Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >
Jan 12, 2010 09:33 AM

Why Chill the Dough?

Hi all,

I have seen many recipes call for chilling the dough for hours before working on them and sometime they makes sense and sometime not. I understand the reasoning for doing so to prevent the cookie to spread too thin during the baking process. I also understand doing so for icebox cookies, where the dough can be cut out consistently.

However, sometime I chill the dough for hours only to thwart it back to room temperature, why?

Yesterday, I was looking at a recipe for making the mini tart shells. The exact ingredients are not important. It calls to refrigerate the dough for 1 hour, take it out, roll it out thin, cut it into shape, and fit each piece into a muffin cup. By the time, I fit them into muffin cups, the dough is more than room temperature warm. So what is the point for the original refrigeration? Or is there a chemistry occurring for the dough at cold temperature? Many thanks.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. If you formed any gluten when you mixed the fat with the dry ingredients, resting the dough will let the gluten "relax." Also, you want to get the fat globs cold again before rolling out so that the pastry will remain flaky. And, with all-butter pastry, if the dough is too warm it won't roll well and will get a bit melty when you work it.

    9 Replies
    1. re: visciole


      Thanks. Yes, for heavy butter pastry, I will need to chill the dough to roll it out, otherwise it will be a mess. I did not know about the gluten relax thing. What does it mean? Does it mean the final bake goods will be less "tough" if the dough is relaxed first? Just want to be sure.

      Most importantly, I really want to know about the flaky thing because I think that is why so many of these crust/shell recipes call for this step. Can you tell me why chilling the fat (butter) will help make the pastry more flaky?

      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

        I'm not sure of how it works chemically -- shouldn't that be your department? ;) But it does mean that the final product will be less tough if the dough is relaxed. Much of pastry-making is about how to prevent gluten from forming, which is why you don't want to cut in the fat into too-small pieces, why you work the dough as little as possible, why you add as little water as possible, and why you chill the dough before rolling it out as quickly as possible.

        The flaky thing: I think here if the fat chunks are large enough and firm enough, they slip between the layers of flour and water, and form flaky dough. You want them to insert themselves in layers into the dough as you roll it, if that makes sense.

        1. re: visciole

          Yeah, but I am a gas-phase chemist by training (Yes, I am really a chemist, but not the kind who mix solutions together). :P

          Yeah, I only know about gluten formation increases when the dough are vigoously mixed. According to what you said, I wonder if using cake flour helps as well, because there is less gluten in cake flour I think. In the extreme case, I can probably even use wheat starch (flour without proteins).

          I have absolute no idea about the fat chunk thing, but I think you are right. I have read dozens of recipe which call to cut butter into big chuck and mix these big chunk into the dough. I never fully understand why I did it. I thought it is to simply produce an inconsistence texture, which it does. I thought it is all for the "cool and awesome" factor. I didn't know it actually makes the pastry more flaky.

          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

            Yes, that is the precise difference between pastry (cake) flour and bread flour, so using cake flour will help. All-purpose flour has an intermediate amount of gluten.

            1. re: visciole


              One last question. My current recipe calls for all-purpose flour for making the tart shell or tart crust. Do you think it is normal? Or it is better to use cake flour? I think I will try it tonight by trying both and see which one comes out better. Thanks.

              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                Almost all recipes these days call for all-purpose flour since most people don't bake enough to buy both bread and cake flours. If that's what the recipe calls for you can certainly use it. I think if you substitute cake flour you may have to use slightly more flour.

                I bake all the time and regularly use all-purpose flour with no problem. When I use whole wheat flour I do use the pastry type, though.

        2. re: Chemicalkinetics

          Gluten are the "strings" formed by the protein in the flour. When the dough is worked, the strings tighten up, making the dough difficult to work with, as you noted. The end product is not the relevant factor so much as the proper texture of the dough when it's finally rolled. The chilling also hardens the fat in the dough, which is why you chill dough to insure flakiness. When the dough is baked, the chilled fat takes longer to heat, and the steam released by the heating fat "puffs" the dough, making it flaky. If you started with warm dough, the fat would melt right away and you would have a greasy product.
          Hope this helps.

