The home cook’s arsenal is full of tools from simple to complex, manual to automated. Few rival the elegant simplicity of the rolling pin.
Then again, there’s enough variety among the options for this baking staple to be confusing, if not overwhelming.
“I think like, with anything, there’s just a proliferation of options because that’s how things get sold,” said Jaynelle St. Jean, proprietor of Bay Area-based Pietisserie.
Ultimately, though, the choice of which rolling pin you buy is up to you, once you have all the facts in hand. “Regardless of what anyone says, the best rolling pin is the one that feels comfortable in your hands,” Stella Parks said in “BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.”
Now that summer pie season is about to be in full swing, it seems like a great time to figure out which one that might be. Here’s what you need to know and how best to make the most of whatever you pick.
There are a few primary styles of rolling pins you see — dowel (a straight cylinder), tapered (sometimes referred to as French) and handled (also described as American-style or ball-bearing).
“I’m definitely not a traditionalist when it comes to pie, but I am when it comes to the rolling pins,” said St. Jean, who eschews many of the bells and whistles you find on some products.
The dowel and tapered pins are the most straightforward, consisting of a single piece. Dowels are typically 17 to 19 inches and tapered about 19 inches, says Shirley Corriher in “BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking.” Both sizes give you plenty of length to easily cover large pieces of dough. The best tapered pins, says America’s Test Kitchen, give you at least 6 inches of a straight edge before they start to narrow to each side.
You’ll find advocates for each of these types of pins, and either will give you great results. Dowels tend to be thicker and heavier, with a solid heft that many appreciate. It can reduce the amount of pressure you need to apply. Tapered pins can help guard against the problem of thinner edges on your dough round, and they can be easier to maneuver and pivot. Both St. Jean and Maya-Camille Broussard, of Chicago-based Justice of the Pies, lean toward tapered pins. Broussard likes how the thinner pin lets her use the palms of her hands to easily guide it.
Pins with handles are the last major category and, unsurprisingly, you’ll find fans and detractors. St. Jean says they can be especially approachable for pie novices because the pin does a lot of the work for you. “Being able to hold onto those handles makes it easy,” she says. If you do want a handled pin, St. Jean says, make sure it’s on the weightier side and rolls smoothly. Once you’re feeling confident, St. Jean says you can graduate to a dowel or tapered pin, or even start using the center of the pin like a dowel and skip the handles altogether.
Ball-bearing pins have a few potential drawbacks. They can be harder to clean, especially with the risk of water getting inside. And given the presence of the handles, you often end up with a shorter work surface on the pin. Broussard doesn’t like how her fingers tend to brush across the surface of the dough or counter. “It’s not comfortable for me,” she says.
You may also come across a variety of specialty pins designed for specific purposes, including embossed pins (better for cookies than pie crusts), Springerle pins (designed for the German cookie of the same name), chapati pins (for Indian flatbreads) and lefse pins (for the Norwegian flatbread).
Wood ranks at the top for a lot of home and professional bakers. “We’ve put marble, glass, nylon, aluminum, and Teflon-coated rolling pins to the test, but nothing has compared to wooden pins,” Cook’s Country says.
Wood doesn’t conduct heat, St. Jean says, which is crucial when you’re trying not to melt the butter in a pie dough. Its textured surface will hold onto a light dusting of flour and won’t slide around on the surface of the dough. Basic wood pins are extremely affordable and can last years and years with proper care. The oft-recommended dowel and tapered pins from J.K. Adams are priced in most instances at less than $20 each.
Silicone is another common option. I never loved the silicone pin I had, and gladly traded it for a J.K. Adams dowel. It seemed to stick more than it should; it can be easy to be too confident about silicone’s clean release and end up under-flouring. Cook’s Country, though, was a fan of its nonstick properties that required less flour, or none at all. Silicone is easy to clean and sanitize.
Marble is especially luxe-looking and can be chilled in the refrigerator to keep dough cool. St. Jean calls it “not necessary but wonderful,” while Broussard finds it best for laminated doughs such as puff pastry. Marble is pricey and heavy, therefore unlikely to be the default for many home bakers.
Other materials you may find include nylon, nonstick and metal. As Epicurious says, “Marble, silicone, metal, and nylon may have certain strengths, but when it comes to versatility, durability, and long-term performance, wood rolling pins remain the gold standard for a reason.” Keep in mind that metal, if not chilled or if used for extended periods, can conduct heat. Brands that claim to be nonstick may not live up to the promise — or live up to it indefinitely.
One of the benefits of these alternative materials is that, depending on the particular product, they can be dishwasher-safe. Some are lighter-weight, which can help those with arthritis or other limitations, though the flip side is that a less hefty pin could conceivably force you to apply more pressure to get the job done.
You may find various bells and whistles, including pins that can be filled with water to help keep the dough cool or built-in thickness guides. St. Jean is skeptical. “I think too much gadgetry is not a replacement for practice,” she says.
Pins with notches cut directly into them, designed to help you achieve a specific thickness when rolling out dough, may limit you to one size. Others have adjustable disks, though an America’s Test Kitchen review found they shrink the usable space on the pin and may not allow for every thickness you want. You can separately buy rings to attach to the ends of pins, which work best with dowels, as opposed to tapered styles.
Guides you place on the counter, such as long plastic strips of varying thicknesses, can be helpful and won’t interfere with the pin. Broussard says she prefers to use her intuition and eyes when evaluating the thickness of the dough. Or find something in your kitchen or house that you can gauge it against — whether that’s a few stacked coins, a round cutter (she checks the height of biscuit dough this way) or even a set length on your finger. And because some guides don’t necessarily account for variations across an entire piece of dough, you shouldn’t rely on them exclusively. St. Jean lightly runs her hands across the dough to feel for uneven spots and targets those places.
“Treat your wooden rolling pin the same way you would treat your wooden counter or cutting board,” Broussard says. Wipe or scrape off any dough (a bench scraper is handy) and give a quick wipe-down with a damp cloth or sponge as needed. As with cutting boards, don’t put your rolling pin in the dishwasher or leave it submerged in water. If desired, you can apply a wood conditioner. Pay attention to that relatively low maintenance, and your pin may last decades, or more, as the many people who have a wood pin from parents or grandparents can attest to.
Heed the instructions on whatever pin you have. Even some non-wood models advise against immersing in water or putting in the dishwasher, particularly ball-bearing pins. Others may disassemble with only certain pieces that are dishwasher-safe.
If you’ve never been a confident roller, take solace in this observation from Parks: “If you dread rolling out any dough, whether it’s for sugar cookies or pie crust, chances are it has more to do with your equipment than with your skill as a baker.”
After you find one you like, practice, practice, practice. St. Jean suggests rolling dough on a counter or work surface that’s a little lower so that you can get the right amount of pressure and leverage your arms to make the job easier. Standard-height countertops can make it hard to accomplish this.
Try to work the dough rather than letting it work you. “If you have a good piece of the dough, you don’t need to move your body around,” says St. Jean, who has seen people twist themselves and their pins at all angles. Roll the pin away from your body, from the center out, advises Broussard. Don’t do more than two rolls without flipping and turning the dough. Doing so not only keeps the dough from sticking to the surface, but also makes it easy to monitor. You can see whether you need to dust a little more flour or even out the thickness in particular spots.
More than anything, think of the pin as an extension of your arms.
Rolling pins are no one-trick pony. The Washington Post’s Food team likes to use them to crush crackers, cookies and nuts, and to pound meat (to avoid cross-contamination, consider placing wax or parchment paper or plastic wrap between the meat and pin).
Epicurious suggests pulling out your pin to crush spices or ice and muddle herbs for drinks.