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The Best All-Purpose Wash for Your Pastry Crust

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You’re making a pie or working with bread dough and come across a step that says “Brush the dough with egg wash.” Another recipe might say “Brush the dough with milk or cream.” But why the difference—and can you use milk or cream in a pinch in place of an egg wash? So many questions!

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Wide Lattice Peach Pie with Tarragon Butter by Elizabeth Stark

At this point, you either skip the wash or brush it on without really knowing why it matters. It’s a small blip on the page. How important could it be? The truth is egg, milk, and cream washes are a simple but vital step to improving the appearance and flavor of baked goods.

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Whole egg wash—look at that yellow shine!
Whole egg wash—look at that yellow shine! Photo by Teresa Floyd

What does an egg wash do exactly?

When a lightly beaten egg is brushed onto the dough’s surface before baking, it enhances the browning of the crust color and gives a shiny luster to the dough’s surface after it’s baked.

Protein in the egg yolk provides the color, while the fat adds shine. Egg white also contains protein and helps the browning and a little the shine. Egg whites also thin out the yolk so it’s easier to brush on the dough. In addition, the watery egg white prevents the yolk from drying out too quickly, so the dough stays moist and can expand in the oven (imagine those puffy dinner rolls). The result is a tender yet lightly crisp crust.

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Milk and cream washes—shiny, but not as yellow.

Then what does a milk wash do?

A milk wash is used to encourage browning of the crust color, but also imparts flavor. Milk and other dairy products contain natural sugars (lactose) and amino acids that react with one another when exposed to high temperatures in the oven—the resulting browning is caramelly in flavor (this is the Maillard Reaction in action).

A milk wash is usually applied to breads baked at lower temperatures because the milk’s lactose sugar caramelizes at lower temps. Since milk contains a higher water content than cream, it allows the surface to remain wet longer, so it’s best used on expansive doughs, like dinner rolls. Similar to an egg white, milk will provide a semi-gloss shine or matte finish to the final baked dough.

How about a cream wash?

A cream wash is generally applied to static doughs—short doughs such as pies and tarts that are minimally expansive during baking. The higher fat content in the cream increases the shine, while the protein and sugars a touch of color. Half and half can be used as a substitute for milk or cream if you have it on hand. It’ll produce a similar coloring with subtle shine.

I’d prefer not to use egg or dairy. Is there an alternative?

There are two! Olive oil is will create a nicely golden color to a crust with a little sheen. Water is another simple alternative that will help keep the final crust soft. It may not boost color and shine, but it’s still an improvement.

The winning wash.
The winning wash.

So which one is the best?

Ultimately, it depends on the look you’re going for, but overall, an egg wash made up of an egg yolk, cream, and salt is a great all-purpose wash: It will create optimum browning, shine, and flavor. And the more yolk in the wash, the darker and crispier the final crust.

Adding salt helps thin the wash by breaking down the protein in the egg yolk. Adding liquid in the form of milk or cream adds caramel flavor and thins out the egg wash so it’s easier to apply. Diluting eggs with liquid also raises the temperature at which thickening begins, so it prevents the wash from becoming gummy in the refrigerator during storage. When stored in an airtight container, egg washes can keep for up to three days in the refrigerator.

Use a natural bristle or silicone pastry brush to apply the egg wash. Lightly brush a thin and even layer of egg wash over the surface of the dough. It shouldn’t pool on the surface or around the base of the dough. Pooling egg wash burns and can lead to an unpleasant taste and texture. The pastry brush should be washed after each use.

But really, do I have to use a wash on my crust?

Overall, the visual appearance, texture, and flavor of your final dough is really enhanced by using any type of wash. Egg, milk, and cream washes not only help with appearance: They also seal in moisture and assist with the final rise of a dough. They also can be used as a glue to hold pieces of dough together or act as a binder for holding sugar and other coatings in place. Your decorative pie crusts and bread doughs are all the more beautiful thanks to these washes.

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Strawberry Chamomile Hand Pies

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Makes 14 hand pies

For the chamomile pie dough:

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon dry edible chamomile flowers, finely ground
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup ice water

For the strawberry filling:

  • 1 1/2 cups fresh strawberries, diced small
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 pinch kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream
  • Turbinado sugar, for the top

Unless otherwise noted, photos by Teresa Floyd.

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Tags: baking, crusts, pastry