A pastry blender (aka pastry cutter) is a hand-held tool used both to cut solid fat into flour, and to blend it in thoroughly. It consists of a handle that has half-moon shaped wires attached to it at both ends.
It is used most often for pastry dough, scone dough, or baking powder biscuit dough.
It is completely hand powdered.
Pastry blender choices
The handle can be metal, wood or plastic. Wood is traditional. The finish on wood may deteriorate in the dishwasher, but some people don’t care what it ends up looking like: they just think wood is still more comfortable to use.
The wires curve downwards away from the handle at one end, and then upwards and back into the other end of the handle. The wires can be thickish wires, or metal blades. Wires are more traditional, and some say, more efficient at even mixing because they are more flexible. Some prefer the blade ones though, because they can drop in larger hunks of cold fat all at once and hack their way through them. Some people have found that the wires on some of the newer, cheaper-made wire ones will pop with too much pressure on cold fat.
When choosing a pastry blender, feel the handle and make sure it feels comfortable to you in your hand –as you are going to be pressing down on this handle.
Technique of using a pastry blender
The fat being cut in can be lard, butter, dripping, suet, shortening or margarine. The act of what you are doing is called “cutting in the fat.”
The fat to be blended should be cold. The purpose of working the fat in and chopping it into small pieces is that when it melts during cooking, it will leave flaky air pockets behind. If it’s soft and warm, it won’t form the nice small pieces that will form air pockets in dough; rather, the blender will act as a masher, mashing the fat in, and making the dough heavy.
Don’t dump half a block of hard butter or other fat in and attack it with a pastry blender. Cut it up into manageable pieces first. Even when hard, if you’ve got your cold fat cut into appropriate size pieces, you shouldn’t have to really press on it all that much.
Press the pastry blender into the fat and flour, giving it a half turn as you press, then lift and repeat with rapid hand motions.
A pastry blender can also be used to chop hard-boiled eggs for salads and garnishes, mash up soft avocado, or hack cooked ground beef or pork back into a nice mince after cooking if it has bunched up.
The substitute traditionally recommended is to use two knives, but this combination is quite fussy to use. It is easier to just rub the flour and fat between your hands, though purists sniff that warms the dough somewhat. If you fall into that camp, you can use a food processor instead, if you don’t mind the clean-up.