Back to basics - pâte brisée

now THAT's flaky

In the wake of a tart class that I taught a few months back, when my apple tarts baked with pâte brisée came out soggy and under baked, I was determined to revisit the techniques involved in making this classic dough.

(SIDE NOTE:  in my defense the apple filling prepped by an eager culinary student was way too soupy, and the oven I used was not familiar to me, but I still felt the need for a refresher!)

Known to pie and tart bakers as flaky pie dough, pâte brisée can cause the most confident baker to question why, why, why doesn't this dough come out perfect EVERY time?!

Some years ago I compared a number of recipes and methods for pâte brisée and came away with a version that was delicious and seemed to be just the thing.  But since then, even though I've used the same recipe and technique every time, I've had my share of less than stellar results.  Maybe it's just me, eh?

I proceeded to look at recipes from Christophe Felder (one of my favorite tart makers) and Thomas Keller of French Laundry/Bouchon Bakery fame.  In addition I obtained the recipe that the bakers at Nonna Cafe in Ada use (I've had their quiche many times and the crust is always deeelish!).  The last addition to my test quartet was the recipe I've been using for years.

Truth be told, many pâte brisée recipes are very similar, but what intrigued me about these four was the difference in ratios of butter to flour, how much water is added and how the ingredients are brought together.

Here we go!

Pâte brisée is simply flour, cold butter, salt and ice water ( some recipes add a bit of sugar too).  In the photo below I've provided the amounts of butter and flour for each of the four recipes. From left to right you see the following ratios:  Felder (CF): butter:flour at 1:2; Keller (TK) 1:1.35; me (SV): 1:1.44; Nonna (N): 1:1.18 (getting much closer to 1:1!).

In this test I'm using Challenge unsalted butter, made in California with the claim that it is from cows not treated with growth hormone rbST.  I've been using it for some months now and it's good.

I've discovered over the years, working with various tart and shortbread doughs, that the closer the weight of butter gets to the weight of flour in the dough (butter weight is typically about 2/3 flour weight), the more tender and delectable the end result.

At any rate, this promised to be interesting.

Below are the four finished doughs with all ingredient amounts listed.  The Felder recipe makes a larger quantity than the other three, but you can still appreciate the ingredient ratios.

Just a note - the TK, SV and N recipes are typically double (enough for two 9" tarts or pies) what I note below.  I made smaller recipes for testing purposes.

So how are these all put together, you might ask?

I've always followed the "flaking" method when making pâte brisée by hand.  This involves working pieces of cold butter into the flour and salt, purposely leaving large "flakes" or flat pieces of butter in the mixture.  Cold water is then added in increments and mixed lightly and quickly until the dough holds together.  The dough is then wrapped and chilled before rolling it out for use.

Here are the differences in technique for the other three doughs.

Felder calls for soft butter to which is added the salt, sugar and flour.  The mixture is sanded by hand to coarse crumbs, then 120 gm ice water is added and mixed gently until the dough comes together.  The amount of water to flour is much higher in his recipe.  He claims that this dough holds very well after baking, doesn't soften and is great for juicy fruit fillings.

Keller's method involves mixing half the flour with the salt, adding butter pieces on low speed in a mixer until NO butter is visible.  Then on med-low speed the remaining flour is added, followed by the water.  Mix until just combined, wrap and chill.

Nonna's dough is made with a food processor, although I chose to sand the butter in by hand.  Place the flour and salt in the bowl, pulse in the cold, diced butter to achieve coarse crumbs, then add the ice water and pulse just until it comes together.  Wrap and chill.

All just a little bit different!

Once the four doughs were chilled I rolled them out to make 80 mm filled and baked blueberry tarts and blind baked and filled lemon tarts.

destined for blueberry tarts

Here's what I observed when rolling these doughs.

The Felder dough, even after a good chill, felt weirdly spongy and soft (NOT in a good way).  It was sticky and didn't hold its shape well when lining the ring.

The Keller dough was smooth, firm and tight, rolled beautifully and held very nicely when lining the ring.

My SV dough felt a bit rougher and drier than the others, although rolled well and held when lining the ring.

The Nonna dough felt soft (in a good way) - not too wet, not too dry- rolled nicely and held well when lining the ring.

I popped the lined rings into the freezer to firm up before baking.

First the blueberry tarts.  I sprinkled some fine, dry bread crumbs in the bottom of the tart shells - this is meant to create a barrier between the filling and the crust to help reduce the chance for sogginess.

Then I filled each with fresh blueberries that were tossed in a little lemon juice, sugar and flour ( for four 80 mm tarts I used a generous 3 cups of berries with 1-2 teaspoons lemon juice, 4 - 6 tablespoons sugar (or to taste) and 2 tablespoons of flour).

Heat the oven to 425 F.

ready for the oven

I gave these 5 minutes then decreased the oven temp to 400 F.  Continue baking another 20-25 minutes or so until the berries are bubbly and the crust is nicely browned.

all baked and bubbly

I sprinkled vanilla sugar atop the blueberry tarts once out of the oven.

