A pastry blender is a fairly simple gadget, but one that has more uses than just for making pie crust. I use mine for
- pie dough
- streusel or other “crumble” toppings
- mashing potatoes, yams, squash, or bananas
- breaking up cooked ground meat (say hamburger you want to use for taco filling)
- chopping up eggs for tuna or chicken salad
- flaking tuna or other canned meat
It’s an easy tool to use. For pie dough, biscuits, and streusel/crumble toppings, thoroughly mix the dry ingredients together with a fork. If using butter, cut it into pats of about tablespoon size. Shortening is typically much softer but would still benefit from being cut into smaller pieces instead of one big glob.
Use the pastry blender to blend the shortening/butter into the flour mixture by “cutting” it in – press the pastry blender down through the mixture to cut up the pieces of fat and mix them with the flour.
For either pie dough or biscuits, you don’t want to overmix. Most directions say to cut the shortening in until it’s a “course meal” with “pea sized” lumps of shortening, but in reality, you will get better results if you don’t expect uniform size particles. Some will be larger than pea size, some smaller. It is the variation in the size of the shortening pieces which, when rolled out, will create the flakiness of the dough. When those pieces melt, it creates steam that helps to separate the dough into the multitude of layers that make biscuits or pie dough so tender and delicious.
There are basically two types of pastry blenders.
Wire Type: I don’t care for this one, as the wires tend to bend, tangle, or spread out too much in use. It’s also not very useful for much other than making dough – it does a poor job of breaking up meat for tacos or mashing vegetable or bananas. A very well made one, that won’t spread with use would probably tend to clog up less than the bladed sort, but the wires tend to be very close together, giving you less control over particle size in, say, a pie dough.
This type is more stable and has more versatility than the wire types. A good one makes short work of cutting through cold butter and easily handles other tasks such as mashing vegetables or mincing cooked ground meat. However, as for any tool, quality varies widely, and there are styles other than the “traditional” bladed configuration shown to the left.
This style has blades that go further up toward the handle. The advantage is that they don’t clog up as quickly as the “traditional” style tends to. The taller profile provides more leverage and more clearance between your knuckles and the dough. I don’t currently own one of these, but I would like to have one to see if it works out as well in fact as it looks like it should in theory.
UPDATED 12-23-2011: I have since acquired one of these, and it does seem to do a better job, mixing pastry dough with less clogging of the blade. It also seems to mash potatoes and meat (for tacos and the like) with a bit less muss, fuss, and bother. However, I’m not sure that it’s enough of an improvement over a well-designed blade with the shorter handle that I would run out and replace the older design, knowing what I know now. It probably would be a better choice if you don’t already have a decent pastry blender. It costs a bit more than the shorter handled version; probably worth it if you don’t have one already; if you do, meh, not so much.
One of the issues to consider when looking for a bladed pastry blender is how far apart the blades are. If they’re too close together, it will clog and will make the meal for dough too small. If they’re too far apart, as these are, you will end up chasing big clumps of shortening and flour all around the bowl.
Finally, there is this style. This pastry blender is inconvenient to use and not very effective. The blades are flat instead of curved, which makes it difficult to use when you need to deal with the curved sides of a mixing bowl. It’s also pretty expensive – $20 and up. I don’t have one of these, but in this case I’m unlikely to buy one to try it out.