Once while tackling my great-grandmother Kate’s legendary strudel, I decided to use the tapered rolling pin I’d inherited from her instead of my own ball-bearing pin. I discovered that instead of rolling the dough out into a square, as my ball-bearing pin naturally did, the thicker middle section of the tapered pin pushed the dough into a circle, which is exactly what I wanted. This episode made me realize that even with a tool as seemingly simple as a rolling pin, design is the key to performance.
The basic two: the rolling pin and the French pin
Rolling pins come in two types: the rolling or ball-bearing pin and the French pin.
A rolling pin has a cylindrical barrel that spins around a shaft flanked by two handles. Pressure to the dough is supplied by the weight of the pin and by the baker’s arms, not the baker’s hands. The barrel diameter varies from about 2-1/2 inches for a good-quality household-type ($20 to $25) to 3-1/2 inches for a heavy-duty professional-size ($50 to $60). A good-quality ball-bearing pin is made from hardwood, inside of which is a steel shaft capped at either end with sealed ball bearings for the smoothest rolling action.
Professional-weight ball-bearing pins with 15-inch barrels are great for swiftly and easily rolling out very large dough pieces, while lighter 10-inch pins are easier for smaller tasks. Professional-weight ballbearing pins are available in 12- to 18-inch lengths, so a good compromise might be to buy a 15-inch pin and keep a longer French pin on hand.
A French pin is a solid wooden cylinder that’s more slender and lighter than a ballbearing pin. Here, your hands apply pressure directly to the pin, which, in turn, transfers pressure to the dough. French pins are fashioned from a single piece of lightweight hardwood. They’re usually about 2 inches in diameter and come in 15- and 20-inch lengths (about $15).
The right pin for the job
Both ball-bearing and French pins have their ardent adherents, and I’ve discovered that the preference often seems to depend on the type of baking you do and how much training you’ve had.
Ball-bearing pins are the choice of bread bakers, like me, who often roll out resilient, sweet yeast-type doughs such as for Danish or croissants, or who roll large quantities of dough, where we like the muscle transfer you get with the long, heavyduty rolling pins. French pins are the choice of pastry bakers, who primarily roll out smaller amounts of soft, high-fat-content doughs such as for tarts and cookies, especially if those bakers have had some training in how to use one.
French pins allow closer contact with the dough, and they do more than just roll out dough. Flo Braker, author of The Simple Art of Perfect Baking (Chapters) says, “Since you can’t roll with your arm, the French pin is really the next best thing.” She loves how the French pin allows her to control the pressure she applies when rolling out cookie dough, and she uses it as a baton to “tap, not whack” hard, chilled puff pastry dough to soften it for rolling. To move disks of dough around on the work surface or to transfer them to the refrigerator, she likes to flour the dough lightly and then drape it around the pin.
Abigail Johnson Dodge, Fine Cooking’s contributing editor and the author of Great Fruit Desserts (Rizzoli), wouldn’t dream of using anything but a French pin. “I feel that I’m more in touch with the dough,” she says. “I get a better sense of whether I’m rolling with even pressure.”
While Marion Cunningham, author of The Fanny Farmer Baking Book (Knopf), concedes that French pins are “maneuverable if you know how to handle them,” she thinks they’re not as accessible for nonprofessionals. “You have to learn a little more to use the French pin; it’s trickier. With the heavier rolling pin, it’s black and white: you just take the handles and go back and forth.” Also, the pin’s heavy weight helps reduce the amount of rolling needed. She finds that with French pins, inexperienced bakers tend to “roll more, which toughens the dough.” And Flo Braker does use a heavy-duty ball-bearing pin for tackling very large, buttery doughs, especially when it’s important to work fast to prevent butter meltout. She especially likes the ballbearing pin’s ability to roll croissant dough into a flat, smooth sheet in just a few strokes, “before it knows what’s happening to it.”
A knit cotton rolling pin cover is helpful for rolling pie crusts and cookie doughs, especially for beginners. You can flour the stocking to make it nonstick, and even if you flour it liberally, it won’t add more flour to the dough itself. Rolling pin covers are inexpensive (around $3 for a set of two).
After the basic two, rolling pin designs become quite specialized.
A tapered French pin, like the one I inherited from my greatgrandmother, is specifically for rolling rounds of dough; it’s great for tart and pie crusts and costs about $10. A tapered pin’s bulging middle applies more pressure to the center of the dough, pushing it ahead of the sides, thus creating a circle as the dough is rolled and rotated. Chinese cooks use a small tapered pin to roll dough rounds for dumplings.
A ficelle, a thinner version of the French pin, is what I use to create decorative designs in French breads. The pin is light, so it can smooth dough without flattening, like for an herb inlay for flatbread. I also like a ficelle for pressing cloverleaves, splits, and other decorative patterns in bread doughs. Ficelles can be hard to find, but a sanded dowel, about the diameter of a broom handle, works just as well.
Embossing pins, rolling types that incise patterns in dough, are some of the most beautiful pins you’ll find. Scandinavian bakers use several different embossing pins while rolling out their famous flatbreads. Springerle pins, used to make the hard, dry cookies called springerle, can have flowers, animals, symbols, and even miniature scenes carved into the barrel. They start at $15; more elaborate pins start at about $60.
Beatrice Ojakangas, author of Whole Grain Breads by Machine or Hand (Macmillan), uses a Norwegian lefse pin; its grooves give lefse (a soft potato flatbread) a subtle texture and help roll out the dough very thin. Lefse pins run about $20. Other common Scandinavian embossing pins are hobnailed with a small or large grid.
A puff-pastry pin is great for butter-laminated doughs such as puff pastry and Danish dough. Its crenellated barrel allows cold, hard butter to be evenly distributed without overworking the dough. Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Pie & Pastry Bible (Scribner) says, “You can make great puff pastry without one, but for the first few turns, it lets you work the butter in without pressing too hard.” Pastry pins are pricey (about $130).
Rolling pins come in many materials—stainless steel, nonstick, and marble are just a few—but I think wood is best. Marble pins might keep pastry cooler, preventing butter from melting during handling, but they tend not to be as well constructed and are very heavy. Mine languishes in a drawer. Using a marble pastry board is a more practical way to harness marble’s cooling properties.
Choosing and caring for pins
• When picking out a pin, roll it on a counter and examine it at eye level, to make sure that it isn’t warped or nicked, advises Abby Dodge.
• To clean a rolling pin, just brush it off with a dry cloth, or use a damp sponge to wipe it off and then dry it thoroughly with a cloth. Rolling pins need no oiling at all. Never soak them in water, which causes warping and cracking.
• To keep a rolling pin from getting dings or nicks, Flo Braker advises suspending the pin horizontally from a rack, either on a free wall, under a counter, on a closet door, or even under a kitchen cart.