Easy as Pie Dough: The Kitchenista's Tutorial for Handmade Pie Crust

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Note... this post was updated 11/26/14, so check the end for some additional tips!

Pies have always been intimidating to me, and most of that is due to the mysteries surrounding the crust. If the crust ain't right, it doesn't matter how good your filling tastes. Every other food blogger out there has their version of THE BEST PIE CRUST RECIPE EVER. Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there is no such thing. There are really sound recipes though, and really good pie crust making techniques, so with a combination of the two I believe anybody can start churning out some respectable pies. My goal in writing this post is simply to share what I've learned thus far in hopes that it helps alleviate some of your pie crust anxiety. Who knows, maybe a year from now I'll be sharing THE BEST PIE CRUST RECIPE EVER - but for now, I'm going to share what has been the most consistent, easiest, delicious pie crust recipe that I've learned to make to date. It is buttery, flaky, thick and just perfect for deep dish pies. And guess what? All you need is your hands to make it. No food processor, no mixer, not even a bowl. If you're ready to jump right into the recipe, feel free to scroll ahead! The list of ingredients and step by step guide below is all you need to get started. However if you're a bit of a food geek like myself and curious to know about the methodology behind it, continue reading.


Questions That Need Answers

Butter, shortening, or a combination? The first pie crust recipe I published was part of my Deep Dish Sweet Potato Pie recipe. That crust is a basic all-butter crust and will work perfectly fine if that's your preference. As I dove into pie baking this summer, I played around with other recipes and have found that adding shortening to my pie dough just yields a more tender crust. If you're firmly opposed to using shortening, hey - I totally get it. There are valid arguments to be made against shortening and I've considered them all. The one thing I will say is that people often argue shortening lacks flavor, however a butter flavored shortening does compensate for that here. The third option of course is lard, which is probably as fantastic for pie crust as it supposedly is for biscuits. But uh....who wants to die that much faster? So this recipe below is a butter/shortening combo (2 parts butter, 1 part shortening to be exact.) And honestly, there's plenty of real butter in the recipe so I don't think any layperson is going to bite into your crust and declare "Ermahgerd, I detect shortening and can't possibly finish this delicious slice of pie." I promise, that won't happen. Adding shortening worked for my Buttermilk Biscuits, so I wasn't too shocked at the revelation here. Also, as I learned from the biscuits - European butter yielded the flakiest pie crusts due to the lower water/higher fat content compared to regular butter. I keep a couple sticks in my freezer at all times so I'm always ready to go. Side note: European-style butter brands like Plugra or Kerrygold come in 1 cup (16 tbsp) packages, which is equal to 2 regular sticks. Just keep that in mind for recipes that provide the measurement by stick(s).

What type of flour is best? One of the questions I get asked the most is if I use White Lily flour for everything. It's indeed pretty awesome for things like biscuits, pancakes, cornbread and fried foods, all due to being made from a soft winter wheat with a lower protein content than most other all-purpose flours. I'm on the fence about the pie crust though. Out of the pies that I've baked, I had better luck using regular flour, specifically King Arthur's. White Lily yielded a crust that was almost so tender it didn't hold up as well to heavier or wetter fillings, and it wasn't easy to guestimate how much flour to use for recipes that weren't written specifically for White Lily. Because I prefer a heartier crust and I wanted to make this recipe easy for anybody to reproduce, I did not use it here (White Lily is typically only available in southern states or through online marketplaces.) Instead, I replaced one cup of my all-purpose flour with cake flour to lighten things up. That produced a harmonious marriage between both worlds and didn't require a trip to any kind of specialty grocery store.

Isn't water all you need to make a crust? Well, yeah, in theory you could make a basic crust with just flour, butter and water. You could also just end up with a total disaster of a pie because *most* of us need a little more help from the baking gods in getting that dough perfect. Enter apple cider vinegar. I'm not a chemist, so my basic understanding is that the acidity in vinegar works against some of the gluten formation (gluten being the "glue" holding everything together and giving structure to baked goods like breads.) Gluten is not your friend when you want something tender like pie crust, but it's inevitable when water and flour mix. The vinegar essentially slows down that process which helps the dough to relax a bit. Dont worry, you don't taste the vinegar at all.

