Decoding the Recipe: Cutting in the Butter

I began to learn how to bake only last year when Savory and I moved into an apartment that had central air and a dishwasher. Prior to this my only experience with automatic dishwashers is what I jokingly refer to as Leftie and Righty (just my two hands) so it was quite a revelation to be able to make a gigantic mess in the kitchen AND not need to spend an entire hour just washing up all the dishes myself, but be able to load them into the dishwasher and have IT do all of the hard work.

So as a result, I learned how to bake mostly through reading recipes, food blogs, and the odd recipe video that showed a particularly complex technique that I wouldn’t have been able to decode by reading.

One of the earliest directions I recall coming across in this journey to become my very best home baker, was a direction for cutting in better when making biscuits. From the very first biscuit recipe I found on a quick search on Pinterest; “Add the butter and using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour until pea-like crumbs form”

I then had to google that phrase to see what the direction really meant, and was confronted with the different methods of cutting in the butter – the most highly suggested of which were to use a pastry cutter – well I didn’t have one of those so that was out – or to use two knives to cut the butter in. The other suggestion was to “rub” the butter in with your hands until you have the pea-like crumbs. I think on my first attempt I used the “rubbing” method but ended up making a dough the consistency of what I NOW know to be shortbread – so my biscuits came out like hard tack. No wonder I always thought baking was hard and would have much rather reached for the rolls in the can at the grocery store than make them myself.

So I had an epic failure with my biscuits and steered clear of any kind of breads or bread-pastries. I focused on building my strengths with petits fours, cakes, tarts and pies. Those went well. After gaining in confidence I wanted to branch out to a new realm of baking – Scones!

One of the first scone recipes I tried had an unusual recommendation for cutting in the butter – the recipe was for dark chocolate and cherry scones, and it called for the butter to be frozen hard, and then grated into the dry ingredients with a box grater. It sounded like a strange technique but straight forward enough to follow. I gave it a try and found that my scones had light and flaky layers. I began to understand the science behind having the little globules of butter and why they should be the size they should be. I began to use this method in all recipes moving forward and it worked each time.

As an experiment I wanted to make a double batch of something, and do one batch with the frozen butter technique, and another with the original pastry cutter method now that I was a bit more experienced, and also now that I had a real pastry cutter.

So the set up – As a true blue anglophile I preferred to use a scone recipe instead of a biscuit recipe for this particular experiment. To celebrate blueberry season in New England I chose a lemon blueberry scone recipe from another blogger I follow, which is hands down my favorite. I made two batches of the same recipe with the only difference being the way the butter is mixed in.

The recipe is straightforward, mix the dry ingredients together, add lemon zest and then cut in the butter. In the first batch I used my tried and true method of freezing and grating. The only trick to this method is to fold the butter into the dry ingredients regularly throughout the process. If I am baking without Savory in the house, I usually pause every 15-20 strokes on the grater and turn the butter into the flour mixture with a spoon. If Savory is home and can help out, I’ll grate while he turns the butter over every 15-20 strokes. The downside of this method is that there is really no way to keep your hands from getting a little messy, but hands and the grater are easy to clean with warm water.

All good blueberry scones need a lot of zest!
The beginning of the “Grate” method.
Gratted butter globules.

Once the butter is in, add the wet ingredients and mix until it all just comes together, then turn it out onto a floured surface for shaping and cutting.

I prefer shaping a log…
and cutting into triangles.
Ready to bake!

Fast forward to the second batch, and I turned to my pastry cutter. With the pastry cutter the butter does not need to be frozen, though it should still be quite cold. I did discover that this method takes far less time to set up, and to actually DO. Instead of remembering to freeze the butter 10-20 minutes before beginning the recipe, it only took 30 seconds to a minute to complete the task with refrigerated cold butter, and it was far cleaner. That being said, the size of the butter globules was not as uniform as with the grating method, but that is to be expected.

Beginning of the “Cutter” method.
Cut butter globules.

Again, add the wet ingredients and mix, and turn onto a floured surface for shaping. I am personally a fan of the rectangular “log” which is cut into triangles.

Signature triangles.

Once baked, the appearance of the two batches was nearly identical. But the taste test!!! Savory and I tried both versions when they were still warm and fresh, and we really couldn’t distinguish a difference. Both batches were light and flakey, had great texture and flavor. As a control to our experiment, I gave two of each scone to a friend of ours who loves scones. I told her that the two labeled batches were different somehow, but I did not disclose what was different about them. I asked her to take them home to her husband to try them and let us know their feelings on each. She tried hers about 36 hours after baking, and the report back was that batch 1 (the freeze and grate method) had a more uniform texture and flakiness to it that resulted in almost visible layers, she thought I had laminated the dough somehow as though I had used puff pastry. Batch 2 was a bit drier but more like scones she has had in the past than the first. She said hands down she and her husband preferred the lighter and flakier texture of batch 1, but both were very very good.

Final Scones Using Grate Method.
Final Scones Using Cutter Method.

So there you have it. Is there a HUGE difference? Not really. Is there a noticeable difference when you’re looking for it? Likely. Was one method better than the other? It depends I think on the texture you’re looking for, the time and tools you have available, and how much extra clean up you want to bring upon yourself. For me, I think I will not shy away from using the pastry cutter when I want to cut in butter quickly, but I will likely continue to freeze my butter and grate it in when I want to make the very best textured baked good that I can. Feel free to share your experiences with “cutting in the butter” and share any tips that you have come across in your baking.

– Sweet

2 thoughts on “Decoding the Recipe: Cutting in the Butter

  1. I’ve started baking (again) after about 35 years and the pastry I made as a child is still the best!

    As I freeze butter anyway, I’ll try your grated method and see if that makes my pastry softer. Thanks for the tip!


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