I also rolled out some scraps of each dough to bake all by themselves. I wanted to see how they puffed and tasted sans filling.

a sprinkle of vanilla sugar before baking

nicely browned

It's a bit difficult to see from the photo above, but all of the scrap pieces puffed up nicely, except the Felder dough.

the Nonna dough - nice!

Now for the blind baked tarts with oven temp at 400 F.

the lined rings

Freeze the lined rings for 10-15 minutes then fill with parchment rounds and dry beans.

weighted down and ready to bake

Bake with weights for 15 minutes, remove weights and bake an additional 5-8 minutes until nicely browned.  Always pay attention to what's going on inside your oven!!

all baked up

All four doughs held their shape pretty well during baking with the usual amount of shrinkage away from the rings.

After reducing the oven temp to 300 F I filled them with my current favorite lemon filling and baked  them until the filling was set, about 10-15 minutes.

Check out my post from 2/16/16 on lemon-lime tart.

out of the oven and cooling

Now for the tasting.  Steve was on hand for the event, my ever present tasting guru.

First the blueberry.

I realize you can't appreciate the difference in the doughs visually, but the first thing I checked was how they all felt when portioning them with a serrated knife, followed by how easily they cut with a fork.

Felder's crust was tough, both when slicing with a knife and when cutting with a fork.  It was chewy in the mouth, was not flaky or tender and the flavor was dull.  No thanks.

Keller's cut very easily with both knife and fork, was tender and crisp with a pleasant and agreeable flavor.

Mine was just a tad resistant to cutting compared to Keller's, slightly less tender but crisp in the mouth with good flavor.

Nonna's cut easily with great flavor and texture.

All of the above observations held when tasting the plain baked scraps of dough.  Felder's was chewy and tough, broke apart with a bend rather than a crisp snap without any flakiness.  The other three were flaky, crisply tender and delicious.

When cutting and tasting the lemon tarts, the same observations held true. (Love that lemon filling!)

Felder was the obvious loser.  However the other three were all good, leaving me with the question - now what?!

As if you haven't already had enough, I decided to do just a bit more reading and research and came upon one more technique that sounded promising.  I'll credit this one to Kristen Rosenau who writes the blog "Pastry Affair" (

First I tweaked my recipe (it's coming at the end, I promise!) by increasing the butter to bring the butter:flour ratio to 1:1.25 (in between TK and N).

In Kristen's by-hand method she takes half of the diced cold butter and sands it into the flour and salt.  Then she adds the other half of the butter in larger diced pieces and "flakes" them, leaving flat pieces of butter visible.

Add the ice water incrementally and once the dough holds together, turn it out onto a piece of parchment or plastic wrap.  There may very well be some crumbly pieces at the edges.  Don't worry.

Using the plastic wrap as an aid, fold the dough in three.

looks a little rough and tumble

Flatten and turn it 90 degrees then fold in three again (basically a rustic version of puff pastry).

Flatten, wrap and chill for a good hour or more.

I then performed the same steps as with the quartet of doughs already described, making a filled and baked blueberry tart, a blind baked and filled lemon tart and baking a piece of the dough all by itself.

ready for the oven

bubbly and browned

nicely browned
lemony goodness

Of course while the blueberry and lemon tarts were cooling, I just had to snitch a taste of the plain crust - YUM!  Tender, flaky and all around delicious.

Once they were cooled, Steve and I tasted the blueberry and lemon versions and found the crust to be wonderfully tender, flaky and buttery.

And, to top it off, they were still delicious the next day!  I like that.

So here's my version that I intend to use from this day forward.

Pâte brisée (makes approximately 645 gms of dough, MORE than enough for two 9" tarts; just freeze what you don't need)

325 grams all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
OPT: one tablespoon granulated sugar
260 grams cold, unsalted butter (1/2 small-dice, 1/2 large-dice)
60 ml (4 tablespoons) ice cold water

Mix the flour, salt and sugar (if using) in a large bowl.

Sand in the small-dice butter with your finger tips to achieve coarse crumbs.

Flake in the large-dice butter leaving flat, largish pieces in the mixture.

Add 1/2 the water, toss with a fork then toss and gently squeeze with your hands.  Add additional water by tablespoon until the dough holds together.

NOTE:  if your dough still seems dry and too crumbly to hold together (as it might on a cold, dry winter's day), continue to add additional tablespoons as needed but don't exceed 120 ml (8 tablespoons).

Place the dough onto a piece of parchment or plastic wrap; using the wrap as an aid, flatten the dough and fold into thirds.  Turn 90 degrees, flatten and fold in thirds again.  Flatten, wrap and chill for at least an hour or overnight.

If you don't intend to use the dough for a couple of days, freeze it.

Freeze well wrapped for up to 2 months.  A day before you wish to use it remove it from the freezer and place in the fridge to thaw overnight.

While this may not have been the most scientific of studies, it was indeed illuminating.  I love experimenting and learning, especially when I get to work with dough.  Yeah.

Have lots of fun folks!!