• Alchemy or Calculus?

    I have often been asked why I started a cooking magazine. The answer is that I had to, in order to find satisfying answers to basic cooking questions. How many times have you leafed through cookbooks looking for a definitive recipe for pie pastry, for example, only to find that each author had a different technique, different proportions, even different ingredients? Although it's true that cooking is closer to alchemy than to calculus-- that's part of its charm-- it's also true that cooking is not a discipline devoid of fundamental truths.

    Recently, as a weekend exercise, I leafed through a few notable cookbooks to compare the recipes for a basic pie pastry. I started with The Complete Book of Pastry (Bernard Clayton), As Easy as Pie (Susan Purdy), Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie (Bill Neal), As American as Apple Pie (Phillip Schulz), and then looked at The Way to Cook (Julia Child), for good measure. Just to see how one might create "low-fat" pastry, I also chose Great Good Food (Julee Rosso).

    I started with the basic ingredients and their ratios. The average proportion of fat to flour was one to two, although one recipe offered a ratio of only one part shortening to three parts flour. Salt varied from one-tenth teaspoon per cup of flour to one-half teaspoon per cup. Authors recommended as little as three tablespoons of chilled water per cup of flour, and as many as five tablespoons, a large variation. The recommended fat went from all lard, to a lard/butter combination, to all butter, to canola oil. Sugar and egg were often optional.

    The directions for making the dough were eye-opening. Some authors recommended cutting the shortening into the flour until it reached the size of "small peas." Another suggested melting the shortening in boiling water, cooling it, then adding it to the dry ingredients. For cutting in the shortening, some claimed hands were best, while others went to bat for a variety of implements including a food processor, a pastry blender, knives, and even a mixer.

    All of this leads to endless questions. What is the right amount of water? Is there no consensus about salting pastry dough? If cold shortening is so important how can authors suggest that you melt fat with boiling water or add room-temperature vegetable oil? Why do you let pastry dough rest? Do all of these recipes even work?

    As a first step to answering this question, I decided to compare a basic recipe for Pâte Brisée Fine to the one found in a popular low-calorie cookbook. The low-cal version calls for no butter or shortening, just a half-cup of canola oil cut (with two knives) into two and two-thirds cups all-purpose flour. To this, the recipe adds one-quarter teaspoon salt, four tablespoons sugar, six tablespoons ice water, and, in a purely symbolic nod to the cholesterol police, one tablespoon of skim milk. Despite culinary warning bells, I made the recipe and used it to prebake a pie crust. The result was a tough, inedible dough that even my kids wouldn't touch. Suspecting that the oil and flour should be mixed with a fork instead of two knives (as called for in the recipe), I tried the recipe a second time with better results but the pastry was still brittle and undersalted; more like a cookie than a pie crust.

    After this, the classic Pâte Brisée Fine, was like arriving home after a long and unpleasant business trip. It calls for one part cake flour to three parts all-purpose flour, a combination that results in a more tender crumb. There is plenty of butter and vegetable shortening (three parts butter to one part shortening) and, to my great relief, sufficient salt to give the pastry some bite. I prebaked a nine-inch tart shell and went on to make a quick fruit tart. The result was more than satisfactory-- the crust was tender, rich in flavor, properly salted, and delicate.

    It seems that there is, in fact, a right way and a wrong way to make pie pastry. Certainly there are variations on a theme, from a flaky American pie pastry to a "shorter" Pâte Brisée, but underneath it all, there is a discipline, a carefully acquired body of knowledge that gives cooking a firm grounding in fact.

    Like music, cooking is a tempestuous marriage of art and discipline. You need to be well-grounded to take flight, you need to practice to get off the ground. Through hours of kitchen testing and first-hand observation, the staff of Cook's Illustrated aims to provide the right balance between basic training and flights of fancy. We hope that you enjoy both.

    Editor's note: A thorough investigation of pie pastry will appear in an upcoming issue.

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