But what about vodka? No, I'm not suggesting you pause here and have a drink (I mean, go right ahead but as a nursing mother I'd be insanely jealous if you did.) If you've done your pie crust research you've undoubtedly come across the Cook's Illustrated recipe which features vodka as a surprise ingredient. The idea behind this is that pie crust dough becomes more pliable as liquid is added, but too much water creates a tough crust when it bakes. Because alcohol evaporates, adding vodka essentially allows you to add more liquid to the dough without affecting tenderness. I don't doubt the science behind this - in fact it's pretty genius. I just don't usually happen to have a bottle of vodka sitting around and if I do the only place it's going to evaporate from is my cocktail glass.  Besides, after finding the proper proportions of fat to flour for this recipe, I really haven't had any issues with dry crumbly pie dough. Adding too much water is so far a problem of the past.

What's the egg for? I have no idea! Just kidding. Well, kinda. I was watching Ree Drummond (aka The Pioneer Woman) make what she calls her Perfect Pie Crust and I saw her stir an egg into the dough. Mind blown. For all the recipes I've tried I'd never seen that, but her crust looked amazing. So I tried her recipe (with tweaked amounts of butter & shortening) and sure enough, it was a keeper. My guess would be that the egg replaces some of the water needed but adds extra flavor, texture and a little color from the yolk. I'm thinking there might be more to this so feel free to explain this one if you're a pastry expert. Either way, Ree's recipe became the basis for the recipe I eventually ended up with below.

Do I really need to chill the dough for an  hour? Yes. Absolutely. If you have the time, overnight is even better. You can even freeze the dough for up to a few weeks. Just thaw frozen pie dough in the fridge the day you plan to bake. If there is one single thing you can do to improve your pie crust, it's allowing the dough ample time to chill. Resting the dough gives it a chance to relax so to speak, making it easier to roll out. That time in the fridge (or freezer) also keeps the butter cold. I cannot stress enough that everything needs to stay cold! If you have a warm kitchen or bake pies in the summer, this might mean stopping to chill your dough several times before your pie ever makes it to the oven. It is what it is...so clear your schedule.

Why do I never seem to have enough dough to roll out for my pie crusts? Good damn question. I always seem to fall short with other recipes and end up stretching and ripping my rolled out dough. Most recipes call for about 2 1/2 cups of flour on average for a double pie crust - this one uses 3 cups. I'm not quite a pie crust rolling expert (that tutorial will have to come later) but I haven't experienced a shortage of dough since switching to this recipe.  It provides enough of an overhang to create a nice thick rim for the crust, but not so much that I'm needing to trim and waste dough. My guess as to why discrepancies like this exist would be that older recipes were made to fit standard pie plates. What many manufacturers are selling today are technically deep dish pie plates (more than 9" across and/or 2" deep.) So check your pie plate measurements, as the size might also be the reason why your crust - and fillings - are coming up short.

Speaking of pie plates, does it matter what type I use? As with any other kind of cooking, the equipment you use can make a difference in the end result. I rely on glass pie plates for most of my pie baking. They are inexpensive, easy to clean and produce consistent results. Glass is a great choice for an evenly cooked crust because it conducts heat gradually - bonus, you can see through it to check progress on the bottom and sides. Metal pie plates will heat up a little faster so you may find that you need to adjust or monitor oven temperature more closely. Just keep the size of the pie plate in mind for the recipe you intend to use, as I mentioned above. Whatever you do, don't use the cheap disposable aluminum pie tins and expect the best results. Unless you're making a ton of pies to sell or otherwise be consumed outside of your home, there's really no reason not to spend a few bucks for a real pie plate.

Do I need to pre-bake my crusts? The technical term for this is "blind baking" and the answer is, it depends. Follow the pie recipe you're making for those instructions. In general, if the filling doesn't need to cook (fresh fruit pies/tarts, instant puddings, icebox pies) you'll need to bake the empty pie shell, for obvious reasons. For some custard style pies it can be helpful (but not always necessary) to partially bake the crust before pouring in the filling to prevent it from getting soggy. I didn't include those instructions here because I don't do it often and therefore don't have any photos to include for this post. There is a great guide over at The Kitchn if you'd like to read up on blind baking though.

Can I use the same recipe for savory pies? By all means, yes! This recipe would be excellent for pot pies or savory galettes, in fact that might be my next adventure. I typically don't add any sugar to my pie dough because I make it ahead of time just to have on hand, and it's nice to be able to grab a disc from the freezer and use it for any recipe. When I bake dessert pies, I like to sprinkle raw sugar over the top of the crust which adds a nice decorative sparkle and a little sweetness. If you do prefer a sweeter crust, feel free to add up to a couple tablespoons of sugar to the flour mixture. You can also add things like vanilla, black pepper, or even chopped thyme depending on the pie you're making and how you'd like to enhance the crust. Use your creativity!

These mini blueberry pies were one of the first trials of my new pie crust recipe!

