Shortcrust pastry is a type of dough that is very simple, traditional and versatile. The recipe for shortcrust pastry contains only flour, butter or lard, ice water and sometimes salt. During the process of creating shortcrust pastry, every effort is made to keep the dough light, to keep the fat suspended homogenously throughout the dough, and to prevent the development of long gluten strands that might make the pastry chewy or tough. After being baked in an oven, the pastry does not rise and instead comes out as a buttery, somewhat flakey sheet with a fine crumb. The basic shortcrust pastry can be used to make nearly any type of dish, from sweet to savory, although two variations can be made — one that uses sugar in the dough for sweetness and another that uses an egg instead of ice water for a heartier taste.
One of the most important ingredients in shortcrust pastry is the type of fat that is used. Butter is a traditional choice and will make a flaky pastry with a rich taste. Lard can be used, as well, creating a pastry that has a very toothy texture but is lacking the rich taste given by butter. Some recipes use a combination of half butter and half lard so the flavor of the butter can be combined with the texture provided by the lard.
To make shortcrust pastry, the first step is to combine the fat with the flour. The flour first is sifted so it is easier to handle and some air can be incorporated, allowing the crust to be light and flaky when baked. The classic technique for incorporating the fat into the flour is called rubbing and involves dicing the fat into small cubes that are kept cold, and then using hands and fingers to gently rub the fat into the dry flour with the intention of coating each of the flakes of flour in the fat as consistently as possible. Rubbing the fat into the flour is done because the more uniformly the fat is distributed in the flour, the better the texture and taste of the finished pastry will be. The ingredients also can be placed in a food processor and pulsed slowly to achieve the same effect, although the results are not always the same.
Once the fat and the flour are combined, ice water is added to the dough in small amounts until it comes together and forms a ball. Too much water will create dough that is hard to handle, while too little water will leave the dough falling apart into small crumbs. A beaten egg also can be used instead of the water for a richer flavor. The dough is then formed into a ball and goes unkneaded to prevent the development of long gluten strands that could make the shortcrust pastry chewy and bread-like.
The completed shortcrust pastry dough usually is refrigerated before being rolled out to ensure that the fat does not separate from the flour. At this point, the dough can be blind baked, or used like any pie crust dough in a larger recipe. If the dough will not be used immediately, then it can be refrigerated or frozen for storage.