Report of Pastry Comparison
#1 Dinosaur MD, NinjaBaker HSD*
We performed the experiment outlined here and evaluated blinded taste comparisons of both uncooked dough and final baked cinnamon pastry swirls. Neither researcher was able to tell the difference between pastry made with butter and butter-flavored shortening when small test aliquots were used. Larger, unblinded sample mouthfuls were judged different both in taste and texture, although neither of us could reliably identify which fat was which when blinded. From this we conclude that pastry is delicious whatever it's made of, and that both of us have way too much time on our hands.
Because our family enjoys the taste of pastry, one of us (#1D) invented a recipe several years ago that basically allows the eating of almost-unadulterated plain pastry. By rolling out a slab of dough, slathering it with cinnamon sugar, jelly-rolling and slicing it, we have been able to enjoy this treat without worrying about incidentals such as nutrition, as would be included with something as inherently healthy as apples in a pie. One of us (NB) has begun the process of learning to bake, and it was felt that learning the technique of pastry baking would be a valuable addition to his knowledge base. Thus our experiment had several purposes aside from exploring the initial hypothesis.
We performed the experiment as outlined here. The butter used was unsalted Costco brand generic butter, removed from the freezer approximately four hours prior to the experiment. The shortening was butter-flavored Crisco brand. We used Safeway store brand flour, water from the tap (aka "Schyulkill Swill") and Morton's brand iodized salt (kosher.) Each pastry batch contained the following ingredients:
1.5 cups plus 2 tbsp. flour
8 oz. butter or shortening
0.5 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. cold water
Pastry was prepared according to standard procedure and rolled out into an approximately 9 x 11 inch rectangle. One stick of butter was melted in a glass measuring cup; approximately 1/4 of this volume was sufficient to cover each dough slab. Cinnamon and sugar were combined to an agreed-upon level of brown-ness (sufficient so that the scent of cinnamon was clearly perceptible throughout the experiment.) Approximately 1/3 cup of cinnamon-sugar mixture was spread over each slab, which was then rolled up, sliced into 1/2 inch slices and baked on an ungreased cookie sheet for 10 minutes in a preheated 450 degree oven. Unbaked dough aliquots (the ends of the rolls, where the dough was less even) were set aside for tasting.
Formal tasting comparisons were performed as follows: each of us in turn closed our eyes and held out our hands. The other investigator then placed approximately 1 cc samples of either dough or baked product in each outstretched hand. The samples were consumed in any order and the blinded participant rendered an opinion on whether the two samples were the same (both butter or both shortening) or different. In each case, an estimate was also provided about what each sample was made with.
Much to the surprise of the senior investigator, neither participant was able to reliably determine whether a given sample was made with butter or butter-flavored shortening when tasted blindly in small volumes. This observation held both for unbaked dough samples and pieces baked pastry at room temperature. When tasted in an unblinded fashion and in larger quantities (ie, shoving the whole thing into one's mouth) one of us (#1D) believed there was a difference in "mouth feel," with the butter dough giving a greater sense of smoothness, for lack of a better adjective. The other investigator (NB) wasn't as certain, but made a valiant effort by continuing to stuff whole cinnamon swirls into his mouth.
The experiment was also attended by ancillary personnel including Darling Spouse, the Jock, DinoDaughter and DenverDaughter, each of whom also sampled unbaked dough aliquots and baked cinnamon swirls. Their consensus opinion correctly identified which plate was made with butter and which with shortening, but further trials should be conducted to control for luck.
There were several differences noted between the butter batch and the shortening batch during the pastry preparation process. The butter batch tended to be somewhat more elastic and easy to handle, both while flattening it with the rolling pin and while rolling it up after the butter and cinnamon sugar were applied. Both operators noted that the shortening dough seemed drier and tended to crack more, rendering the final product somewhat less visually appealing.
The senior investigator was actually somewhat surprised that the entire experiment ever came off at all, as the process did not begin until 7:30 pm, after the junior investigator had spent the entire day playing an Ultimate Frisbee tournament. The fear was that the experiment would run too late and that the junior investigator was too tired to participate. Fortunately this turned out not to be the case. In fact, because the junior investigator took longer to complete each preparation phase (as would be expected, given his lack of familiarity with the process) the senior investigator was able to complete most of the clean-up procedure during the baking phase of the experiment. The entire process was accomplished quite smoothly, and was considered very enjoyable by all participants.
As above, we conclude that pastry is delicious, however we do feel that butter produces a dough that is easier to handle than shortening. Further, as also stated above, it is quite clear that all investigators, participants and readers of this paper have far too much time on their hands. We recommend that they immediately begin attempting to get a life (and/or a job at the Food Network.)
*High School Diploma