A perfect pie crust is so much more than the sum of its parts: flour, butter, water. How could these three basic ingredients combine to reach such tender, flaky, heavenly heights in your favorite pies and tarts and galettes and quiches? The magic is in the method. Cold butter and careful blending are key. Lots of modern pastry crust recipes rely on a food processor to cut the butter and flour together, but long before there were food processors, there were pastry blenders. Simply a series of curved blades or wires attached to a handle, a pastry blender—like Martha's own tool ($22, macys.com)—is designed for the sole purpose of gradually cutting cold butter into flour without over-blending or heating it up. This low-tech tool hasn't changed much since your grandmother's days, and that's because sometimes there's no need to improve on simplicity.
As confirmed pie lovers, we keep a pastry blender handy for when the baking bug bites—sometimes you just don't feel like pulling the food processor out of the cupboard (not to mention washing it afterwards!). And if you're just beginning to dabble in pie-making, a pastry blender is an affordable utensil to get your started on your buttery, flaky path.
For best results when using a pastry blender, first dice your butter into cubes that are between 3/4 and 1/2 inch and then put the butter back into the coldest part of the fridge to get nice and firm while you measure out the rest of the ingredients and prepare the work surface. Once the flour is blended with any additional ingredients (salt and/or sugar), then you can add your cold butter. Grip the pastry blender by the handle and use a rocking motion to begin blending the butter into the flour, working your way around the bowl to give all the butter chunks equal attention. If there's lots of butter build-up on the blades of the pastry blender, use a table knife to scrape it back into the bowl (better to use a knife than your hands so you don't heat up the butter!).
You'll know you're done blending once the butter chunks are about the size of peas. Then all that's left to do is add the icy-cold water and stir just enough to bring the whole mixture together. Now you're on your way to your best-ever pie crust—with almost no dishes to wash!