Are you ready for our first baking calendar?! I hope you are as excited as I am to begin with French tarts! I thought it would be the perfect starting point for several reasons. 1. They are not too hard to make. 2. They are extremely versatile so you can easily mix and match according to your preferences. 3. We’ll learn more about the role of ingredients without getting overwhelmed. 4. They taste soooo good!
I know most of you were hoping to just start baking today. But I felt like it was important to go through some baking science to understand exactly what happens when we make French tart dough and how, just a handful of ingredients can lead to different results.
This post is quite lengthy so I thought I should include a table of contents. Hopefully you’ll find all the information useful. But feel free to skip ahead to the part that interests you the most.
Basic Ingredients Of A French Tart
French tart dough is primarily composed of the following ingredients:
Let’s look at each ingredient in more detail to understand why we use them in the dough.
The flour will contribute to the structure of the tart in two ways: gluten formation, and starch gelatinization.
This was my first French tart attempt, a complete disaster with tons of mistakes. But for now, I just want you to focus on the tart edges! Can you see how much they shrunk?! Even before baking the tart, the dough was so elastic it kept moving back down! You end up with very little space left for the filling.
Why is this happening?! The answer is gluten! You’ve probably been seeing that word everywhere! So let’s start with a common misconception! Did you know that flour doesn’t actually contain gluten?! Yes, I was shocked as well. I read that in so many places. But according to Figoni1, gluten is formed.
Well, I’ll try not to bore you and keep it short. Flour contains two proteins: Glutenin and gliadin. When water is added to flour, they will form gluten. Gluten gets its strength (or tenacity) and elasticity from the glutenin and its stretchiness (or extensibility) from the gliadin.
So the more gluten is formed, the tougher and more elastic the dough will become. Mixing the dough also contributes to gluten formation. So once you add the water, you should mix as little as possible or you’ll end up with rubbery dough.
There are different types of flour with varying protein amounts. Bread flour, for example, is suitable for well, bread! It has a higher protein content (12%-13%, more proteins = more gluten formed) and produces chewier and tougher products.
Cake flour on the other hand, has a low protein content (7%-8.5%) and will produce very delicate pastries that will crumble easily as not enough gluten will have been formed.
Most French recipes will state you should use pastry flour (8.5%-9.5% protein). If you have it in your pantry, this is probably the best flour for making tarts. But I’ve been using all-purpose flour (10%-12% protein content) which is a more convenient option and I always have good results.
Flour contains starch which will absorb the liquid present in the dough. The liquid can be in the form of water but also from the eggs as we will see next.
When the starch is exposed to the oven heat, it will start to gelatinize and thicken the dough. When baked properly, the tart dough will no longer be soft and flexible.
There are several benefits to using fats when making tart dough:
- They add flavor.
- They hydrate the dough and add richness. Butter for example is composed of 15% water (hydration) and 80% fat (richness).
- They act as tenderizers. The fat used in the dough will coat a portion of the flour, shielding it from the water in the dough. Less water means less gluten formation. Your dough will be softer and more tender. We will see this in more detail when mixing the pâte brisée and pâte sablée through the sanding technique.
The most common type of fat found in French tart recipes is butter.
The liquids used will contribute to the structure of the dough by hydrating the starch (causing gelatinization) and the proteins in the flour (gluten formation).
The water will start to evaporate when the temperature of the dough reaches 100°C (212°F). This has a leavening effect which is desired in some pastries. When making tarts however, the steam rising will cause the dough to puff up leading to an uneven surface. If the dough is high in liquids such as the pâte brisée, it’s best to use weights to prevent this.
The most common liquids used are water and eggs (which are 73% water).
Most tart recipes use whole eggs or egg yolks. Eggs are used for several reasons:
- Hydration, as previously explained.
- Structure: The egg proteins will coagulate with the heat of the oven, creating sturdier dough.
- Color: The eggs, especially the egg yolks, will give the baked tart a nice golden color.
- Flavor: Eggs yolks are composed of 32% fat which will add richness and tenderness to the dough.
Sugar can be omitted when making a savory tart such as quiche. But most of the time, there will be sugar in the tart recipe. The two most common types of sugar used are:
- Granulated sugar adds a lot of flavor and texture to the dough.
- Powdered (icing) sugar is much easier to incorporate into the dough and reduces the need to mix. This can be especially useful when you don’t want to introduce too many air bubbles (from mixing) which would cause the dough to puff up in the oven.
Other than adding flavor, sugar plays several roles:
- Freshness: Sugar is hygroscopic and will absorb moisture from the other ingredients and from the air. The tart crust won’t dry as fast.
- Tenderness: Since sugar attracts water to itself, there will be less water available for the flour proteins and starch. As a result, the gluten formation and gelatinization will be reduced, leading to a softer crumb.
- Color: the sugar, along with the eggs will give a nice color to the dough. Tarts made without these two ingredients such as the pâte brisée don’t brown as much.
