Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How to Make a Perfect, Easy Pie Crust

OK, "perfect, easy pie crust" is a lie; really, what I'm trying to say is that pie crust is not as difficult as you may fear, and that perfection is overrated. I get it, I've been there. I did not grow up with much homemade pie crust, even though my mother was a great baker. Like everyone else we knew, we used frozen shells most of the time. Like a lot of things I now make from scratch, I didn't start experimenting with pie crust until I was in my 20's. Even then, I wasn't happy with the results. I felt like a failure and stuck with frozen or refrigerated pie shells from the grocery store.

As I've continued to branch out with cooking and baking, I've revisited pie crust every now and then. I've tried Cook's Illustrated method that uses vodka and a combination of butter and shortening. I've reviewed (but never made) Alton Brown's various crusts. I've used Ruth Levy Beranbaum's exacting method which includes baking powder, vinegar, and precisely-sized cuts of carefully timed, partially-frozen butter. Making the recipe from Beranbaum, who I generally like and trust, feels like amateur brain surgery, and in the end, I just didn't like the crust that much.

A good pie crust shouldn't be brain surgery

I wouldn't discourage you from trying any and all methods to find your best pie crust, and Mr. Google can help you find the above and more. For me, though, I figured out that keeping it simple was the key to getting me to stay away from the freezer case and and the long red boxes in favor of superior taste and quality.

The final step on the Yellow Brick Road to scratch pie crust was a Southern Baking class that I took from Nashville pastry chef extraordinaire Lisa Donovan. (I wrote about her class previously on the post Mini Chocolate Empanadas; you can also get more info from her site Buttermilk Road.) By this time I'd also picked up some knowledge from all those recipes and failures, and can now make a good pie crust fairly predictably. There are a few tips for success that I'm sharing here, in anticipation of my next blog post for a savory empanada.

There are a million pie crust recipes out there; the basic ones vary a little in terms of flour-to-fat-to-salt ratio, but they are all in the same ball park. The majority of the additional ingredients, tips, and tricks regarding pie crust are about achieving two main goals: (1) Reducing the amount of gluten that develops and (2) encouraging rise and flakiness.

Lemme break it down for ya.

TL;DR Version For Those Who Just Want A Recipe And Not An Encyclopedia Article

  1. Follow the recipe; improvising is for people who read the whole tutorial :D
  2. Don't overmix the fat with the flour; you should have visible flakes and lumps
  3. Don't overwork the dough; use a light touch and let it rest between stages as discussed in the recipe
  4. Keep everything cold; resting periods should take place in the refrigerator

Gluten:  Friend or Foe?

As I've written previously in various posts, gluten forms when proteins in wheat (and other) flours combine with liquid. Gluten is stretchy and bouncy and is great for providing structure and loft to yeast breads. When making yeast bread, your goal is to maximize gluten formation. With many other baked goods, however, you want to minimize it. The more gluten a pie crust (or muffin, or cake, or cookie) has, the tougher the end product. Pastry dough with a lot of worked-up gluten is also hard to work with, and can shrink dramatically while baking.

So, OK, how do you keep the gluten from overdeveloping?
  1. Choose the right flour
    I use White Lily, a southern brand of all-purpose flour. It's great because it's lower in protein than national brands of all-purpose. Less protein = less gluten. Other all-purpose flours should be fine, but if you have issues you might want to look at the protein content of your flour and see if a lower protein one would work better for you.  (See Picking the Right Flour for the Job.)
  2. Don't overwork the dough
    I have the best success when remind myself to not overmix and I allow time to let the dough rest between stages of mixing, rolling, etc. In many cases I make the dough the day before I need to bake with it. No one stage takes more than a few minutes, but not rushing the overall process helps enormously.
  3. What about alcohol / acid?
    The recipes that use vodka or other alcohol, or vinegar or other acids, do so to inhibit gluten formation. If you consistently turn out tough crusts, give those recipes a go. They tend to be stickier doughs, though, so working with them will be a little different.

Choose Your Fat

When I was growing up, real butter was seen as expensive and actually a little frou-frou. We used margarine and shortening. Lard was the fat of choice for pastry since pretty much the invention of pastry. If you can get your hands on fresh, quality lard (not the bricks in the grocery store), it would be worth trying. For most of us these days, though, the fat of choice for baking is butter. Butter makes a great pie crust, but sometimes you might actually choose to use shortening or a combination. Butter has water in it, which produces steam and more puff; shortening is 100% fat and doesn't rise as much but produces crisper edges. If you are doing a crust with a fancy decorated edge or detailed cutouts where sharp looks are really important, you might want to use a shortening crust.

