“Easy as pie” has long struck me as an ironic colloquialism. Oh, not for me. When I pulled my very first pie from the oven as a small child, it was pretty much perfect, and in more than forty years, I’ve still never turned out a bad one. Don’t hate me because I make perfect pie crust.
But it took about two minutes once that golden, flaky crust emerged from the oven to realize that mine was not the common experience. I think that’s about how long it took me to look up from my creation to see my mother banging her head against a wall in frustration because she had never in her life ever made a pie crust that nice. Over the remaining twenty years of her life, she never would, either. My mother was an amazing cook, but pie crust eluded her entirely. From that day forward, pie crust was my bailiwick and mine alone. If Mom wanted a pie, I was the one deputized to bake it.
For Thanksgiving each year, it was my task to bake the pumpkin pies. I loved doing it. To this day I love doing it. And to this day, my crusts turn out perfect. I don’t know why this is so, but they do. Still, over the years I’ve read up on the subject and learned a few tricks and tips that I can pass on to those who don’t have the same natural affinity for pie crust that I apparently was born with. And so I shall.
Keep your ingredients cold. The more your butter/shortening/lard heats up, the more likely you are to wind up with a greasy mess. Heat is not your friend here. Don’t start with room temperature fat; make sure it’s cold when you start working it in. And yes, I find that cooling the flour as well beforehand helps keep the fat cool while working it.
Work quickly. The longer you work your dough, the hotter it gets, and the less likely to turn out well. Whether you’re doing it by hand (my preferred method) or in a food processor, get things mixed as quickly as you can.
Don’t get your fat too well mixed in. When you stop mixing your dough, the butter (or whatever fat you’re using) should still be in visible chunks. You don’t want it in slabs, of course, but when the books talk about ‘pea sized grains’ they mean make sure you can still see where the butter is. If you get it to the point where everything is too smooth, you’ve overworked the dough and your crust will be tough. So keep it grainy and rustic.
Rest your dough before rolling it out. I will admit, I left this step out for years. Then again, for many years I never knew the joy of an all butter crust because Mom taught me to make them with Crisco. I now make my crusts with butter because I think they taste better and I prefer the texture. There was nothing wrong with Crisco crusts, but now that I’ve seen the difference, I much prefer butter. It’s a personal choice. And my unrested dough did just fine, back in the day, but I find that since I started resting the dough by putting it in the refrigerator for half an hour to an hour after mixing it, that I really prefer the results.
You see, not only does keeping the butter cold help to make a flaky crust, letting your dough rest after mixing (and by that I mean forming it into a flattened disk about five or six inches across, wrapping in plastic wrap and setting in the fridge) also relaxes the gluten, making the dough less elastic. That means that when you roll it out it sticks less to the surface, which means you use less flour on your rolling surface, making your crust less likely to turn out tough. It also means that once you roll it out and put it in your pie pan, it’s a lot less likely to shrink. As I said, I usually only rest the dough for half an hour to an hour, but I’m impatient for pie. The longer you let it rest, the more the gluten relaxes, and the better the results. Leave the dough in the fridge overnight for the very best results.
Don’t be afraid to flavor your crust. Look, a basic pie crust is certainly a tasty thing, but I love to add a tiny touch of the unexpected and it’s never let me down yet. When I’m putting together my dry ingredients, I like to add a little bit of the dominant herb or spice that will be in the filling. Tossing in a little ginger or cinnamon for a sweet pie, or a dash of thyme or rosemary for a quiche is something I find tremendously tasty. Polls of happy dinner guests confirm my analysis.
Protect your edges. Crimp a little aluminum foil over the rim of your pie crust so it doesn’t overbake. It’s usually best to do this in about the final fifteen to twenty minutes of the bake time.
If all else fails, there is no shame in frozen pie crust. That’s right, I said it. Not everyone has a natural affinity for pie crust, and not everyone who doesn’t is going to find it worthwhile to spend the time and effort to overcome that particular weakness. No, it’s not the same. And?
Look, in the end, it’s up to you how you get pie on your table. I’ve known a lot of otherwise amazing cooks who just never got the hang of pie crust. My own mother was one of them. She shamelessly used her seven-year-old daughter to get a better pie on the table. If you’ve tried and tried and it’s just not working for you, use the freezer case, or order pie from the bakery. It’s not the end of the world by any means. Getting decent food on the table is more important than whether you made every bit of it from scratch.
Happy pie baking to you all!