Easy as Pie Dough: The Kitchenista's Pie Crust Recipe & Tutorial

Ingredients:
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. cake flour, plus more for dusting
1 tsp kosher salt
1 c. frozen European style butter
1/2 c. frozen butter-flavored shortening
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
5 tbsp cold water

Servings: Makes enough dough for 1 double crust or 2 single crust pies; ideal for up to 9½ x 2" pie plates
Prep Time: 15 min, plus 1 hour minimum rest in refrigerator
Cook Time: 0 min
Equipment: Plastic wrap & resealable plastic bags for storage recommended. A dough scraper is pretty helpful for this technique.

Recipe adapted from Ree Drummond's Perfect Pie Crust

Below you'll find some recommended cooking tools that I've personally selected. If you follow an affiliate link and go on to purchase that product, I will be paid a small commission (however your cost will always be the same!)


Instructions:

Gather your ingredients before beginning.  I like to lay out my plastic wrap on the counter so that I don't have to roll it out with messy hands later on. Combine the apple cider vinegar and cold water in a small cup with a couple ice cubes to keep it chilled. If you'd like, add a splash of vanilla extract for dessert pies. You should already have your butter and shortening in the freezer (butter will harden once frozen but shortening will probably remain fairly soft.) Now, just chop up the butter and shortening roughly using a sharp knife. Don't worry about making perfect cubes, just chop it up into 1/2" pieces or so. When you're done, slide it back into your fridge until needed.


If you learn nothing else from this tutorial, pay attention to to the next step.

Measure your flour accurately! I'm not a pastry chef so while some of these things may be common knowledge to bakers, for me this was a light bulb moment. I've always dipped my measuring cup right into the bag, packed it with flour and leveled it off in the bag (trying to prevent a mess I guess.) When I saw the "proper" way to measure flour though, I understood I'd been adding too much to my pie dough this way - and that's probably why I ended up with a pile of crumbs and had to compensate with more water.

Using a scoop or a large spoon, stir up the flour a bit. Scoop up some flour and drop it into your measuring cup. Repeat until flour reaches the top of your measuring cup, and level it off so the excess flour falls to the sides. That's right...don't dip the measuring cup into the bag of flour. Bring the flour to the cup. I do this in a shallow dish so that it collects the extra flour, which I can then dump back into my bag (or use for flouring my counter later.) King Arthur's guide also explains this tip here.

It takes a little longer doing it that way, but you'll get a more accurate measurement. Most professional baking is measured by weight, which eliminates these issues. Flour is about 4.5 ounces per cup. If you have a scale at home go ahead and compare the weight measuring flour the "right" way and the "wrong" way. I was shocked to see how much heavier it was when I dipped my measuring cup into the flour and packed it in before leveling off. I was adding way too much flour to my recipes that way.


You'll measure the cake flour the same way. For the sake of being as detailed as possible, it's the excess cake flour from leveling off the measuring cup that I keep on hand to use for flouring my pie dough later on when it's time to roll it out. There's plenty of fat in this recipe, so you don't have to worry much about drying out the dough during the rolling process...but I figured it just makes more sense to use the finer flour for extra insurance.

Oh, and a mixing bowl? Nope. You don't need it. Dump all 3 cups of flour right onto a clean flat surface. It works for pasta, why not pie crust? One less dish to clean!


The only thing you need to add to the flour is salt (it needs to be seasoned with something after all.) Just measure out a teaspoon or a heavy pinch with your hand and add that to your flour. If you're adding sugar, go ahead and do that now too.


Use your fork to sift through the flour just to incorporate the salt and mix the two flour textures together.


Now get out that chilled butter and shortening and dump it onto your pile of flour.


Here's the fun part. I used to do this with a pastry blender, but then I saw a cool video clip where the guy just pulled the dough together in 20 seconds right on the counter top. I'm not that good, but it did point me in a better direction than starting in the bowl.

Quickly using your fingertips, toss the butter and shortening so that it's covered with flour. Key word quickly - from start to finish the the next couple steps should only take a minute. You don't want the butter to start melting at any time.


Now use the heel of your hand to flatten out the pieces of butter and shortening. With your hand palm down, drag the heel of your hand into the flour and push it away from you. Use your dough scraper to gather the pile of flour back to the center as it starts to spread out. These are quick, fluid motions that you'll repeat several times to work all the butter into the flour. After a few times you'll get the hang of it. You can't really mess this up, it's just a matter of learning what to feel for vs. traditional techniques of making pie dough.


