The instruction to “cut in fat” is a common instruction in baking recipes. The process of cutting in fat is very simple and a necessary skill for beautiful flaky and tender baked goods such as biscuits, scones, pie and pastry crusts.
In the Ask BB Series, I answer reader questions regarding baking science, techniques, and troubleshooting. If you have a question you would like addressed in depth in the series, email the question to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject of “Ask BB.”
“What does it mean when a recipe says to ‘cut in the fat’ and what is the purpose of this step? “
I have been obsessed with baking for almost 10 years now, and because I bake so darn frequently I often forget that many people who are a bit newer to baking recipes may not understand instructions such as “cut in the fat.” This instruction assumes you understand what the action of “cutting in fat” actually means. And I know as well as anyone that when you are new to this world of baking, that instruction isn’t quite so self-explanatory. So let’s talk about what cutting in fat means and what the purpose of this is in baking.
What Does Cutting in Fat Mean?
When a baking instruction states to “cut the fat into the dry ingredients” it assumes that you know a few things. Cutting in the fat in a baking recipe is the process of working fat (typically butter, lard, or shortening) into the dry ingredients until it is starting to coat the flour and the pieces of fat are very small and so the fat is evenly distributed throughout the dry ingredients before the liquid is added to the recipe.
What is the Purpose of Cutting in Fat?
Have you ever wondered how shortening got it’s name? Well believe it or not, shortening got it’s name precisely because of what it does to flour when it is worked through before liquid is added. The process of cutting fat into the flour serves the purpose of shortening the protein strands in the flour. When liquid is introduced to flour, those protein strands begin developing into what we all lovingly know as gluten. This cutting process helps to shorten the protein strands and reduce the gluten development once the liquid is added. Therefore, the main purpose of cutting fat into the flour is to shorten the protein strands so that you can have a more tender and flaky baked good. This is also why professional bakers often refer to fat in general as shortening, and not just the product that is called shortening.
When Do You Cut in Fat?
Recipes that call for the step of cutting fat into the flour are recipes where the desired end result is a product that is incredibly tender and flaky. The most common times you will cut fat into a flour in a baking recipe is with pie crust and pastry crusts, biscuits, and scones.
How Do You Cut in Fat?
The process of cutting in fat is actually extremely simple, especially once you know what you are looking for. Typically, when a recipe calls for fat to be cut into the flour it will also call for the fat the be cold. Not always, but most of the time. If the fat you are using is butter, you will want to start by cutting it into small pieces. This will help you to work it into the flour more easily and evenly. If the fat you are using is lard or shortening, then it is already very soft and there is no need to break it up before you start the cutting process.
There are several tools you can use to cut in fat. I personally use a pastry cutter, also known as a pastry blender, which is just a tool with thin metal wires attached to the handle. To use this tool, you press down on the fat with the wires as you move around in the bowl. If you do not have a pastry cutter, then I find the next best tool is a fork and the technique is virtually the same. Another technique that I often see, but do not recommend, is to use your hands and break the fat up between your fingers. I personally do not suggest this method as you almost always want your fat to stay cold when you are cutting it into the flour and your hands will start to warm it. Some people also pulse the flour and fat in a food processor to cut it in. This can work well if you are careful about how much you pulse and do not let the fat get too warm. I also do not prefer this method because I don’t think it is necessary to get your food processor dirty for this, and it is more difficult to control this way.
As you are cutting in the fat, remember that the more thoroughly the fat is incorporated into the flour the more you “shorten” the dough. Recipes where you are looking for a very tender, but homogeneous product, such as pie or pastry crust, you will cut the fat in until it resembles coarse cornmeal. However, for recipes where the desired product is more flaky, such as biscuits and scones, then you will cut the fat in a little less. You want some of the fat to remain in larger, pea-sized pieces.
Recipes to Practice Cutting in Fat
I hope this helps you understand the technique of cutting in a fat a little better and the reasons for it. If you have a question you would like addressed in depth in the series, email the question to email@example.com with the subject of “Ask BB.”