Biscuits, pie crusts and other flaky baked goods often call for butter to be rubbed in or cut in to the flour mixture. This means that the butter should be broken up into small pieces, but not completely incorporated, into the dough. There are several ways of doing this. The first, and most traditional, way is by literally rubbing the butter in with your fingertips, pressing it into small pieces by rubbing floured fingers together. The downside to this method is that you need to work quickly to avoid warming up the butter and melting it. Another option is to blend pastry dough in a food processor. This method is quick, though you risk over incorporating the butter and getting a finished product that is less flaky than it would otherwise be.
One other choice is to use a pastry blender. This is a hand-held tool with several metal tines that will cut the butter into small pieces as it incorporates it into your dough. A pastry blender is used simply by grasping the handle and pressing the tines – which are thin, but not sharp – into your butter and flour mixture. The butter breaks up and, as you repeat the motion, breaks down into small pieces and mixes throughout the dough. It is easy to see your work, much less messy than using your hands and really makes life a lot easier when you are working with a big batch, or multiple batches, of pastry. Plus, for someone who doesn’t have naturally cool “pastry hands” and needs a little extra confidence when tackling pie crust, a tool that doesn’t melt the butter as you work can really come in handy.
There are several different types of pastry blenders out there, some with blade-like tines and some with wires. I prefer the blades because they are sturdier and easier to use than the wire types, and I find that they tend to hold up better over time and regular use.