Perfect Pie Crust 101
Published by Broadway
Granted, many Thanksgiving cooks rely on frozen or refrigerated piecrusts. But homemade piecrust tastes immeasurably better. Knowing how to make a good piecrust is one of those kitchen skills that make a cook’s reputation.
Leave behind any doubts you may have about making plecrust. I have taught hundreds of people how to make this dough. It has all of the qualities that make a perfect crust-it’s flaky yet crisp, tender, and golden. The recipe is lengthy, not because it’s difficult, but because the key to making good piecrust is understanding the details.
Cold temperatures help a plecrust maintain its flakiness and shape. The fats should be chilled (in warm kitchens the flour can be chilled, as well) and the water ice-cold (but with ice cubes removed). The idea is to work the fat into the flour to create small, flour-coated pellets. The dough is held together with ice water, which helps keep the fat distinct—warm water would soften the fat. When the dough is rolled out, the fat is flattened into flakes. When baked, the fat creates steam, which lifts the dough into flaky layers. As vegetable shortening shouldn’t be stored in the refrigerator, place the cubes of shortening in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes to chill thoroughly.
Handle the dough as little as possible. As dough is mixed, the gluten is activated and starts to strengthen, so use a light hand. Mix the dough just until it is completely moistened and begins to clump and hold together without crumbling when pressed between your thumb and forefinger.
Dough likes to relax, and there are two key rest periods in the pie-making process. After the dough is mixed, refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes to allow the activated gluten to relax (a cool place also keeps the fat flakes chilled and distinct). If the dough is rolled out too soon, the gluten contracts and the crust shrinks. The optimum chilling period is 2 hours, which is long enough for the dough to chili throughout without becoming too hard to actually roll out. However, it can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. After the piecrust is fitted into the pan, freeze it for about 20 minutes for another rest period, again to discourage shrinkage.
The type of fat used in the dough is another Important factor. Americans love flaky piecrust, which is made with vegetable shortening or lard. Butter makes a crisp crust with a texture that resembles crisp and crumbly French tart crust or shortbread. This recipe benefits by using both fats. For an excellent crust with an old-fashioned flavor that works beautifully with apple or mincemeat pie, substitute lard for the shortening and butter. Measure shortening in a dry measure in level amounts. Or use the new stick-wrapped shortening—a real boon to the piecrust maker.
Some recipes use only ice water to bind the dough. I add an egg yolk (a fatty protein that adds richness and color) and vinegar (an acid that tenderizes the gluten). I also use a little sugar for tenderness and for browning. A bit of salt Is imperative to enhance the flavors.
A pastry blender (usually made of flexible wire, but some models have stiff metal blades) is the best tool for cutting the fat into the flour. An electric hand mixer also works well, set at low speed. Or use a food processor, but freeze the fats first—the friction from the spinning metal blade can melt the fat. If you mix the dough in the work bowl, pulse it just until it clumps together. If overprocessed into a ball, the dough will be tough. It’s safer to pour the dry fat/flour mixture from the processor bowl into a mixing bowl, and stir in the chilled liquids by hand. The old-fashioned “two-knife” method is awkward and takes too much time.
The amount of liquid will always vary because of the humidity when you mix the dough. Stir in just enough liquid to make the dough clump together. If you need more liquid, use additional ice water.
A large, heavy rolling pin is better than a small, light one, because its weight makes it easier to roll out the dough. If you have a smaller (12-inch) rolling pin, be careful that the edges of the pin don’t dig into the dough while rolling it out. Silicone rolling pins are especially useful because they discourage the dough from sticking to the pin.
Allow enough space to roll out the dough—at least 2 feet square. When I had a small kitchen with no counter space, rolling out pie dough was a feat for a contortionist. I finally went out and bought a large wooden pastry board to set up on my dining room table and roll out the dough with some elbow room. My life as a baker was changed, and I have been happily baking pies ever since.
The technique for rolling out the dough—starting at the center of the dough and moving it a quarter turn after each roll—gradually creates a well-shaped pastry round that doesn’t stick to the work surface. Sprinkle some flour on top of the dough to act as a barrier between the dough and the rolling pin. Flouring the rolling pin doesn’t do anything. To be sure it isn’t sticking, occasionally slide a long metal spatula or knife under the dough. If needed, sprinkle more flour under and on top of the dough.
Pyrex pie pans give the best results. Their transparency allows the baker to see how the bottom crust is browning, and their thickness allows the heat to be more evenly distributed than metal pans. My second choice is a solid aluminum metal pan.
These recipes yield generous amounts of dough. When I was a beginning baker, nothing was more exasperating than making recipes that provided barely enough dough to line the pan. After the pan is lined, simply trim the excess dough from the edges.
Dough scraps can be cut into decorative shapes to garnish the top of a double-crust pie. Gather up the scraps, knead briefly, and reroll to 1/8-inch thickness. Using cookie cutters or a cardboard template, cut out the desired shapes, such as leaves or stars. Arrange them on the glazed crust, then brush the shapes lightly with more glaze. Bake the pie as directed.
To bake crisp bottom crusts, bake the pie on a preheated baking sheet. The pie will be sitting on a flat, hot surface, instead of the oven rack, and will crisp better.
Baking an empty pie shell is called “baking blind.” Sometimes an unfilled crust is only partially baked, which sets the shape and dries the surface, discouraging a soggy bottom crust from developing when it comes in contact with a wet filling. Other recipes call for the pie to be completely baked until golden brown, usually to hold a finished filling. In either case, the raw piecrust would collapse in the oven if not supported with aluminum foil and some kind of weights until it bakes long enough to hold its shape. The amount of fat in the piecrust keeps the foil from sticking, so there’s no need to grease it. Aluminum or ceramic pie weights are a very good investment, as they absorb the oven heat and help crisp the crust. They aren’t cheap, but they last for years. Dried beans and raw rice are inexpensive alternatives, and can be saved in a jar to use a few subsequent times. But they will eventually spoil, so if they have an off smell, toss them out and use fresh beans and rice. You don’t have this problem with pie weights, which is why I think they are the better choice.