Salt & Flavorings
Salt is added for flavor. It is possible to add other flavorings such as vanilla extract, citrus zests. For a nice nutty flavor and more texture in the dough, you can even replace part of the flour with nut flour, such as almonds or hazelnuts. Just keep in mind that nut flour will not form gluten so it is not possible to use it as a replacement for wheat flour.
Okay, so we know what ingredients to use. But what exactly should we do with them?! There are several steps before you can actually bake the tart. Let’s break them down and see what happens in each step and why that step is important.
Step #1: Mixing The French Tart Dough
French tart dough can easily be prepared using a stand-mixer (with the paddle attachment), a food processor or by hand. Since we are learning how to make the dough, I thought it would be better to actually make it by hand during the first few lessons. We’ll get a better sense of how it feels, what it looks like and we are less likely to overwork it than if we were using a machine.
There are two main ways of mixing the dough when making French tarts:
- Sablage, or sanding
The first step consists in rubbing the butter and dry ingredients (flour, sugar, salt) together. Why? As previously explained, flour contains starch and proteins that contribute to the structure of the dough. But they need water.
By rubbing fat on the flour, you are creating a sort of barrier around the flour. As a result, when you add the liquid later on, a portion of the flour won’t be able to absorb the water and you’ll get a nice crumbly texture.
Just be careful not to overdo it while rubbing the flour with butter. You don’t want to coat all the flour or else your dough won’t be able to absorb enough moisture. You’ll end up with hard and dry dough that breaks easily.
You should aim for a sandy texture (not homogeneous) that looks like coarse cornmeal. The egg added in the next step will hydrate the uncoated flour and you’ll get smooth dough that sets up nicely in the oven.
There is some contradicting information as to what the temperature of the butter should be. Most French recipes I found use butter softened at room temperature. This makes it much easier to coat the flour with the butter leading to a tender product.
Others however claim the butter should be very cold. Using cold dough will yield a flakier dough. Since both are used successfully by famous bakers, I would say just follow the recipe you are making to get the optimal texture. It should normally be mentioned whether or not the ingredients should be cold.
King Arthur flour has an interesting article on why butter temperature matters in pastry.
If you like making cookies, then you are probably familiar with this mixing method. You first mix very soft butter and sugar just until the mixture looks creamy.
Take out the butter at least 2 hours before preparing the dough. It should be very soft so you can easily mix it with the sugar. You shouldn’t mix too much or you will introduce too much air in the dough. This would lead to dough that puffs up in the oven.
The egg is then added followed by the flour. Mix only until combined to avoid developing too much gluten.
You might have noticed that whichever mixing method you pick to get a crumbly texture, the aim is the same: minimize gluten formation and starch gelatinization by reducing the contact with water. Either you coat the flour first, before adding the water. Or you add the flour last, and mix as little as possible.
Step #2: Refrigerating The Dough
Refrigerating the dough is an essential step to guarantee the success of your French tart crust.
Why? Refrigerating the dough will make it much easier to handle when lining the pan for several reasons. 1) The chilling time will make the gluten formed during mixing weaker. 2) You also want the dough to be properly hydrated without overmixing it. When you let it rest, the starch in the flour will slowly absorb the water. 3) This step will also firm up the fat and make the dough less sticky.
Step #3: Lining The Tart Pan
This step is extensively discussed in the post on How to Line a Tart Pan with Pastry.
In order to be able to roll out the dough, you will need to make sure it doesn’t stick to the rolling pin. This can be achieved in two ways. You could:
- Roll the dough between two sheets of parchment paper (my preferred method).
- Flour the work surface and the rolling pin before rolling out and whenever the dough feels sticky. It is important not to use too much flour to prevent more gluten formation.
The dough is usually rolled out to a thickness of about 3mm.
How much dough is needed for a specific pan size?
If the dough has been flattened to a thickness of about 3mm for the tart pan, then you will need2 for a :
- 15 cm (6-in) pan: 115 to 140 g of dough (4 to 5 oz.)
- 20 cm (8-in) pan: 175 to 225 g of dough (6 to 8 oz.)
- 23 cm (9-in) pan: 225 to 300 g of dough (8 to 10 oz.)
- 25 cm (10-in) pan: 300 to 340 g of dough (10 to 12 oz.)
Just keep in mind that when you are starting out, you might not actually be able to flatten the dough evenly to a thickness of 3mm. If your dough is thicker, you might need more dough than the amount indicated above.
Step #4: Quick Chill
Before baking the tart, refrigerate it once more (for about an hour) or freeze it for 15 minutes. This will prevent it from shrinking in the oven. You don’t have to do this step if you really don’t want to. But it will bring you closer to baking the perfect tart. And you can just freeze the tart while waiting for the oven to preheat so you’re not really wasting time.
Step #5: Baking A French Tart
You’ve prepared the dough, you’ve lined your tart pan and refrigerated it. Now all that’s left is actually baking the tart.
Tarts can be classified in two categories:
- A baked tart
- An unbaked tart
What is a baked tart?
