Techniques: Doughs

As a baker, nearly all of your desserts will contain flour.  Flour most notably creates doughs and batters.  The difference being that batters contain much more liquid that doughs.  This section will go over different kinds doughs that you may come across in your baking ventures.  Visit mixing methods if you are more interested in batters, like cake batter.


Different Kinds of Doughs
-Pie Dough
-Laminated Doughs (Non-yeast and yeast) [Links to Roll-in method]
-Pate a Choux
Developing Gluten
Working with Yeast [Links to Biological Leavening]

Pie Dough

Pies are considered uniquely American despite having roots in Europe.  A lot of this is due to the fact that pies were so heavily relied on during the settling of America because of the fact that pie dough’s ingredients were shelf-stable (flour, salt, sugar, water, lard), the ingredients were relatively easy to get, pie dough was quick and easy to make requiring few ingredients, and was flexible enough to be filled with anything – sweet or savory.  Since the long journey overseas in a ship could take months, ingredients that were shelf stable were necessary.  Once they landed in America, the ingredients didn’t require a lot of special attention and any fresh ingredients they found in America (be it vegetable, fruit, or game) could be used to make a pie.  Plus, if the filling was a sweet filling and heavily sugared it was also preserved.  Pie was great for using up bits of ingredients and leftovers making meals last longer and money stretch further.

Pie dough can be made on the mixer, but typically for best results it should be made by hand using the rubbing method.  If it is made on the mixer it is best to “under mix” the dough.  Good pie dough should have noticeable pieces of butter/fat throughout – these pieces of fat help lend to the flakiness for which pie dough is known.  The fat physically leavens the dough through the release of steam and/or air creating uneven sporadic ruptures in the crust which creates the flakiness.

There are three types of pie dough.  The first type is long flake which is when the fat has been rubbed into the flour and resembles half-dollar coins in size.  Long flake doughs flake very well because of the large pieces of fat but are also very delicate and break apart easily.  It looks great and works well as a top crust but it shouldn’t be used as a bottom crust.  Long flake dough is susceptible to absorbing moisture from the filling which is an issue for the bottom crust. The second type is called short flake and is when the fat is quarter-sized.  It is the all-purpose dough and can be used for the top and bottom crusts.

Mealy is when the fat has been over worked into the flour and is in pea-sized pieces or smaller.  There is nothing wrong with mealy dough but it will not flake up as much as the other types, if it flakes up at all.  Mealy crusts may shrink, warp, or have a cracked/crumbly appearance after baking which is why it is not used for the top.  This is because the fat has been so worked into the dough that it is very tenderized preventing the development of gluten – the only structure builder in pie dough.  Normally, mixing helps develop gluten but because there is little to no water added in the beginning of the rubbing method gluten cannot develop.  Gluten needs both water and mixing to develop.  Instead, the flour particles are coated in fat preventing them from developing strong bonds even when water is added in the end.  The resulting crust is crumbly because no structure developed.  Mealy crusts are desirable when pies are particularly wet or juicy.  Since the flour particles are coated with fat the starch and gluten cannot absorb water well – whether it’s water in the pie dough recipe or water from the juicy fruit filling.  On the other hand, since long flake dough is under mixed and flour particles are not coated with fat they are very likely to absorb water which leads to a soggy crust.  Likewise, if long flake dough is overworked after water is added it can over develop gluten creating a very tough, hard, or rubbery pie dough.


Choosing your fat is very important in the production of pie dough.  Butter has an excellent flavor and is the natural choice for most pie doughs.  However, because it has so much water and melts at such a low temperature pie doughs made only with butter tend not to be as flaky as pie doughs made with other fats.  Pie doughs made with butter may also warp because when the butter melts at such a low temperature and the structure has not been built yet the pie dough is more likely to warp into a different shape since the structure is still somewhat malleable.  The pie crusts may also be crumbly for those same reasons.

All-purpose shortening is the best fat for making pie dough.  It is said that all-purpose shortening was made to replace lard as a baking fat – lard being the original fat used in pie dough production.  Since it has no water and melts at such a high temperature the structure of the pie dough is not affected the same way butter affects pie dough.  All-purpose shortening does not have a great flavor however so you may want to incorporate some butter in your recipe.  Many times pie filling masks the pie dough’s flavor so it might be less important to focus on flavor in the pie crust.  I prefer to use a 50/50 blend of butter and shortening when I make pie dough.

