Pie crust 101

photos courtesy of Tasty Kitchen Blog and Google images

First, I want to note that there are gazillions (yep, gazillions) of pie dough recipes out there. How the world continues to come up with new ones is beyond me. At the very base, they’re all just some type of solid fat (butter, shortening or lard) cut with powdery ingredients (flour, salt and sometimes sugar) bound with a liquid (usually water, but some folks get creative with egg, milk, cream, buttermilk or vodka).

Each year, so many cooking publications feel a need to pronounce that they’ve found the perfect pie dough. But in my mind, it was never lost.

I’ve been meaning to post a “how-to” on pie crust for a while now, and finally — here it is. So let’s get started shall we?

First off, tools. You don’t need fancy tools to make a good pie crust. The essentials are a mixing bowl, measuring cups and spoons, a pastry cutter, a rolling pin and a pie plate.

My Grandma — who taught me how to make pie — used a fork and two knives to do the mixing on her dough. I am a fan of the humble pastry blender. But if you wanna roll old school, do as Grandma did. These same steps could be taken with your food processor, but can I just say, try to resist the temptation to use gadgets. It’s so easy to overwork the flour and end up with a tough crust. Stay simple friends.

Now is the time in the discussion where I should join-in on the great butter vs. shortening debate, but you can get that elsewhere. My Grandma was sold out for Jesus and Crisco, so shortening is what I use. However — about 1 1/2 years ago I changed my recipe to be half shortening, half butter. Purely because according to Grandma, nothing makes a pie crust flakier than shortening, but in my opinion, butter makes everything taste better. So, 1/2 and 1/2 I went.

Before anything else, dice your butter into cubes, and measure out your shortening, and throw them in the freezer. It is vital — essential even — that these ingredients are cold before you add them to the flour mixture.

You’ll need 3 cups of flour for one, double-crust pie, plus two teaspoons of salt and two tablespoons of sugar. Whisk all of these dry ingredients together.

Then add the cold butter and shortening. Using a pastry cutter, cut the fat into the flour. Some pie makers turn this step over to their food processor. Please resist the temptation!

The motion with the cutter is down and twist your wrist one quarter turn. Down and twist. Continue this motion until the flour has been worked into the butter and shortening and your dough resembles small peas. Don’t overwork the dough at this point.

Then you’re gonna add your ice cold water to the mixture a tablespoon at a time. This is really important because sometimes the temperature of your kitchen, humidity, elevation, etc. will alter the amount of water you use. Too much water and your crust is too doughy.

Using a fork, you bring the dry ingredients together with the water. Tablespoon of water, slight mix, water, slight mix, and so on and so on. Keep adding a tablespoon of water until it starts to come together.

Dump out the dough onto a floured surface — don’t be shy on the floured counter — and bring it together into a ball. Cut the dough in half, wrap each half in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or up to a day. This allows the gluten in the flour to rest, and it will make it easier to roll out.

Yay!!! You made pie dough. Congratulations. 🙂 Let’s bake it now, shall we?

Remove one ball from the refrigerator and turn onto your nicely floured work surface. As I said before, don’t be shy about the flour if you are rolling out on a counter or cutting board. It’s not fun to have your dough stick.

Work the dough with your rolling pin, applying gentle pressure. Roll away from you, then turn the dough a half turn and roll away from you again. As you turn the dough, make sure to add more flour underneath as needed.

Continue this until your dough is about a 12″ circle for a 9-inch pie plate and about 1/8 inch thick. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but if you don’t trust yourself with eyeballing it — whip out a ruler.

Many pie makers will tell you to fold your dough in quarters then gently lift it into your plate. Yeah, I don’t do that.

Just gently roll the dough over the top of your rolling pin, slip the plate under, center and roll the dough into the plate. Boom.

When it comes to pie plates, it’s not necessary to go fancy. I usually use my Grandma’s ceramic pie plate, but obviously, not all of you have access to this. If you come bake with me, I’ll let you use it. My second choice, is a simple pyrex pie plate. It’s like $4 at Target. It bakes evenly, and I’m a believer in inexpensive kitchen tools.

The next step is important. Working around the pie, lift the edges of the dough and make sure the dough is snugged into the corners of the pie plate without stretching the dough. This will keep your dough from slipping down when baking.

If you are making a double crust pie, roll out the top at this point.

Fill the pie with your filling. Roll the top over the rolling pin, carefully center it over the pie, and roll into place. Trim around the pie using kitchen scissors or a knife, leaving about a 1/2-inch overhang.

I flute the edge of the pie by using a thumb and two index fingers, folding the edge, crimping and fluting as you go. Follow the same process for a double crust pie.

Finish your double crust pie by brushing the top with milk or egg wash and sprinkling the surface with sugar to make a lovely crisp sheen on your crust. If you didn’t before, make sure to cut vents for steam.

And trust me on this one: once you fill your pie, bake it immediately.

Let me leave you with a note of encouragement. The first few pie crusts I made tasted good but weren’t very pretty. They still don’t always come out picture perfect. I’ve had a few epic failures, and I’ve lived and learned and gotten better with every crust. It’s a skill worth working at — who doesn’t love pie?

There are many ways to make a great pie crust, this is simply one method. But it’s a good one. It creates a flaky, tender, delicious pie crust every time. This tutorial is mostly about technique, and could be applied to other recipes.

If you’re geographically close to me, I’d be happy to bake pie with you. Happy baking.

Pie Dough

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) very cold unsalted butter
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup very cold shortening
6 to 8 tablespoons (about 1/2 cup) ice water

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