A baked tart is a tart that is baked with the filling. Apple tarts for example are baked with the compote (or an almond-cream filling) and sliced apples. The tart could be partially baked before adding the filling to prevent sogginess.
If you’d like to try making a baked tart, how about a French custard apple tart?
What is an unbaked tart?
Is it me or is this name quite confusing?! I immediately think it just means uncooked. But that’s not it! An unbaked tart is a tart that you blind-bake first. The tart is fully baked and cooled down at room temperature before adding the filling. Fruit tarts with pastry cream fit into this category.
Since the tart is baked on its own, you would need to put weights (such as beans) on top of the crust during the first 15 minutes of baking. Or you could freeze it slightly before baking. The tart will hold its shape better this way: no shrinkage or air bubbles on the crust.
We’ll be baking several unbaked tarts this month: a strawberry tart, a lemon tart and my favorite, a chocolate tart!
At what temperature should a tart be baked?
There is some debate as to what the optimal temperature for baking tarts is. For a crisp crust (more moisture loss), a longer baking time at a lower temperature is recommended. The oven temperature shouldn’t be too low however. It should be hot enough for the tart to set a little, before the butter starts to melt. If not, your tart might fall apart in the first few minutes of baking.
In my experience, 180°C (356°F) on the conventional setting is a good temperature. If you are using a convection oven, you can set the temperature to 165°C (329°F).
On what shelf should a tart be baked?
It is usually recommended to bake tarts in the bottom third of the oven (level 2 out of 5 for example). This will help the tart bake evenly. You want to make sure the bottom of the crust is properly baked before the sides brown too much.
What happens when you bake a French tart?
Raw dough is soft and flexible. So how exactly does it transform into a crust that can hold a filling? Once a tart is exposed to the oven heat, several things will happen3:
- The gluten proteins will start to set in the hot oven, giving structure to the dough. You want this step to happen quickly before the shape of the dough is compromised. Make sure that your oven is properly preheated and your tart is very cold before baking it or else you might notice the sides of your tart falling.
- The butter will start to melt and seep into the dough acting like a sort of “cement”.
When you take a tart out of the oven, it is very delicate and prone to breaking. But as it cools down, the melted butter will start to firm up and you’ll get a nice tart shell that is easy to handle.
- The water from the butter and the egg will start evaporate. If you did not use weights or freeze your dough, you might notice bubbles forming on the bottom of your crust.
- The starch in the flour will absorb water and gelatinize with the heat, giving even more structure to the dough.
- Caramelization and Maillard browning: When there isn’t much water left in the dough to evaporate, the temperature of the crust will rise above 150°C (300°F), breaking down the sugars and proteins on the surface of the crust. Your tart will get its nice golden brown color.
How to know if the tart is ready?
Unbaked tarts should look golden brown when fully baked. For baked tarts, bake until the filling is just set. If you added fruits to the filling, they should be fully cooked and tender.
Step #6: Assembling A French Tart
Assembling baked tarts
Baked tarts don’t need much more once baked. But it is common practice to brush warm apricot glaze over the surface. This serves an aesthetic role, making the tart shinier, but also a functional role, keeping the fruits from drying out.
Assembling unbaked tarts
Once the crust has cooled down at room temperature, you can add the cold filling, such as pastry cream and the fruits (if using). It is possible to seal the tart crust with melted white chocolate for example, before adding the filling. Or you could brush a little bit of egg wash on the crust 5 minutes before the end of the baking time. This will prevent sogginess.
Unbaked tarts can also be brushed with a warm apricot glaze to preserve the fruit and add shine. Assembling unbaked tarts is best done at the last minute, just before serving as they tend to get soggy in the fridge.
Step #7: Storing French Tarts
Storing raw tart dough
Wrap dough tightly in parchment paper and place it in a zip lock bag. Write down the date and the type of dough prepared. Refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to a month. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight or at room temperature when needed.
Storing baked tart shells
Tart shells (without filling) can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for a few days. Refrigerating them will make them soggy. To freeze a baked tart shell, I would recommend placing it in a freezer proof container so it doesn’t get knocked around in the freezer.
Alternatively, when you bake the tart, wait for it to cool down then freeze it in the pan for about an hour. Once properly frozen, remove it from the pan and place it in a zip lock bag with the name of the dough and the date you made it. You can store it for up to a month. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight or at room temperature before filling.
I hope you made it until here!! This post was longer than I had anticipated but I really wanted to tell you everything I knew about tarts. Hopefully you will find this information useful and you can come back to it whenever you’re unsure about a step.
Well, let’s start baking shall we?! First up, how to make pâte brisée!
1Figoni, P. (2011). How Baking Works (3rd ed.). Wiley.
2Gisslen, W. (2005). Professional Baking (4th ed.). Wiley.
3Gilles, C. (2009). La Cuisine Expliquée. Editions BPI.
Pfeiffer, J. & Shulman, M. R. (2013). The Art of French Pastry. Alfred A. Knopf.
Suas, M. (2008). Advanced Bread and Pastry: A Professional Approach (1st ed.). Delmar Cengage Learning.