Other Ingredients

Cold water is used in making pie dough because it helps solidify the fat.  Chunks of fat are necessary to having a flaky pie dough because they help create the flakiness in the baked pie crust.  Cold milk can be used to but remember that doughs made with milk will get darker faster than doughs made with water plus the liquid fat in milk can make the pie dough very moist – creating a soggy crust.  Remember that liquid fat is better at making baked products moist, even better than water.

Salt is commonly added to all pastries because it is said to help enhance flavor.  Some chefs believe without salt a pastry’s flavor is weaker.  I don’t always use a pinch of salt in my recipes because I can’t tell the difference when it is added – so it’s not usually on my mind.  In pie dough in addition to contributing flavor it can help gluten development.

Sugar adds sweetness to the pie dough and when baked the pie crust will get browner faster.  Sugar attracts water from the air very easily and may even attract it from your pie filling.  This will result in a soggy crust.  A little sugar won’t hurt though, and you can always sprinkle a little sugar on top of a double crust pie for crispness and caramelization.

Pie dough uses the rubbing or biscuit methodYou can see a video on how to make very basic pie dough here.  Feel free to play around and experiment with the ingredients, ratios of ingredients, and long flake vs. mealy to see how your pie dough will change.  Pie dough also freezes very well so feel free to make lots of pie dough in advance.

Pate a Choux

Pate a choux is a common pastry dough that is often mistaken for puff pastry dough because of the way that pate a choux puffs up in the oven.  However, remember that puff pastry dough is a laminated dough while pate a choux is a dough made from a roux and the addition of eggs.

Pate a choux literally translates to “cabbage paste” which is said to come from the way the dough when piped as profiteroles looks in the oven while it is baking.  Pate a choux is also used to make éclairs, paris-brest, gateau de Saint Honore, and beignets.

Pate a choux is usually made with bread flour, butter, liquid, and eggs as is made starting with a roux and adding eggs to it.  To see a video on how to make pate a choux click here.

Bread flour is used because a strong flour is needed and bread flour’s high gluten content helps create the desirable tough structure of the outside shell.  A weaker flour (less protein and more starch) like all-purpose, pastry, or cake flour may result in a gummy shell that will collapse or a tender crumbly shell that will fall apart when handled.

Butter is used as it is a common in ingredient in making a roux.  Butter’s main role in pate a choux is to contribute a buttery flavor to the dough but it may also help contribute to leavening and making the shell tender and soft.

Milk or water can be used to make pate a choux dough.  Milk provides more flavor, browning, and a more tender shell.  However, water will create a lighter shell (no milk solids or fats) and water should make a bigger shell with a larger cavity in the middle (less dense product).  You can split the liquid 50/50 with water and milk to help get the advantages of milk while lessening its disadvantages.

Eggs are the most important ingredient in pate a choux.  If your cream puffs, éclairs, or profiteroles do not puff up you probably needed one or two more eggs in the batter.  Along with the flour, eggs create the structure for the shell and because of their high water content eggs contribute greatly to leavening.  Since gluten is weakened so much in pate a choux, eggs are heavily relied on for structure.

Cooking the initial roux on the stove helps gelatinize and strengthen the starch in the flour while weakening the gluten.  The fat also helps coat the gluten making it weaker.  The roux is moved to an electric mixer when it is mixed on low speed with a paddle attachment until cool then the eggs are added.  Do not add eggs while the pate a choux is still hot, or the eggs may turn into scrambled eggs.  Do not wait until the mixture is completely cold either.  You waste time waiting for it to be completely cold, but also a warmer mixture will help distribute the egg better.  If at any time too many eggs are added and the mixture separates (a broken, mealy appearance with water seeping out of the dough) the dough is no longer emulsified and ruined.  You will have to throw the dough out.  If you try to use it anyway, it will pipe poorly and will hold much less water, which will affect the way it rises.

Make sure to get your pate a choux in the oven as soon as you can.  A skin can form on the dough if left out, which will prevent the dough from rising properly.

