Kitchen 101: Secrets of Perfect Pie Crust

November 23, 2015

If you’ve been watching my Instagram or Twitter feeds lately, you’ve seen that I’ve been completely and totally preoccupied with pies. 

Being engrossed in all things PIE at this time of year has to be the most luxurious pass time I can imagine; the sun sets too quickly now, leaving fewer hours that are light enough (or warm enough) to be exploring outside and so what better way to spend the remains of the day than drinking wine, rolling pie crust, and filling the house with smells of toasted cinnamon + sugar + butter? 

Now, I recognize that pies give more than a few of you anxiety because they are often multi-step projects that – when life gets busy and science gets weird – can turn out being less fantastic than the pie dreams you had prior to embarking on your own journey of butter/sugar/love. It’s true: pie making from scratch requires a few significant steps, that are best carried out when you know the little secrets to making a pie stellar. Lucky for you, you have a friend like me who’s willing to share the magic. (And, there are a few links to my favorite pie crusts below so you can get cracking once you’re in the know!)

So, without further ado – I give you the secrets of perfect pie crust:

  • There is no such thing as perfect. I’m a very strong believer that there is no “perfect” anything, in life or in the kitchen, and at best everything we create is a work in progress that is tweaked and molded to be just a smidge better as we go along. Pie crust is no different. Just by attempting your own pie crust from scratch, you’re one step closer to a perfect homemade pie because you didn’t spend one moment in a grocery store line to buy one. The end. 
  • Shortening is for the birds. Butter is for pie crust. Lots of pie crust recipes call for shortening (in some proportion.) Your grandmother’s recipe called for lard and I’m sure it made a freaking delicious pie. I detest both in pie crust  – for the taste, the texture, the mouthfeel. I will stand on my all-butter pie crust soapbox for the rest of my days. A scientifically-savvy Grandma would tell you that “shortening and lard have higher melting points than butter. This means that the longer it takes for the fat to melt, and the longer the fat holds the flaky layers of dough so the flakier your pie crust has the propensity to be. Makes sense, right? Unfortunately, what Grandma didn’t factor in was that butter has more water in it, which evaporates as steam when your pie bakes. As those little steam pockets take shape, they puff up the structure of a flaky pie crust. In a nutshell: butter has a lower fat content than shortening/lard, and makes for a lighter finished crust. And, butter is flavorful, unmysterious, and doesn’t leave a strange film on your tongue when you eat it. And, to be honest, if you make your pie crust the proper way, it doesn’t matter which fat you use anyway (because that water in the butter won’t evaporate out if you handle your dough properly!) So, how do you handle your dough properly?
  • Keep it cold. Like reeealllly effing cold. When I worked as a stage at Spago, we used frozen butter and ice water to make our doughs. That’s right. ICE COLD. Great, flaky pie crust starts with cold cold cold cold butter. If you looked at butter under a microscope, you’d see that all those tasty milk solids in butter are suspended in water. These milk solids have a little bit of oil in them and, when butter starts to warm up, those molecules of oil, water and butter solids start to separate. If these molecules are all loose when you pop your pie in the oven, you’ll have a total breakup of the butter band in the oven. The water will evaporate, the oil will slip away from the butter solids, and those solids will burn. WHICH will look like a greasy, mis-shapen pie crust mess. By keeping the butter uber-cold, the band stays together and the water in the butter will just begin to steam out as your pie bakes, making your crust flaky (see above.) How to keep your (butter) cool: cube the butter then refrigerate it if your kitchen is too warm. Don’t pull the butter from the refrigerator until seconds before you incorporate it into the dough. Don’t answer the phone, or take a sip of wine, or make out with your honey while the butter or dough are out on the counter. And once the dough is combined, wrap and refrigerate it as fast as possible. The butter, and the dough ought to remain cold to the touch through your entire dough making process. 
  • Use a food processor OR a pastry blender, but never use your hands. There are lots of camps that gasp with horror when I say I use a food processor w/a dough attachment to make pie crust, but I stand by this decision. Particularly when I’m making a large quantity of dough. Why? Because this way the dough comes together fast – fast enough that I don’t have to worry about the temperature in the kitchen starting to warm up that butter! The downside to the food processor? If you don’t know what to look for, you could over work it or cut the butter into undetectable chunks (which means less flaky dough.) Also, there are more dishes to clean up because the processor has lots of moving parts to wash. Using a pastry blender is a completely excellent (and far more romantic) way of making dough and when I have the time, I love using this method. The bottom line, do NOT use your hands. Do not use two knives. Do not use a fork. Take your pie crust seriously and use the right tool. Your hot little hands will warm up the butter in the dough so save them for other, um, worthy holiday tasks!
  • Don’t work (the dough) too hard. You’ve all heard of gluten by now; the protein that develops when water and flour meet. This protein is responsible for creating the structure that holds bread (and pie crust!) together. Similar to lifting weights at the gym, the more you work (or workout) the dough, the bigger, tougher and more substantial the protein structure of your dough will be. Tough dough is not delicious in a pie, but wimpy dough is divine. Try to work your dough as little as possible while still incorporating all the ingredients. Don’t pound, don’t knead into oblivion, don’t muscle your way through pie dough. Just barely handle it, like the chick that doesn’t break a sweat on the treadmill, until everything just barely comes together. 
  • Visible butter leads to visibly flaky pie crust. Most recipes, particularly those that suggest using a food processor, tell you to pulse the dry ingredients with the butter until it forms a coarse texture with pea-sized pieces of butter visible before you add the liquid. Then you mix the dough until just combined. The problem with following this approach to a tee is that by the time you’ve incorporated the liquid into the dough, you’ve totally destroyed all those lovely pockets of butter that make your crust flaky, AND you’ve overworked the dough. Instead, you want to try to maintain some of those great buttery patches. Why? Because when those little pockets of dough hit the oven, the butter melts, creating tiny little pockets in the flour surrounding it. The water that suspends all those yummy little milk solids starts to evaporate creating steam and lifting those little pockets up. These little pockets ARE the flakiness in your pie crust. If the pockets are indetectable and tiny, you have fewer flakes in the crust. How to keep the big chunks of butter as you mix the dough? When using a food processor, pulse the dry ingredients a few times to combine them, then add the butter pulsing until the largest chunks are incorporated. Then, add your ice cold water and pulse until the dough starts to come together in little round balls, but stop pulsing before the dough becomes a solid ball. This takes more attention than if you just set the ingredients into the food processor and let them spin, but it’s worth it. I promise. 
  • Keep alcohol out of pie crust business. Unless your drinking it as you’re mixing. Rumor has it that the alcohol in some pie dough recipes acts as a gluten inhibitor and this helps keep your pie crusts maintain a nice texture. Again, if you handle your dough properly, you won’t need a secret ingredient to make this happen. Just remember to use a tool to mix your dough, mix it until just barely combined, and you won’t have to employ alcohol to help the process (again, unless you’re drinking while making pie which I actually highly recommend.) Feel your dough. No, really. I mean it. Whether you mix your pie dough in a food processor or with a pastry blender, you’re going to touch it at some point and learn a few things about it. Hopefully, it feels supple, not hard or resistant. Hopefully it feels just a little bit tacky, but not sticky in the least. BUT, if it is neither of those things, here’s what to do.

