Shortcrust pastry is made with twice the amount of flour to fat and the texture of the pastry largely depends on which type of fat is used and how it is integrated into the flour.
A good pastry requires very little handling indeed, which sometimes can be quite tricky.
Below is some helpful information about the ingredients and techniques used to make a "perfect" shortcrust pastry, followed by a simple recipe.
The first item you will need to make a shortcrust pastry is flour. This flour will always be a soft plain flour ideal for cakes and pastries, rather than the stronger type of flour used to make bread. Do not use really old flour; the best results are obtained with a fairly fresh batch of plain flour.
Although shourtcrust pastry does not rise during baking, it is imperative that lots of air is incorporated into the pastry dough, so that the pastry is kept light.
One of the most important factors is to keep all ingredients as cold as possible, therefore if you live in a particularly warm country or are working in a warm kitchen, it may be an idea to place the flour and bowl in the refrigerator for 10 - 15 minutes before starting.
To make the pastry, start of by sifting the flour and a pinch of salt into a large bowl. Hold the sieve as high as possible over the bowl when sifting the flour, to incorporate as much air as you can.
Usually an equal amount of butter and lard is used to make shortcrust pastry. The butter gives the pastry a deliciously rich flavour, whilst the lard is used for optimum texture. The amount of fat should be half that of the flour.
Whichever type of fat you use, it should be cold, but not too cold so that it is impossible to rub into the flour. On the other hand, if the fat is too soft and warm, it will begin to melt and become oily, which will result in a pastry that does not stay intact when it is being rolled out. The fat may become warm from taking too long to rub it into the flour, which could also happen if the fat is too cold. For the best pastry results, you have to work quickly and therefore the temperature of the fat must be taken into consideration.
The second stage of pastry making is to add the fat to the flour and salt. For shortcrust pastry particularly, the fat must be cut into small pieces and added to the flour.
Then, using a knife or even better, a pastry blender (see introduction to pastry), cut the fat into even smaller pieces with the flour until the mixture looks fairly even and all the fat has been coated. Finish off by quickly and lightly rubbing the fat into the flour with your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs, lifting the mixture as high as possible and letting it fall into the bowl, to incorporate even more air. If the mixture starts to warm up or the fat becomes oily, place it in the fridge for the necessary amount of time to cool the ingredients down a bit.
Adding the liquid
For shortcrust pastry you will always be required to use water rather than any other type of liquid. Ensure that the water is chilled beforehand and remember that only a small amount of water, a few tablespoons, is required.
Once your flour and fat mixture resembles breadcrumbs, begin by evenly sprinkling one or two tablespoons of water over the flour mixture. If a mistake is made and too much water is added, this will turn the pastry into a sticky mess, making it almost impossible to roll out. However, if not enough water is added, the baked pastry will crumble and fall to pieces.
Once the liquid has been added, the mixture needs to be brought together to form a dough. The best method is by using a knife rather than your fingers to start with, as the pastry should be handled very little.
Work the knife using cutting and stirring motions, and the mixture should start to come together. Finish off by pressing the ingredients together with your fingers, adding more water if necessary, until the bowl has been completely cleaned and a nice and smooth ball of dough has been formed.
Resting the pastry
It is really important to give the pastry a rest before rolling it out, so that the gluten in the flour has enough time to react with the water and gain elasticity, which will make rolling the pastry out that much easier.
Wrap the pasty dough ball in cling film and place it in the refrigerator for a minimum of 30 minutes.
If you are not going to use the pastry immediately, it can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 days.
Rolling the pastry
When you remove the pastry from the refrigerator, let it stand for a while to bring it back up to room temperature before rolling, so that it softens up and is more manageable.
Make sure that the surface on which you are going to roll out the pastry dough is clean and dry. Lightly dust the surface with flour and do the same with the rolling pin.
Roll the pastry out to the desired thickness and shape for the recipe that you are following.
Recipe for shortcrust pastry (for a 9 inch pastry case)
8 oz (225g) of plain flour
4 oz (115g) of butter or 2 oz (55g) each of butter and lard
3 - 4 tbsp of ice cold water
pinch of salt
Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl, lifting the sieve high above the bowl.
Cut the chilled fat into small pieces and add to the flour.
Using a knife, cut the butter and work it into the flour.
Use your fingertips to rub the fat into the flour until a breadcrumb like mixture is obtained.
Sprinkle the water, 1 tbsp at a time, evenly over the flour and fat mixture.
Begin to bind all of the ingredients together using a round-bladed knife.
As the mixture starts to come together, finish off by using your hands, until all the mixture has been incorporated and a round ball of dough has been formed.
Wrap the dough in cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Remove the dough from the fridge, allow to warm up and knead gently on a lightly floured clean surface.
Roll out to desired thickness.
To make a two-crust pie, as opposed to a pie with just a pastry base, the proportions of the ingredients must be increased by 50%. This is due to the fact that the pastry dough must be divided into two pieces and therefore more pastry is required. The first piece is rolled out and used to line the base of the pastry tin, the filling is added, and the second piece of pastry is then placed over the top of the filling, like a lid.
Therefore, for a 9 inch pastry case, you will need 12 oz (340 g) of plain flour, 6 oz (170 g) of fat, 5 - 6 tbsp of iced water and ½ tsp of salt.
Rich shortcrust pastry
This is basically the same as shortcrust pastry but it is richer in flavour and crumblier in texture, due to the higher amount of fat used. To make a sweetcrust pastry to be used for sweet pies or tarts, add 1 oz (30 g) of caster sugar to the ingredients below.
For a 9 inch pastry case made from rich shortcrust pastry, you will need: 8 oz (225 g) plain flour, 6 oz (170 g) butter, 2 - 3 tbsp of water, 1 egg yolk and a pinch of salt. For a two-crust pie, increase the proportions by 50% as above.