When baked in a very hot oven (usually around 425 degrees F) the outside of the shell becomes hard, dry, and crisp (egg proteins, flour proteins, and flour starch) forming a very sturdy structure.  The inside structure starts off much like a cake – an intricate sponge-like structure.  However, the structure is eventually destroyed from the pressure of the steam especially since the structure is still soft and not set inside the shell.  The result is the open air cavity that is characteristic to pate a choux. The shell must be dry on the inside however, so the oven is usually lowered to 350-375 degrees F to help dry the inside out without burning the outside.  If the inside of the shell is still wet, the steam could turn back into water and cause your shells to get mushy and collapse.  If you are unsure if your shells are ready, take a test shell out of the oven and see how it reacts to being out of the oven.  Open it up and see if it feels dry.  Is it still doughy?  Losing one shell is better than the whole batch of shells being ruined.

The proper way to fill pate a choux is to poke a hole in the bottom of the shell and, using an appropriate tip, pipe in the filling.  Some desserts are an exception to this – such as making swans out of pate a choux as well as paris brest – but cream puffs, éclairs, and profiteroles should all be filled without cutting into the shell.  You can fill the shells with just about any filling you desire but the two most common fillings are pastry cream and diplomat cream.

Developing Gluten

Gluten is a very basic component of baked goods that every baker, especially those bakers that work with doughs more often than batters, should understand.  Gluten is actually a general term to describe proteins found in flour.  Gluten is typically made up of glutenin (said to help provide strength and toughness, makes the dough bounce back) and gliadin (makes the dough stretchy and helps resist tearing) and proper gluten development used in bread making requires both glutenin and gliadin to be present.  Wheat is the only flour that contains high enough amounts of both to properly make bread.  Other flours such as rye, corn, rice, and barley all contain proteins but may lack structure building proteins (usually gliadin).  Rice and corn lack gliadin.  Rye and barley contain gliadin but because the gluten protein is so low in rye and barley that wheat flour is often added to make rye and barley bread.  Gliadin is said to the component of gluten that causes gluten intolerance.  From this point on, any mention of “flour” should be interpreted as “wheat flour”.

When the dough is mixed with the proper ingredients gluten development takes place.  Gluten starts off as tangled bundles of protein.  As the dough is worked the bundles come apart and the individual bundles start bonding with each other although they are still kinked and coiled.  As the dough is continued to be mixed the coils come undone and long strands form.  These long strands bond with one another forming the strong elastic network of structure in the dough.  Proper gluten development allows the dough to be stretch into a thin film without tearing.  Gluten development also allows doughs to be rolled out and formed without losing their shape.

Gluten provides more structure during the mixing process and while the dough is unbaked.  It allows the dough to stretch into the various shapes we need it to be in (such as a baguette or a roll) but it also traps food particles, liquid, and gas within its network.  When it is baked, gluten is stretched by steam and expanding air – the pressure eventually tears the gluten.  As it is baked it forms a firm rigid structure and releases water.  The water either evaporates or is absorbed by the starch in the flour.  Keep in mind that starch actually contributes most of the structure in many baked goods.  Starch is the chewy part of the crumb.  However, starch cannot hold onto air the same way gluten can and without gluten the bread will be flat.  One of my blog posts demonstrates this.  The Puto – A Study post is about a Filipino dessert that is supposed to be made with rice flour however, without the gluten in all-purpose wheat flour the structure was never correct.  Puto made with only rice flour was almost pure starch (no gluten) and was sticky and gummy.  Puto made with only all-purpose flour (gluten and starch) was cake-like in texture.

Breads that have a fine crumb and chewy texture (think bagels) are high in gluten and have high gluten development.  Breads that are not baked in a pan (think rustic breads like ciabatta or baguettes as opposed to pan breads like pan de mie) also require high gluten content so that they will hold their shape.  However, artisan bread like ciabatta and baguettes can also have an irregular crumb full of uneven pockets.  These pockets are created because there is less gluten or because the gluten was weakened somehow.  The most common method is to over hydrate the dough.  By adding lots of water to the dough it becomes more like a batter and the gluten is diluted.  The high protein in bread allows gluten development which allows the dough to hold its shape while the high water content dilutes the protein which weakens its structure during baking creating a more irregular structure.  A low water content would result in a tight even structure since little leavening has taken place.  Another suggestion to the irregular structure comes from the gluten being so developed it acts like bubble gum being blown up.  Sometimes you can get really big bubbles and sometimes you get really small bubbles.  Either way, eventually they pop.  Gluten works in a similar way.  The steam expands the gluten.  Very weak gluten bursts very early on in the baking process, as in cake batter, so the crumb is regular and even.  However, very strong gluten bursts very late in the baking process so the gluten has a chance to set in the blown up stage.  This can also create large tunnels through the bread’s crumb.