          1. re: mrsdebdav


            Trust me. You guys are helping. I am just still trying to fully understanding it.

            I guess it sorta make sense. If the fat is in large pieces as Viscole stated, then heating the fat chunks (especially butter) will release gas/steam and create local air pockets, so there will be puffy here and puffy there. If the fat is uniformly melted then there will also be steam, but the steam will be too uniformly released to create that local air pockets, everything just collopsed. Is that correct?

            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

              You're a quick study. You want the chunks of butter because when it melts in the oven, you'll get that flakey texture for the reasons you mention. If it melts before, then you won't get it. The reason you refrigerate before rolling out is to harden the butter and not let it get too warm (if you make the dough, the butter gets closer to room temperature. If you continue to roll it at this point, it'll get even warmer. But, if you refrigerate it, it'll cool the butter again.

              As gluten development goes, it'll continue in the refrigerator but be slower. But that's not the reason to refrigerate the dough. You do want some gluten developing which is why you don't want to use cake flour. You wouldn't have the same texture with cake flour. It would be softer without that bite.

      2. Cold dough and a delicate hand keeps flour doughs from getting tough as the gluten is developed.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Brandon Nelson


          Similar thing as Visciole said. I know about the delicate hand slow down gluten development. I didn't know about cold dough, but I guess cold temperature slow down reactions, so any reaction (including gluten formation) is slow down, right? Is that the logic? Come to think of it, maybe that is also why the recipe ask me to add ice cold water instead of just room temperature water as part of the ingredients.

          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

            You have a handle on it.

            2 elements make gluten develope. water, and friction.

            Also, the flake is caused by butter remaining solid and forming "streeks' in the dough. Butter has enough water that these streaky ribbons of butter give off steam and cause a flaky "rise' of sorts in the oven.

            Ice cold vodka is an awesome little cheat for flaky pie crust. Substitue for half of the water. The booze cooks of, and does not react with the flour to cause gluten formation.

        2. Visciole, Brandon and MrsDebdav,

          There is a reason why I go all excited. Although my original question is about chilling dough, that dough is supposed to create a flaky pastry crust which it did not do. I did follow the steps very carefully, and did all the chilling and gentle mixing, but it does help to know chilling is to make it flakier. I think I am going to add a bit more fat and take out a bit more water just to see if it will finally "flak" up more. Thanks.

          28 Replies
          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

            Too much gluten development will give you a tough dough and that happens mostly from the rolling process. You want to handle the dough as little as possible. I don't know how you're mixing the ingredients (by hand, food processor or mixer) but don't mix it until you have a ball shaped dough. You want to do it until it just starts to come together. Pour it out onto a plastic wrap and gather it into a disk shape. Refrigerate and then roll out but rolling is where most people over do it. It takes a light tough and just the right amount of flour (so it doesn't stick but you also don't want to add too much). There are recipes that use vodka or another alcohol in place of some water which reduces the amount of gluten that develops. I haven't used it but want to give it a try.

            The keys I'd have to say are making sure everything is cold and remains that way, even if you have to take a break to re-refrigerate and minimal touching. I barely touch the dough with my hands once it comes out of the refrigerator for rolling and rely on a pastry scraper/spatula.

            1. re: chowser

              Cool. Thanks Chowser. I usually either mix my dough with a spatula or with a handle mixer.

              When you said "don't mix it until you have a ball shaped dough", how do I get to a ball shaped dough without mixing? Let's say I have flour and butter, don't I have to mix them in order to get them to form a dough? Or do you mean I should just "press" the ingredient together without mixing?

              Oh! So that is why some people buy marble pastry boards to keep the dough as cold as possible. I didn't know why it is desirable to have an ice cold board. Oh well, I only have a wooden one.

              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                Toss the liquid gently into the flour/fat mix with a fork or your fingertips. When it starts to clump slightly, gather it up in your hands and gently form it into a loose ball. Have the wax paper already out to wrap it in and refrigerate.

                1. re: visciole


                  Oh so that is why my recipe said to use a fork -- though I didn't listen to it because I thought it weird to use a fork.