– If your dough is really resistant: let the dough rest a full 40 minutes before handling it again. Simply shape it into a circle, wrap it tightly in plastic and refrigerate it. Letting the dough rest allows the gluten to relax so that you can roll it out more easily.

– If your dough is really sticky: before you go to roll out the dough, use a VERY small amount of flour to dust each side of the dough, then sandwich it between two pieces of plastic wrap or parchment. Roll it out to the recommended size between the plastic, then, peel one side of the plastic or parchment off and lay the dough into the pie pan. This prevents your hands from warming it, from the dough getting stuck on the counter top, and from you getting frustrated. 

 

Ready to get busy w/that pie? Here are a few of my favorite recipes to try out.

A Favorite Whole Grain Pie Crust (best for fruit pies!)

-Maple Sugar Shortbread Crust for Pumpkin Pie

Lemon + Thyme Pastry (for Fig + Berry Galette!)

Enjoy these, and all the buttery mischief they require!

I’ll be back later this week with an all new pie recipe…just in time for the rest of the celebrating/feasting/merrimaking! Here’s hoping your holiday is off to a bright start! – xo L

 

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2 Comments

  • Reply Trudy zahler November 23, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    What a great article…..funny and very informative. Yeah for butter!!

    • Reply Lentine Alexis November 23, 2015 at 4:40 pm

      Thanks Trudy! 🙂

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