In addition to the proper flour, water is also necessary for gluten development.  Without water the glutenin and gliadin bundles will not uncoil and bind to each other.  Those protein bundles can also hold up to two times their weight in water.  If there is very little water added to a dough, such as pie dough, gluten does not properly develop.  This means the dough is less tough and when baked it will be crumbly – however gluten still provides a structure.   It is just not as strong as bread dough.  In fact, because there is so little water in pie dough starch cannot form structure so gluten is the main structure in pie dough.

From top left clockwise: Close up of crumb of ciabatta (from – notice the irregular crumb of artisan bread. Pie dough – flaky, possibly crumbly, texture. Pockets of flakiness (notice spots of different coloring) are created instead of leavening. Puto – a gummy texture made from rice flour which lacks structure building proteins. Vanilla cake – a mostly even regular crumb made from diluted under developed gluten. Structure largely comes from starch and egg proteins.

Consider this side-by-side comparison.  Cake batter has a ton of water which dilutes gluten.  The result is a very soft chewy texture (from the starch) that is supported by gluten and egg proteins.  Artisan bread dough has lots of water and very developed gluten.  The result is an irregular crumb (from the gluten) that is very chewy (from the starch and gluten).  Pie dough is a flaky, crisp dough that does not rise.  Little gluten development means little rising potential because it cannot trap air or steam.  Instead it breaks and flakes.  Low water content means pie dough is not chewy because starch did not absorb enough water to gelatinize.  Puto, made only with starchy rice flour, is dense and gummy because it contains no structure building proteins.  Starch does not trap air or form a rigid structure like protein.


A close up of an apple turnover which is made with puff pastry dough. Notice the layers which are very crisp (strong structure) and largely from gluten. Starch also contributes to the texture.

In reference to pie dough, undermixing along with little water results in a dense network of underdeveloped gluten proteins.  Instead of trapping air and expanding like bubble gum, the weak structure lifts or shatters creating flakiness. Consider puff pastry dough which is also flaky.  Puff pastry dough is flaky because many layers of dough are created with fat in between each dough layer.  The dough is then lifted as the gas and trapped air in the fat is expanded and released like steam.  A similar principle happens in pie dough except fewer layers have been created since pie dough is only rolled once.  Puff pastry dough’s gluten is more developed because we need the elasticity and strength of gluten to help the dough stand up to all the rolling.  However, we don’t notice how tough the gluten is because the layers are so thin.  Conversely, pie dough is only rolled once so we don’t necessarily need lots of gluten development for rolling and rerolling.


On the other hand, too much water added to a dough creates a batter which dilutes the proteins interfering with their ability to form structure.  Do not try to substitute oil for water.  Oil may be a liquid like water, but because oil contains no water gluten will not develop.  In fact, oil (like most fats) is a tenderizer which weakens gluten by coating the bundles in fat preventing them from absorbing and using water.

There are several other factors that affect gluten development:

Dough temperature – Warmer temperatures mean that reactions take place faster and water is absorbed faster.  Generally speaking, the warmer the dough is the faster gluten will develop.  The best way to control temperature is to control the temperature of the ingredients – such as using cold water or placing flour in the refrigerator before using.  Gluten development is usually a side effect with temperature.  Temperature is usually used to control yeast activity (as in bread) or to keep fats nice and solid (as in pie dough) – the effects on gluten are merely a secondary effect of trying to accomplish those things.

Fermentation – Doughs that have yeast in them almost always go through a bulk fermentation time which is a period of time (usually a couple hours) that allows the yeast to ferment the dough and leaven it.  The leavening action, though not as strong as a mixer, actually kneads the dough by stretching and pulling on gluten.  This helps strengthen gluten.