                  How did you guys learn these things? Is there a good pastry/baking book which explain these theories? My books give accurate instructions. They just don't tell me why I am doing these steps.

                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                    You might want to check out "The Pie and Pastry Bible" by Rose Levy Berenbaum. Berenbaum can be fussy with regard to technique but she is very thorough and gives good explanations of the science behind the methods for making different types of pastry.

                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                      I learned three ways: I watched my mother; I read books; I baked. The former and latter are the best. The best part of the latter is that you get to eat the results, and usually even the failures taste pretty good!

                      1. re: visciole


                        My mom does not bake. I bake about once a week which is not bad for a single guy with a full time job I think :P I do learn alot from actual baking and got a good feel about what butter does, how sugar change textures, by observing how the texture changes as the ingredients vary. However, I never get a feel about things like "chill the dough" or "mix with a fork" because I don't get to really compare. I mean I only have one outcome, so I don't know what would have happened if I didn't chill the dough. Thanks.

                      2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        I'm so old I took "home ec" in "junior high school." They hadn't invented middle school yet.
                        We made biscuits in 7th grade, and we used a pastry cutter, similar to this:
                        I prefer to use my hands. I think the fork thing is fussy, adds to the difficulty, and unnecessary. You want to mix the flour and the fat until you have pea-sized pieces, and then you add the water, and mix with a fork. Using a fork prevents the "creaming" of the fat, which you don't want if you're making pie crust or quick breads like biscuits.
                        I've always felt that, despite having a graduate degree, the most useful thinks I learned in school were typing and home ec.
                        Keep up the good work!

                        1. re: mrsdebdav

                          You kidding me? Middle school is a recent thing?

                          Got it. Knives and forks do not produce creaming effect because they cut into butter/fat.

                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            Well, define "recent." But yeah, when I was a younger mrsdebdav, elem sch was k-6, jr high 7-9 and hs 10-12.
                            Thanks for making me feel even older than I already do!

                            1. re: mrsdebdav


                              Technically, you should be happy that I used the word "recent", right? Because that implies the introduction of middle school happened only recently -- possibly only yestersday, which means you have not graduated yet :P

                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                Hahahah, thanks, chem. I did pick up on the "recent."
                                With age comes wisdom, or at least extensive pie crust experience.

                          2. re: mrsdebdav

                            Yes, algebra and multiplying fractions have never done anything for me.

                          3. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            You might be interested in Shirley Corriher's book, Bakewise, that Kelli mentioned below. She gets into the food science reason behind why we do what we do. I took a pie class at L'Academie de Cuisine. There's something about hands on training that you can't get from a book. It's nice having the instructor over your shoulder, pointing out the technique, the amount of pressure, the right feel for the dough, etc. that you can't get any other way without a lot of playing around.

                            1. re: chowser

                              I was *just* going to mention Cookwise. Cookies are my area of expertise, and I found her cookie information truly underwhelming, and not that accurate based on my experience.

                              From the perspective of actually getting the cookies baked, I have found that dumping the dough into a large freezer bag, flattening, sealing, and chilling for about an hour yields good/ideal results. Chilling for longer is sometimes necessary (for logistical reasons), but does become somewhat of an exercise in frustration when you have to waaait for the dough to become workable again.

                              1. re: foiegras

                                I thought Bakewise was informative, although there were things she said about protein that contradicted what I've read elsewhere. Since the NYT article about chocolate chip cookies and refrigerating the dough from 24-72 hours, I've done that and love the cookies it makes. As the OP's topic of pie dough goes, I've been told you can also refrigerate the pie dough up to 2 days, or freeze for longer. But, I don't think the longer refrigeration positively improves it--it's more for an "as needed" in your schedule. I find it hard to roll out really cold pie dough but haven't had problems scooping cold cookie dough.

                                1. re: chowser

                                  So how do you find the refrigeration changes the chocolate chip cookies? I frequently refrigerate the dough (Maida's original Toll House recipe with slight modifications) because I prefer them fresh from the oven, so I bake a sheet or so at a time, depending on how many people are around. But I've always preferred the cookies in the first batch when the dough is 'fresh.'