The vogue in recent years with TV cooks and cookbook authors has been to use a combination of shortening and butter. In the end, I've reverted to using all butter. I have no issue working with the dough and I prefer the results in both taste and texture. There's more information about fat choice (and the Cook's Illustrated use of vodka) on the King Arthur web site.

The reason the water content and other characteristics of the fat are important is that the melting of a solid fat in the heat of the oven will produce a layering effect. Steam helps separate those layers, giving rise to the pastry and creating that flaky quality we all love. The more steam, the more rise/flakes. A dough with butter produces more steam than a dough with solid fats.

There is a difference in water/fat ratios between brands of butter, too, and then the question of salted vs unsalted arises. Honestly, I'll say use whatever you normally use for baking. If you use salted, you might cut back a touch on the added salt. If you are a fan of the higher-fat European-style butters, go for it. As long as it's fresh-tasting and is real butter, it's all good. Don't sweat it.

(Note: I know some people have had success with vegetable fats such as coconut oil, but I have no experience or knowledge of cooking with those.)

Add Enough Liquid

Liquid measurements in recipes like this are really guidelines. The amount you really need will depend on multiple factors, including the moisture content of the flour. The way I store my flour usually means it is dry and I often have to add more liquid for yeast bread, biscuits, and pastry than recipes call for. I'm giving the typical guideline amount here, but pay attention to the dough and give it what it needs.

Man vs. Machine
Until the advent of the food processor, pastry dough was made by hand in the home kitchen. The kind of mixing required just can't be done with a mixer. Some cooks use their actual hands; many use pastry blenders or the ubiquitous "two knives held together." The coming of the food processor is a blessing and a curse. I love my mid-1980's Cuisinart. It is still going strong and it does some things so well, and is so fast. Sometimes, though, the speed and power are a detriment and must be carefully managed. The heat of the machine can also be a drawback. Finally, since I don't have a dishwasher, I sometimes choose to do things by hand just so I don't have to wash all the pieces parts of the machine.

If you can develop the "touch" of making pie crust truly by hand, meaning your own personal fingers, that's really the superior method. For many cooks, though, being told they must use their hands can seem like a roadblock; using the machine feels easier, more comfortable. I firmly believe that it is better to get that homemade crust made by machine than to have no homemade crust at all, so if you want to go that route, I will not judge. I am such a convert to the superior quality of hand-made dough that that is the recipe I'm providing today, but with a third road between hands and Cuisinart.

So why does mixing method matter? Remember about wanting to have a nice rise and flakiness in the crust? Well, if the fat is too well-mixed with the flour, then you get a paste, and a paste will bake up flat and dense. The trick is to leave some of the fat in lumps and sheets. When that fat melts, it leaves a space for steam to create the desired layers. By using your fingers or a pastry blender you can combine the fat and flour enough to produce an even product, but not so much that you have a thoroughly mixed, dense glob.

Perhaps one day I'll write about making the dough truly by hand, with no implements. That's tough to describe in writing though -- it's more of a show than a tell. Using a pastry blender gives me a good result and has the benefit of keeping warm hands out of the dough (see below).


When it comes to rolling and shaping, you still will need to use your hands a bit, in addition to a rolling pin. The same rules apply as during the initial mixing, though -- light touch, don't overwork.

Ice, Ice Baby

Another thing that helps to create flaky crust is preventing the fat from getting soft during the mixing, rolling, etc. For maximum flakiness, you want all of the melting to happen in the oven, not on your kitchen counter. (There is a reason that professional pastry kitchens include marble slabs ... the naturally cold surface is a boon to pastry making!) Start with very cold fat (and even cold implements) and stash the dough in the refrigerator during resting periods. When it comes time to roll and shape the dough, if you have warm hands you might want to rinse them in cold water beforehand.

Final Notes
  • This recipe does not contain sugar. It can be used for both sweet and savory applications. If you really want a sweet crust, add up to 1 Tbsp sugar with the flour and salt.
  • As with many dishes that lean on technique for results, practice helps. Your first crust may be a winner and it may not. Keep trying and understand the "whys" so you can evaluate what may have gone wrong. Pay attention to the results, build up your experience, and put that to use next time. Don't make your first scratch crust for an important occasion; just make a pie one random Saturday and go from there.
  • I'm not even gonna write about pie pan sizes as I'd planned; this post is already loooong. That's another show.
  • I almost abandoned this post because after it was nearly finished I discovered that the fabulous Smitten Kitchen had written about the topic and made all the major points I wanted to make, with more/better pictures! I highly recommend reading two of her posts:

On to the recipe.