As stated above, the dough can be prepared up to 2 days ahead, wrapped in wax paper, and refrigerated. Let stand at room temperature for 10 to 20 minutes to soften slightly before rolling out or it may crack.
The dough can be frozen, wrapped in wax paper and an overwrap of aluminum foil, for up to 1 month. Defrost in the refrigerator overnight.
Unbaked piecrusts can be kept in the freezer in metal pie pans, covered tightly with a double covering of plastic wrap, for up to 2 weeks. (I don’t recommend this for Pyrex pans, because even though they are supposed to be fine going from the freezer to the oven, I still think there is a risk of breakage.) Do not defrost before baking. Bake the frozen piecrusts as directed, allowing an extra 5 minutes. However, unless you have a big freezer, it may be more space-efficient to freeze the unrolled dough.
Make Ahead: See the suggestions above.
Total Timeunder 4 hours
Make Ahead RecipeYes
Five Ingredients or LessYes
- 1½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon vegetable shortening, chilled, cut into ½-inch cubes
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled, cut into ½-inch cubes
- ¼ cup ice-cold water
- 1 large egg yolk
- ½ teaspoon cider or wine vinegar
- 2¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 1½ tablespoons sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon vegetable shortening, chilled, cut into ½-inchcubes
- 5 tablespoons (½ stick plus 1 tablespoon) unsalted butter, chilled, cut into ½-inch cubes
- 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon ice-cold water
- 1 large egg yolk
- ¾ teaspoon cider or wine vinegar
In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, and salt until combined. Using a pastry blender, rapidly cut the shortening and butter into the flour mixture until it is the consistency of coarse bread crumbs with some pea-sized pieces. Do not blend to a fine cornmeal-like consistency. If the fats stick to the wires of the blender, scrape them off.
In a glass measuring cup, mix the ice water, egg yolk, and vinegar. Tossing the flour mixture with a fork, gradually add the ice-water mixture, sprinkling it all over the ingredients in the bowl. Be stingy with the water—you can always add more, but it is difficult to remedy pie dough that is too wet. Mix well, being sure to moisten the crumbs on the bottom of the bowl. Add just enough liquid that the dough clumps together. It does not have to come together into one big ball. To check the consistency, press the dough between your thumb and forefinger. The dough should be moist, but not wet and not crumbly. If necessary, gradually mix in more ice water, 1 teaspoon at a time, until you reach the correct consistency.
Gather up the dough into a thick disk and wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap. If making a double-crust pie, divide the dough into two disks, one slightly larger than the other. Refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 days. The optimum rest period is 2 hours, which allows the dough to relax and chill without becoming rock hard. If the dough is well chilled and hard, let it stand at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes to soften slightly before rolling out.
To roll out a single crust, sprinkle the work surface (preferably a pastry or cutting board) lightly but completely with flour, then spread out the flour with the palm of your hand into a very thin layer. Place the dough on the work surface, then sprinkle the top of the dough with a little flour. Don’t bother to sprinkle the rolling pin with flour—it just falls off. Starting at the center of the disk, roll the dough away from you. Do not roll back and forth. Think of stretching, not rolling, the dough into shape. (If the dough cracks while you are rolling out, it may be too cold. Let it stand for a few minutes to warm up slightly, then try again.) Turn the dough a quarter of a turn. Roll out again from the center of the dough. Continue rolling out the dough, always starting from the center of the dough and turning it a quarter turn after each roll, until the dough is about 13 inches in diameter and 1/8 inch thick. (If you aren’t sure what 1/8 inch looks like, stand a ruler up next to the dough and check. This sounds elementary, but many bakers make the mistake of rolling out the dough too thin or too thick, and until you learn by practice, a ruler is the best insurance.) Be sure that the dough is the same thickness throughout, especially at the edges, which tend to be thicker than the center. Work as quickly as possible so the dough doesn’t get too warm.
Carefully fold the dough in half. If you think the dough is too warm to fold without breaking, and you have rolled out the dough on a cutting board, transfer the entire board to a cool place—if it’s a cold day, outside, on a windowsill, or in an unheated room is fine—for a few minutes to firm up. Transfer the dough to the pie pan, with the fold in the center of the pan. Unfold the dough, letting the excess dough hang over the sides of the pan. Gently press the dough snugly into the corners of the pan. If the dough cracks, just press the cracks together. Gaps can be patched with a scrap of dough, moistened lightly around the edges to adhere it to the crust. Using kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, trim the dough to extend only ½ inch beyond the edge of the pan.
To flute the crust, fold over the dough so the edge is flush with the edge of the pan. Use one hand to pinch the dough around the knuckle or fingertip of your other hand, moving around the crust at 1-inch intervals. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and freeze until ready to use, 20 to 30 minutes.
To roll out a double-crust pie, roll out the larger dough disk, place it in the pan, and trim the edges so they hang about ½ inch over the pan. Fill the pie with the cooled filling, if necessary. Immediately roll out the smaller disk of dough into a 10- to 11-inch round about 1/8 inch thick. Fold the dough in half, position over the filling, and unfold. Press the edges of the two crusts together to seal. Using kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, trim the dough to extend only ½ inch beyond the edge of the pan. Flute the dough as directed in step 6.
1998, 2007 Rick Rodgers