Chemicals – It’s true, some flours are treated with chemicals such as chlorine (usually called bleached flour) or potassium bromate.  These chemicals, if present in flour, will either weaken (in the case of chlorine) or strengthen (bromated) gluten.  Dough conditioners (which are usually a combination of chemicals, salts, acids, and emulsifiers) are usually in very small amounts to help strengthen gluten.  They help quality control in large scale bakeshops and help keep dough strong when it is frozen for long periods of time.  As a home baker you probably will never use dough conditioners yourself, but they may be added into the flour prior to you using it.  For the most natural flour always look at the ingredients and packaging that says “Never bleached, never bromated” as with King Arthur flour.

Fats and Sugars – Generally speaking, fats, oils, and some emulsifiers will coat gluten strands preventing them from absorbing water.  Since they cannot absorb water, gluten will weaken or never develop.  The more fat in your dough, and the more worked in the fat is into the dough, the weaker the gluten will be.  Sugar competes with gluten to absorb water.  If there is a lot of sugar in your dough the water is being absorbed by the sugar and not the gluten, which weakens gluten or doesn’t allow it to develop.

Salt – Salt has many functions in batters and doughs but when talking in reference to gluten it typically strengthens it.  Salt usually makes gluten more cohesive so when it stretches it doesn’t tear.  Too much salt will have the opposite effect however.

Starches and Eggs – These, like gluten, are structure builders.  They compete for water and they interfere with each other’s structure network.  If there is more starch in a dough or batter (say using cornstarch and flour instead of just flour) gluten will be weaker – either because the starch has “diluted” the amount of protein/gluten or because the starches structure is interfering with gluten’s structure building.  Raw eggs in dough may interfere with gluten development during mixing and fermentation.  Since eggs are also structure builders bread may still seem tough after it is baked but that’s because of the eggs coagulating – not because of gluten.

Milk – On one hand fluid milk helps strengthen gluten because it provides water.  On the other hand, fluid milk contains a protein that slowly decreases gluten development.  While it may not be noticeable at first, after the dough has rested the dough will seem much softer than normal.  This may be desirable in some breakfast sweet breads, but too much softening and the dough may actually collapse on itself after baking.  The protein is called glutathione and how it works is it alters the proteins (glutenin and gliadin) so they form fewer bonds and weaker gluten.  Glutathione is also found in active dry yeast so home bakers typically have softer doughs than professional bakers just because active dry yeast is usually all that is available to home bakers.

To destroy glutathione simmer your fluid milk to 180 degrees F and then let it cool.  Dry milk solids (DMS) may still have glutathione in it – so it may not be such an easy alternative.  However, if DMS is labeled as high-heat then the protein was destroyed. Remember that yeast is killed beyond 140 degrees, so you cannot boil yeast to destroy glutathione.

Particles – Anything added to dough will physically get in the way of gluten development.  This includes bran, fruit, and spices.

Leavening – Recall that gas production during fermentation helps strengthen gluten because it’s like kneading (even though it’s just a very small amount of strengthening compared to the mixer).  Leavening during the baking process has the opposite effect.  Since leavening is so much more dramatic during the baking process the stretching and thinning of the gluten actually weakens it which tenderizes the product.

After dough is shaped into its final shape it is rested for a considerably shorter time than bulk fermentation.  This is to allow the gluten strands that were taut from all the kneading and shaping to relax.  When they are relaxed they are more apt to accepting the shape they are in.  You cannot see this in raw dough but if you were to bake a dough right away after shaping it, the dough would probably warp or stretch back to the shape it was before you shaped it into its final shape.  Depending on the type of dough depends on where it is rested.  Doughs that rely on fat for texture – like pie dough or puff pastry dough – will be rested in the fridge.  Doughs that are using yeast for fermentation and flavor will be rested at room temperature or warmer.  Remember though that this resting period is not specifically for fermentation – that was earlier in the process – this time the goal is strictly for dough resting or dough relaxation.

2 comments on “Techniques: Doughs
  1. Crystal Castillo says:

    When making a basic yellow cake why wont rice flour work as all purpose flour?

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