Essential Tools

Do You Really Need a Pastry Brush?

September 26, 2016

The question—from a young cook—caught me off guard. I haven’t had a kitchen without a pastry brush (or two) in the drawer since forever. Even when I was 22, living in Paris, with a kitchen-in-the-corner-of-the-hallway, there was a pastry brush in the (only) drawer.

If you bake, you need at least one pastry brush. If it is a boar’s bristle brush, it should be dedicated to pastry and not shared with your barbecue tools or allowed to wallow in garlicky or other savory marinades.

What better way to brush butter over a doughnut than with a pastry brush? Photo by Bobbi Lin

More: Make these doughnuts! (They're Amanda Hesser's pistachio-cardamom ones.)

You need a pastry brush because nothing is better for applying a very thin-but-thorough and even coat of something wet or gooey or sticky—egg wash, cream, hot fruit glaze, melted butter, even water. A good brush can safely navigate all kinds of surfaces, be they porous, flaky, crumbly, delicate, moist, or dry. A good brush holds a lot of goop but gives you enough control to put it exactly where you want it, neatly and evenly, without unsightly drips—or pooled drips that can inhibit the rise of a biscuit or layers of puff pastry. A good brush is quick and efficient to work with, and as accurate as you want it to be.

If you are new to pastry brushes, I recommend old school boar’s bristle (but not nylon) brushes. They work perfectly and they are versatile. If you buy them online, or in a hardware or art supply store or commercial kitchen supply, they cost very little and you can justify more than one size—my go-to brushes are 1 inch and 1 1/2 inches wide. None of us like to clean boar’s bristles, but we get over it! Silicone brushes cost more but they are seductively easy to clean. The tricky thing about silicone is that there are too many different styles (not just sizes) to choose from, and many don’t work as well as boar’s bristles for pastry applications.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

If you do choose a silicone brush for pastry, those with very thin, round (rather than flat) silicone "bristles" offer the most control and precision. (Silicone brushes with flat, ribbon-shaped bristles are better for sloshing a bunch of marinade on a steak rather than applying thin even coats of glaze or egg wash.) Le Creuset makes a 1-inch silicone brush with very thin "bristles" (each about 1/32 inches in diameter!) that works about as well as my 1-inch boar’s bristle brush; unfortunately the next size up (2 inches wide) has thicker silicone bristles instead of more thin ones—what were they thinking!—and it doesn’t work as well. I get grumpy about such things.

Anyway, once it or they are in your drawer, here are just a few of the things you will do quite easily in the future:

  • Brush excess flour from the surface of rolled out pie, tart, or cookie, or bread dough (or your pastry board)
  • Egg wash biscuits, puff pastry, pie tops, and lattices without dripping, and coat tart and pie bottoms evenly
  • Brush sweet glazes or soaking syrups onto cookies or cakes or muffins
  • Brush cake layers with soaking syrups or liqueurs
  • Wash éclair (choux) pastry with water before baking
  • Glaze fruit tarts with a thin coat of hot fruit glaze
  • Glaze tart bottoms before filling with fruit and/or tart crust edges to adhere nuts
  • Brush melted butter (or olive oil) onto toast, over fillo pastry, or inside soufflé cups before sugaring them
  • Wash sugar crystals from the insides of pots when cooking syrups or candy

Alice Medrich is a Berkeley, California-based pastry chef, chocolatier, and cookbook author. You can read more about what she's up to here.

Have pastry brushes been indispensable to you? Or are you a seasoned baker sans brush? Tell us in the comments.

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7 Comments

HalfPint September 26, 2016
Since art supplies aren't primarily used for food purposes, do I need to worry that the brushes have been 'finished' in/with chemicals that are toxic? Am I just being paranoid?
 
Smaug September 26, 2016
It's probably best to buy brushes sold for food purposes, they're easy enough to come by. There's not much intentional by way of chemicals on cheap wood brushes, but they might not be so careful about how they're handled.
 
Olivia B. September 26, 2016
I just remembered I've been missing my pastry brush for a while now... I use(d) mine for egg washing empanadas, pizza crust, biscuits... and as of late have had to resort to sponging them on with a paper towel. Not ideal. I've been using a silicone brush but now I might have to replace it with the boar's bristle!
 
amysarah September 26, 2016
I have a big silicone BBQ brush, which I love. But my father was a painter, and I also have quite a few of his old brushes. My artist-daughter uses the really good ones (sable, etc.) for painting. But the less delicate (e.g., boar's bristle) have been conscripted for kitchen use. He was a lover of both good cooking and good painting (and of his grandkids) so it feels fitting.
 
Smaug September 26, 2016
I love silicone brushes for barbecue and the like- It would be nice to find one fine enough for pastry work; cleaning melted butter out of a regular brush is not fun.
 
Maureen M. September 26, 2016
I do have one - but as much as I hate to admit it - I usually use my fingers ...
 
Rachel September 26, 2016
I do too. My grandma had a brush made of goose feathers that was bound with thread. One of the best I've ever seen, but I don't have a nearby goose to pull out feathers from, so I tend to use my hands. Actually, I'll coat my hands with egg wash and apply it to pie crusts since it seems to give an even coating.