Here's What to Use If You Don't Have a Pastry Cutter
A pastry cutter, also known as a pastry blender or dough blender, is used to work solid fats, like butter, shortening or lard into flour to create dough. If you're making pie crust, biscuits or some other baked good that calls for this tool, and you don't have one, there are several things that you can use instead. Here's a look at your options:
Cut the butter (or whatever fat you're using) into small pieces.
Add it to the bowl with your flour and other dry ingredients. Then, use a fork to mash the butter into the flour, until you achieve a crumbly consistency.
Hold a knife in each hand, and work both knives over the ingredients in the bowl, until the butter and dry ingredients are well combined.
A Food Processor
Pulse the butter and dry ingredients in your food processor, until you achieve a nice, crumbly texture. It won't take long, so be careful not to overwork your ingredients.
Work the butter into the flour with your hands. Just squeeze the ingredients between your fingers to break up the butter and bring everything together. Use cold hands and try work quickly, so the butter doesn't melt.
A Cheese Grater
Use a box grater to grate up the butter called for in the recipe. Then, mix it into the dry ingredients. Use cold butter, so it grates easily (you can even use frozen butter).
Tips for Success
When a recipe calls for the use of a pastry cutter, it's because the butter (or whatever fat is called for) is supposed to be cut up into tiny pieces and distributed throughout the dry ingredients, rather than incorporated into them. If you cut the butter in properly, you'll end up with a crumbly texture, rather than a uniform texture.
And that's important because it's that texture that'll give you the flaky baked goods you're after. Whether you're using a pastry cutter or one of the stand-ins discussed above, you need to ensure the butter doesn't melt into the flour while you're working with it (that'll wreck the crumbly texture). Use cold butter, and try not to work the ingredients more than necessary, so the butter remains in solid form.
Should You Buy a Pastry Cutter?
If you do a lot of baking, a pastry cutter may be a worthwhile addition to your collection of kitchen gadgets. It's a u-shaped hand-held tool, with a series of dull blades or wires at the bottom, and a handle at the top. It's designed specifically for cutting solid fats into butter.
Since it covers a bigger surface area than a fork or two knives, it makes quick work of the job; and it's a lot less messy than using your hands. If you decide to buy one, opt for a model with blades, rather than wires. It'll be a lot sturdier. And go with stainless steel. It won't rust, so one pastry cutter should last you a lifetime.