When you've gotten the chunks of butter flattened out, things should look like this. The dough will feel soft, sandy and have a yellowish appearance. You'll see coin-size flakes and pebbles of butter throughout - that's perfect. If any of the chunks look too big, just flatten them between your fingers.


I knew I was on to something when I got to this part, because things just felt better than when I've tried to pulse butter in the food processor or cut it with a pastry blender. You'll know what I mean when you try it. There's something about using your hands to work the fat into the flour that yields a different dough. It's not dry at all, even before adding any water.

If you sense that the butter is melting at this point, go ahead and scrape it all into a bowl and transfer that to the fridge for a few minutes to firm back up. Otherwise, keep going. I rarely need to stop at this point, but if you got distracted or maybe have really warm hands, you'll need to intervene.

Use your dough scraper to gather the flour back together. Make a small well in the center and pour in the beaten egg. Add 5 tablespoons of the chilled water & vinegar mixture. Just 5. There will be liquid left in your cup.


Use your fork or dough scraper to quickly - but gently - incorporate the surrounding flour into the well of liquid, so that it all gets moistened and forms a loose dough. If you've ever made fresh pasta, this will be familiar. Your dough scraper can be used to catch any escaping liquid. As areas of the dough are moist enough to stick together, push them to the side. You can drizzle extra water over remaining areas that need a bit more help to moisten up. You should end up using 5 to 7 tbsp of the water to get the dough to a good consistency.


Toss the mixture around a bit to ensure that it's evenly moist. If there's an area of loose dry crumbs, press it into the dough. Only if you absolutely need to, wet your fingers to moisten any areas that won't stick. The pie dough is good when you can pinch it together with your fingers and it holds. Don't worry if it's not completely smooth - that's where the resting time helps.


Gather the dough together into a ball and just ever so slightly knead it a couple times so it all holds together.


Updated 11/26/14: I'm inserting a new series of steps here, because I found that this helps make the dough a lot more pliable when you roll it out! 

After forming your dough into one big ball, wrap it up in plastic and stick in the freezer for 30 minutes to chill. Unwrap and dump it back out onto a lightly floured surface.


Smash the dough out with the heels of your palms until it's one big sheet. It might still be a little crumbly, and that's fine.


Fold the dough onto itself several times, just like you would if you were folding biscuit dough. Use your dough scraper as much as you can, besides being a good tool it'll prevent your hands from warming the dough too much.


Then smash it out again, lightly dusting with flour. You'll notice it's a lot smoother this time around.


Fold it onto itself on more time.


Then gather it together into a giant ball again, and use your dough scraper to cut it in half.


Wrap each half in plastic, forming into a disc shape. If you want to be precise you could weigh each half on the scale but I usually just eye ball it.


You can store the pie dough in the freezer if you don't need it right away - just use within a few weeks, thawing in the fridge the day you plan to bake. Otherwise, chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour or two - ideally overnight. The more time the dough rests, the gluten relaxes and the flavor develops a little bit more! This updated process of flatting and folding up the dough not only helps some flaky layers form in the dough, but it makes it smooth and pliable and will be easier when you roll it out. I'd like to give credit to Chez Pim for inspiration behind the pie dough folding technique!


For an extra visual, here's a comparison to how taking those last few steps changes the consistency of the dough a bit. This first collage below is from rolling out the dough after it rested, the usual way you'd proceed with most recipes after mixing your dough and separating into two rounds. It bakes up beautifully, but rolling it out sometimes led to more cracking and patching needed than I was really happy with.


And here is the dough, after a 30 minute chill, followed by folding it a couple times as described below, and then chilling again before rolling it out. This is the dough I'd dreamed about. It rolls out like a dream and blankets the pie shell, no cracks or jagged edges to patch up! Because of the cake flour, egg and vinegar in this recipe, you have quite a bit of insurance to prevent it from being overworked. As long as you don't beat it to death, I think you'll love the results of taking this extra step to work the dough a little bit.


#Lifehack: If you haven't yet discovered the glory that is an individual/mini pie (or free form galette) what are you waiting for? Divide this pie dough recipe into 6 to 8 discs and store them in the freezer. You now have a perfectly portioned crust ready to go whenever the mood for pie strikes you... just bake it in a ramekin, mini pie plate or make a free form galette. It's especially easy to do in the summer when berries and stone fruit are plentiful. I love being able to have pie without the guilt of baking a whole one!


You can use this dough for any recipe that calls for standard pie crust - dessert pies, pot pies, galettes, tarts, hand pies... you name it. Ready to go? Stay tuned for my next recipe and learn how to create this delicious Balsamic Strawberry & Blackberry Pie... with a step by step guide to making beautiful lattice crust tops!



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