                                  1. re: foiegras

                                    Personally, I find the flavors richer and the texture a little firmer. I bake cookies all the time, used to use the Best Recipe thick and chewy recipe (melted butter which is absorbed by the flour better so along the same idea as a long rest) and people would rave about them but nothing like the response I've gotten since using the NYT recipe with the overnight rise method. This explains it in a more scientific way:


                                    1. re: chowser

                                      Yeah, it's true that the flavor deepens as described ... I guess it's just a matter of whether you consider that an improvement on the 'classic' chocolate chip cookie or not. I guess to me the cookie part is a delivery system for the melted chocolate and nuts ... I don't mind it being a bit more neutral.

                                      Interesting that Mrs Wakefield chilled the dough overnight. Almost positive Maida doesn't mention that.

                        2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          Chemicalkinetics, you might want to look up the technique called "fraisage". This in volves having rather large bits of butter in the dough, then smearing the dough across your work surface with the heel of your hand. It helps the butter to sheet and crates flakier pastry.

                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            I think what Chowser meant was that you should NOT mix the dough enough that it actually forms a ball, as that will be overhandled and result in a tougher crust. What tool do you use the cut the fat into the flour? If doing it by hand, I think a pastry blender or two table knives are the best choices. You don't want something that will effectively cream the flour and fat. As visciole says, it's best to gently toss the water and flour with a fork until the dough starts to clump. You can can dump it onto a piece of plastic wrap then, and use the wrap to pat it together before chilling.

                            People use marble boards because they're a cold surface, which helps keep the fat in the dough chilled as you roll it out. Rolling as quickly as possible helps to keep the fat cold. You said in your original post that the dough was warmer than room temp once you got it in the tins. If that happens, you can put the pan in the refrigerator for half an hour (or the freezer for a shorter time) before you bake it to chill the fat again so it can react properly in the oven.

                            1. re: Caitlin McGrath


                              Funny. Because my recipe also said mix the dough with two knives or a fork. It also said that I should put the the muffin pan back into refrigerator. I guess it all makes sense now. I thought the book wrote all these steps just to have fun with me.

                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                My favorite cookbook author for really thorough instructions is Maida Heatter. Her instructions can run a bit long, but her recipes won't fail you.

                              2. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                Thanks for clarifying. That is what I meant.

                          2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            Ha -- it's not so easy to make a nice flaky pie or tart crust! Why do you think so many people resort to pre-made frozen ones?

                            Many variables are involved, so it takes practice -- enough practice so that you can kind of feel and see when it's right, and you're confident enough to do it all rapidly. You'll get the hang of it.

                            1. re: visciole


                              I don't know. I thought it is the same reason why we have pre-cut celery :)

                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                Good point. But even some excellent cooks I know use pre-made pie crusts, because when it comes to pastry, they're very, very afraid...

                              2. re: visciole

                                Great point, and there are always questions about how to make good pie dough on this board and me being one of the usual participants.

                                I refuse to buy packaged dough so I keep trying and I've definitely come a long way. It takes practice and also making sure you're following those instructions to the letter. I thought since I could cook, how hard is it to make pie dough? Ha is right!

                            2. Chilling the dough allows it to relax and for the fat that was softened by mixing to re-firm, but it also allows the flour particles to hydrate by evenly absorbing the liquids.

                              Shirley Corriher's Bakewise explains the chemics and physics of baking as does Harold McGee's book, and the CIA's baking text also does a excellent job, but at great cost.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Kelli2006

                                Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen explain some of the chemistry/physics as well as results of their recipe testing. The story behind the vodka pie dough recipe (the only one I use now) is very interesting.
                                Also, Alton Brown's show Good Eats and his books go into the chemistry & physics of cooking. I know he's done a show on pies and has a book on baking.

                                1. re: RikkiMama

                                  Alton Brown relies on Shirley Corriher so I wouldn't be surprised if his book reiterated what she's said in either Bakewise or Cookwise.

                              2. There is also the issue that it takes time for the flour to absorb the liquid; many classic cookie doughs benefit from 1-3 days resting in the fridge. Something bakers once knew by passed-down knowledge but now has to be taught rather than passed down.