Some people tend to eschew technology when it comes to food prep. I am not one of those people. If it saves me time and effort, I will use it. I will use it with glee. My parents, along with many other first generation Chinese immigrants, never once used their dishwasher. Its existence was solely dedicated to extra storage for hoarded plastic takeout containers and bargain Corningware. It absolutely blew my mind the day I came into possession of my own dishwasher and found that it could wash dishes. I can appreciate kitchen technology.
But I also happen to agree with Alton Brown’s credo, that unitaskers have no place in my kitchen. I happen to love Alton Brown. Not inappropriately, but Good Eats was probably my first exposure to food science. I am forever indebted to Alton Brown for his homemade pancake mix, and for explaining how to cut flank steak using bundled garden hose as his prop, and for his chocolate chip cookies. I find that Alton Brown and I are often on a very similar culinary wavelength. So it’s a little baffling to me how long I made pies using a pastry blender, which serves one (albeit noble and wonderful) purpose, instead of the food processor, which is a magical, wonderful machine. I must have gone 2 years before finally deciding that a food processor would be a handy thing to have around, not just for the pie dough, but also for the stuffed chicken and the pesto and the gazpacho and any number of things I found myself making requiring painstaking chopping and mincing. Good food processors are quite pricey, so I was very grateful when my dear ex-mother-in-law (who is still quite dear to me) plucked it off my wishlist. From then on, the pastry blender fell into disuse. I just keep it around in case of pie crust emergencies.
But for those 2 years of processorlessness, I used – and broke – many a pastry blender. I recognize that not everybody is lucky enough to have a generous mother-in-law, let alone a generous ex-mother-in-law, and not everybody wants to spend that kind of money on a food processor. These people are no less deserving of pie, so this post is an education on pastry blenders.
There’s not a lot to it; this will be a shorter entry, but a necessary one.
- Don’t bother with the pastry blenders made with individual loops of wire. Between the effort required to cut cold, hard fat into flour and the weakness in the metal, the wires will warp immediately. Before you’ve even finished blending your fats in, you will end up with a gnarled, mangled mess of wires. Some of the wires will bunch together and others will bend far away from the others. Good luck getting those bigger chunks of fat to cut in when they would much rather squeeze between two wires that have already been forcibly separated.
- Do use a pastry blender with blades manufactured from one piece of metal. I don’t really care what brand you get, but using solid blades formed from one piece of metal gives the pastry blender the rigidity necessary to really cut into the fat and give it no choice about being blended into the flour. It’s just more efficient, and it’s easier to scrape trapped fat off unmoving blades than off of blades/wires that move independently of each other.
- Do look for a handle fastened using screws and not pegs/rivets (since when did hardware stores start selling pastry blenders?). With repeated fat-crushing, the force of said crushing gets distributed to the entire pastry blender structure. This repeated distribution extends to the hardware keeping the blender together, so after time, much like your local manwhore, the rivets holding the wires/blades to the handle will get sick of staying put, loosen, and then never ever stay in that hole again. You will start cutting your fat and then suddenly one side of the blade will spring loose, and you will swear prettily. You will shove the rivet back in the hole and hope that the pastry blender will stay in, but it won’t. It will keep popping out. So you will place your thumb over the loose peg to keep it in place, losing some of your mechanical advantage. You will swear some more, and then vow never to buy another riveted blender, and strongly consider how long it might take to save up for a food processor. I speak from experience. Just use the pastry blender with a handle attached by screw. You can tell the difference because rivets don’t have grooves in the head for screwdriving. The threads of the screw will keep the pastry blades in place and you won’t have to worry about how best to swear at your pastry blender.
- Don’t use a pastry blender where the handle might come loose and spin in place. This is strongly related to the rivet vs. screw issue. In fact, it’s pretty much a corollary. I just thought that bullet point was getting a little lengthy.
- What about the thumb holder/thumb rest? I’ve never used a pastry blender having one of these. It may be more comfortable and provide a slight advantage mechanically by giving a bit of a fulcrum, but that could also be BS designed to get you to spend a little more money. Feel free to speak up for or against this feature if you’ve used it.
If I had to give up the food processor life and go back to using a pastry blender, I would most likely get this handsome fellow from King Arthur Flour. It has no rivets or screws to worry about, and it has an ergonomic handle with substantially solid metal parts for mashing fats. Plus it even says “PERFECT PIE BLENDER” on it, so it must be true. I imagine that given the larger area covered by the blades, it would even serve more than one purpose. You could mash potatoes or macerate some fruit, which are both handy for piemaking.
Alton Brown and I would both approve, I think.