How Puff Pastry Rises
Puff pastry is made by mixing up a simple dough of flour and water, then placing a slab of butter atop it, folding the dough over the butter and rolling it flat.
By repeating the rolling and folding, using one of two basic techniques, the finished dough will contain upward of 1,000 layers.
When you bake it, the water in the dough and in the butter produces a burst of steam that puffs up the layers. It's the separation of these hundreds of layers that gives the pastry its light, flaky texture.
Do You Need to Make Your Own Puff Pastry?
Making puff pastry is simple. But before you reach for your rolling pin, remember that simple does not mean easy.
First, the rolling technique required to form those 1,000-plus layers is fairly elaborate. The layers need to be folded in a particular way, usually in either a three-fold or a four-fold technique, which is repeated several times.
Moreover, because the butter must be cool, it takes considerable pressure to roll it flat. Furthermore, the dough needs to chill in between each round of rolling and folding. Thus, not only is the effort physically demanding, it's time-consuming, too.
Demanding, repetitive work like that is exactly what machines were invented for, though. The machine is able to roll out the sheets perfectly even, with the butter distributed uniformly throughout, and so on. In short, unless you're in culinary school or you enjoy taking on new culinary endeavors, you don't need to make your own puff pastry.
Using Frozen Puff Pastry
Which means you can use store-bought, frozen puff pastry! The products available at the grocery store are perfectly fine.
Frozen puff pastry comes in sheets, which you'll have to defrost before using. The main thing to remember is to thaw it in the refrigerator overnight. Some people will advise you to let it defrost at room temperature, but this will only set you up for frustration.
That's because frozen puff pastry sheets come folded, usually in thirds or in half. If you try to thaw it at room temperature, you'll either unfold the sheets too soon, and they'll break; or you'll wait until they're fully thawed, by which time the sheets will be too sticky to work with.
Avoid this aggravation and just thaw it in the fridge the night before.
Working With Puff Pastry
Beyond that, the two most important tips for puff pastry are to keep the dough cool, and dust your work surface with flour.
Keeping the dough cool ensures that it won't stick together, and is easy to cut. To this end, keep your puff pastry dough in the fridge until you're ready to use it; take out only what you're planning to work with right then; and return it to the fridge until you're ready to bake it.
Dusting your work surface with flour is to prevent the dough from sticking. Remember to dust your rolling pin as well.
Speaking of rolling pins, it's fine to roll out the sheets a little bit, depending on what you're making, and each recipe should specify how thin the dough needs to be rolled out. But in any event, it's inadvisable to roll it thinner than 1/8 inch as you'll end up squashing the layers together, and your pastry won't rise properly.
Note, too, that even if you manage to unfold it without breaking, the sheets will still have seams along the fold lines. You can try to roll these out, especially when preparing something big like beef Wellington or baked brie. With smaller items, like pastry puffs, palmiers, or miniature hors d'oeuvre shells, you can use the seams as cutting guides.
Cutting Puff Pastry
Something else to keep in mind is cutting your puff pastry evenly, and using a sharp blade to do it with. Any raggedness or unevenness on the edges of the uncooked pastry dough will become magnified eight times when the dough puffs up.
So ensure your knife or pastry cutter is sharp (a pizza wheel is a good tool). If you're using round or fluted cutters, remember to press straight down, applying even pressure.
Docking Puff Pastry
Oddly enough, there are situations where you might not want your puff pastry to rise. If you're baking a puff pastry tart, you might want the edges to puff up, but not the center region underneath the toppings.
In this case, you'd use a fork to prick the surface of the dough in the area where you don't want it to rise. These tiny holes will allow the steam to escape rather than puffing up the layers of pastry. Fortunately, if you're working with a good recipe, it will instruct you whether and where to dock the pastry, so you won't need to figure this out for yourself.
Additional Puff Pastry Tips
Some other things you shouldn't have to figure out for yourself, but might want to understand anyway, so that when the recipe instructs you to do it, you'll know why:
Save your scraps: If you're making a beef Wellington, you can cut your scraps into decorative shapes and use egg wash to glue them to the outside of the pastry. You'll probably brush the whole thing with egg wash afterward, or possibly milk, but just follow the recipe.
Speaking of egg wash: In addition to helping glue decorative bits of puff pastry, egg wash will seal edges together, and impart a golden, glossy sheen to the baked pastry.
Prevent sticking: Use a silicone baking mat or parchment paper to prevent the pastry from sticking to the baking pan.
Freeze uncooked pastries: If you want to make ahead, you can freeze uncooked pastries for up to two weeks, and transfer them directly from the freezer to the oven.