American-style pie dough—cutting fat like butter, shortening, or lard into flour, then adding water—comes with a lot of don’ts: Don’t let the fat melt. Don’t use room-temp or even just-cold water (it has to be ice cold) and don’t use too much of it. Don’t overwork the dough. Did I mention, don’t let the fat melt? Seriously, don’t, that’s so important!
These rules become engrained, eventually, but for most of my life, they scared me away from pastry. Then, a few years ago, while working as a middle-of-the-night baker, I was introduced to pie dough’s laissez-faire French cousin: the fraisage method.
At the bakery, we likened it to a cat kneading a blanket, stretching its paws and claws outward, again and again. In this case, you are the cat. The blanket is shortcrust pastry dough. And instead of worrying about the butter staying in pea-sized pieces and not melting, you, well, don’t worry:
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Make the dough in a food processor by pulsing together flour, salt, and butter pieces. Add ice water, splash by splash, until a dough just forms. Dump onto a lightly floured work surface, then smear outward with the heels of your hands. Aim for shallow strokes, pushing forward a small amount of dough—figure a couple tablespoons.
In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child is all about the fraisage. She describes the motion as a way “to ensure an even blending of fat and flour.” So why, exactly, is this good thing? Doesn’t it go against all American-style-pie-dough rules? It does. But it also works—producing a different but just as indispensable pastry. Instead of the butter being cut into bits and bobs, which bounce here and there, it is spread into thin, long streaks. When these melt in the oven, they produce steam, creating a crust that is flaky and crumbly, crunchy and tender.
Fraisage anytime you’re making pâte brisée and pâte sucrée—so, any kind of tart or quiche—or if you’re making a free-form pie like a galette. These recipes are a perfect place to start:
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.