Perfect, Easy Pie Crust

Makes enough dough for two single crusts, or a top & bottom crust for a double-crust pie in a standard home pie pan, 8" to 9-1/2". You can halve the recipe if you only need one crust. Of course, you can use the dough for other applications such as individual tarts, turnovers, etc.

2-1/2 cup all-purpose flour (preferably White Lily or other lower-protein brand), plus more for dusting & rolling
1 tsp kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
1 cup water (you won't use all of it)

Add the flour and salt to a large, wide mixing bowl and stir to combine. Cut the butter into roughly 1/2" chunks and distribute over the flour mixture in the bowl. Put the bowl and a pastry blender in the freezer for 15 minutes.

Combine the water and enough ice to chill it well. Remove the bowl and the pastry blender from the freezer. Use an up-and-down motion with the pastry blender to cut into the butter chunks. The butter will start to break up and be coated with and combine with the flour. The butter will stick to the pastry blender, but just push it off and keep going. There will still be lots of loose flour and unbroken, uncoated butter chunks.

At this point many recipes will tell you to work "until the mixture resembles peas." DON'T DO THAT. That's overkill at this stage. Some of the butter will be that size, some will already be smaller, but some should be larger.

Add 6 Tbsp of ice water and continue to work the mixture with the pastry blender. At this stage you can start using the pastry blender to mix rather than cut, scraping up from the bottom and sides of the bowl to incorporate the water. If there are still large pieces of butter, cut into them - here's where you are aiming for chunks no larger than peas.

The total amount of water you need will vary. The picture above is typical for me with 6 Tbsp of water; I usually have to add at least 2 Tbsp more water, for a total of 8 Tbsp, and sometimes even more. If your flour isn't very dry and it's a humid day, 6 Tbsp may be enough for you. If not, add water about 1/2 Tbsp at a time, and continue to mix and cut into the larger butter chunks. It shouldn't be sticky, but it is better to have a dough that is slightly too wet than too dry.

This whole process should not take more than a few minutes, and you'll get to a point where all but maybe a little bit of the loose flour has been incorporated, and there are major lumps of loosely-cohesive dough. When you pinch some dough between your fingers, it holds together nicely. There should still be visible patches of butter, but they shouldn't be huge.

Using your hands, gather the dough together and press and pat lightly to shape into a ball. Handle it gently; you're not kneading bread dough, but just completing the mixing process and bringing it all together into a cohesive unit. Ideally you'll still see some distinct blobs of butter.

Divide the dough into two equal pieces. Shape into two disks and wrap well in plastic wrap.

These two disks contain the same amount of dough; one is just thinner the the other.
Refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes before continuing with your recipe. The dough can be refrigerated up to several days, and can be frozen. If storing more than a few hours, be sure it is wrapped well as it can dry out easily.

When you roll out the dough, work with just one disk at a time; keep the second disk in the refrigerator. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and sprinkle the top with a little flour. (During this stage you shouldn't need to add a lot of flour; you're just providing a thin barrier to help with sticking.) I find it helpful to have a dough scraper handy. Using a light touch, and sprinkling the dough and the surface with more flour as needed, roll it out with a rolling pin with a few short strokes top to bottom. The cold dough will resist, but will quickly loosen up as you work with it. You don't need to muscle it into shape, but coax it.

Turn the dough a quarter turn, using the scraper and adding a little more flour if necessary, and again roll top to bottom, bottom to top. Keep turning and rolling until you have a rough circle of the desired size.

If I'm baking a typical pie in a pie pan, I'll put it in the pan and refrigerate again for at least 15 minutes to relax the gluten and re-chill the butter. When I don't do this, the crust can shrink dramatically. I do the same if I'm cutting the dough into shapes. Roll, cut or put in the pan, chill. Again, this step can be done up to several days ahead; just wrap very well.

If your kitchen is warm, if you get interrupted while rolling, if you find the dough snapping back as you roll it and it is fighting you ... stop, wrap, and chill. Let the dough get cold again and relax, and pick up where you left off. Cold dough may be a little more stiff, but is actually easier to work with as it is more resistant to tearing.

For more tips on rolling and shaping your pie crust, see the Smitten Kitchen post referenced above.

Next time: Butternut Squash and Goat Cheese Empanadas made with this pie crust dough!

1 comment:

Erin L said...

I’ve been having lust in my heart over this board — has the option of ice packs underneath!