It all starts with an unleavened dough of flour, water, salt, and butter, which is rolled out and spread with fat (usually more butter). It's folded, or "laminated" in baker's speak, until the paper-thin layers number in the hundreds—hence the classic French mille-feuille, or one-thousand sheets. Yup. That's 1,000 layers* of butter 'n' dough. And it's damn delicious.
*Okay, fine. Technically, after six standard folds, it's actually only 729. BUT one more fold can get you over 2,000!
It's also one of the most grueling pastries to make at home, requiring patience, precision, time, and a whole lot of space. Counter space, sure, but also freezer space—the whole affair needs to be chilled regularly to prevent all that butter from melting your dough into a big, uniform blob. And that's just half the battle; keeping the dough uniformly rectangular is a whole other breed of luck, skill, and perfectionism. If you want to be totally badass, here's how to make it from scratch—success is a uniquely satisfying achievement.
It's also pretty damn elusive, which is why most of us opt to skip ahead and buy it pre-made out of the freezer aisle. But what brand will best yield those light, buttery, crisp sheets of pure indulgence? We decided to find out.
Making our selection didn't take much time—there are only two nationally available brands of frozen puff pastry on the market (excluding Trader Joe's, which only sells its puff pastry during the holiday season).
Brand 1: Pepperidge Farm
Brand 2: Dufour
We picked up our package of Dufour at Whole Foods for $11.89, which, at 14 ounces comes out to 85¢ per ounce, almost triple that of Pepperidge Farm ($5.49 for 17.3 ounces, or 32¢ per ounce at Associated Supermarket). Why such a massive gap? It all comes to down to ingredients—Dufour uses real butter to Pepperidge Farm's shortening. The real question was whether we'd be able to taste that difference.
For one thing, great puff pastry should, well, puff. As the water in the dough evaporates into steam, it separates those hundreds of layers into buttery, flaky sheets. Once baked, a good piece of puff pastry develops a nice, golden brown color with a flaky, light texture that separates naturally into individual layers. Flavor-wise, we were looking for the pastry to be buttery, but not greasy, sweet, or artificial tasting.
To see how the two brands would compare, we tried them two ways: as savory tarts (topped with caramelized onions, goat cheese, and tomatoes), and plain. For the tarts, we trimmed the doughs by weight, rolling them out to equal dimensions. Both were docked with the tines of a fork and then topped with identical amounts of caramelized onions and goat cheese, along with sliced, salted, and drained grape tomatoes.
For our second round, we simply trimmed the doughs to identical dimensions and, without rolling or docking, baked them to completion. It's worth noting that we found that the estimated baking times on the packages wasn't quite long enough to bake the dough all the way through; instead, we relied on appearance and internal temperature.
Tasters were asked to rank the doughs on a scale of one to ten for three traits: overall quality, flavor, and texture. And when it came to our tarts, the results were nearly identical for both pastries—I'm talking a difference of .05 on our 1-10 scale. Though individual tasters had relatively strong preferences, they were evenly split when it came to their brand of choice.
All that changed when we tried the pastries on their own, with Dufour taking a clear lead thanks to its pronounced butter-forward flavor and light, flaky texture. But let's be clear—we're talking shades of deliciousness, and both brands were well-liked.
Our final conclusion? If price is a concern, then you're in good hands with Pepperidge Farm, especially if you're filling or topping it with flavorful ingredients. But if you're a butter fiend who's planning a dish that's more pastry than filling—or just looking to chow down on some plain puff pastry—then you may want to take the plunge and go for Dufour.
The Pepperidge Farm puff pastry comes packaged as two rectangular sheets, each weighing a little over 8.5 ounces. In the plain dough test, it puffed up beautifully, rising about half and inch higher than the Dufour. Fans complimented it for its "lighter and crisper" texture and "less greasy, flakier center." But despite flaking well, it mainly lost points for its lack of buttery flavor.
Ingredients: Unbleached enriched wheat flour, water, vegetable oils (palm, soybean, hydrogenated cottonseed), 2% or less of: high fructose corn syrup, salt, mono and diglycerides, soy lecithin, maleted barley flour, turmeric and annato extracts for color
Dufour comes as a 14-ounce nearly square sheet of dough (though both size and dimensions can easily be adjusted with puff pastry by trimming and rolling as needed). Tasters all celebrated the markedly buttery flavor and crisp, easy-to-shatter crust. Unfortunately, in both attempts it proved somewhat difficult to cook all the way through without burning the exterior, and a number of participants commented on the chewier, gummier center. At the end of the day, we're happy to report that either choice is more than acceptable in our book.
Ingredients: USDA grade AA butter (cream, natural flavorings), unbleached unbromated flour, water, salt, lemon juice
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.