work surface.
Problem four: My baked pastry is tough.
Richard's solution: Tough pastry is very common, but easily avoidable. It usually occurs when you’ve been a bit heavy-handed with the water when you're initially bringing the pastry together (by adding water to the flour and butter), or if you have over-worked the dough and developed the gluten in the flour. A light touch is the key, and try to keep your hands cold!
Problem five: My puff pastry has collapsed during baking.
Richard's solution: Puff pastry is a delicate material. The amount of meticulous work that goes into making it by hand can leave you feeling pretty deflated if it doesn’t puff up and stay there. Usually, the reason for this is fairly simple – haste. If you look in the oven you can watch the pastry puffing up. That is because the water in the butter is turning to steam and forcing each layer apart. Once forced apart, the fat in the butter or lard cooks each layer of pastry giving the flake. If you open the oven during this process, the puff will deflate and flatten again, so don’t open the oven at all during the first 75% of the bake, and then stick to the recommended cooking time. Some of you (myself included) may need to get around to changing the light bulb in your ovens if you want to master puff!
Problem six: I’m making croissants and instead of a flaky finish, they’re more bread-like.
Richard's solution: Bready croissants usually happen because the butter that has been carefully folded between your layers of pastry has melted and soaked into the uncooked dough, creating an enriched bread dough instead. This is still pretty nice, but definitely not a croissant. When making the puff for a croissant, there can be no cutting corners – you can only do a maximum of two folds on your dough before returning it to the fridge to chill down. If you’re not confident in your rolling, or are in a really hot kitchen, it's best to chill between every roll.
There is also a limit to how many folds you can do, even if you do chill your dough correctly – any more than seven and the butter will become too thin and melt back into your dough. Lastly, once you’ve painstakingly made your dough, cut it, rolled it and laid it out to prove, don’t put it in the airing cupboard or the butter will melt again. Prove the croissants at room temperature until they are nice and big, then whack them in the oven. They’ll come out lovely.
Problem seven: I’m folding puff pastry and it’s sticking to the work surface.
Richard's solution: Because of the massive amount of fat in puff, you have to be careful of sticking your dough to the table. As mentioned previously, regularly chill your dough so the butter doesn’t leak out. When first laying the butter on the dough, don’t fit it exactly to the shape of the dough; leave it 1-2 centimetres shy of the edge, so you can seal the butter in when you’re folding. Lightly flour the surface, and always roll in the direction you want to lengthen of the dough. Try to avoid rolling across the dough as you’ll spoil the shape and squidge butter out of the sides.
Problem eight: I’m making a custard tart and my filling is curdled.
Richard's solution: Standard custard tarts are pretty simple to get the hang of. Once you’ve nailed the basics, the next stage is usually to add fillings and flavours. This is where you can run into problems. Liquid flavours like booze, juices or essences can add too much moisture to your custard, causing it to split. Juicy fruits can do the same during cooking. Too high a temperature will also cause your custard to split, especially if you’re making one with only egg as the thickening agent and leaving out cornflour. Try not to exceed 180C during baking or it will split and turn into sweet scrambled egg.
Problem nine: I don’t have baking beans to use during blind baking.
Richard's solution: I use dried beans if I haven’t got anything else lying around. At the moment I’m using a mix of dried butter beans and some mixed beans I found at the back of the cupboard. They work fine for blind baking, and can be reused over and over again, although I wouldn’t bother making a casserole out of them afterwards. For smaller tarts, try using rice; it's small enough to find the contours of an individual tart case with no problem. Try not to use rice for bigger tarts as it is so fine that it may insulate your pastry from the heat you are trying to add to it.
Problem ten: My pie crust is unevenly cooked and burnt in places.
Richard's solution: Ugly pie crusts can be endearing when kids are doing them, but they can be avoided if you’re after a perfect bake. Evenly roll out your pastry to start, and gently transfer to the top of your filled pie on a rolling pin – you’re less likely to stretch the pastry this way. If appropriate, chill your pie before cooking – the pastry will keep its shape better that way. Keep an eye on your bake. If it looks like it is beginning to burn during baking, loosely cover with baking foil to stop the top burning.
More from Richard..
More baking troubleshooting articles...
More pastry guidance...
How to make puff pastry video
Guide to cooking with pastry
DIY pastry: To make or to buy?
How to roll pastry video
How to use filo pastry video
How to blind bake pastry video
How to make shortcrust pastry video
How to make choux pastry and eclairs video
How to rub in flour and butter video