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Pie Crust 101 | Manolo for the Big Girl

Pie Crust 101

“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!

18 Responses to “Pie Crust 101”

  1. E November 13, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

    This is so funny because I too make highly-acclaimed pie crusts, and I use room temperature butter. My secrets are butter and vodka. An all-butter crust always tastes better than a non-butter one. I knead 10 tablespoons softened butter (always let it soften by sitting out; never microwave it) and about a cup to a cup and a half of flour (just enough that it doesn’t stick to your fingers; add it gradually, not all at once) and a couple shakes of salt. Once it’s kneaded to the point that it doesn’t stick to your fingers, add just a splash of very cold water. Knead until it feels moist and slightly sticky. Add about half a shot of vodka or, if you’re making a pie that would taste good with rum, brown rum. Knead. Let chill for about 20-30 mins in the fridge before rolling. Makes one 9-10″ crust.

    Honestly I think that, more than anything, good pie crust is about getting the consistency right. Some people are good instinctive bakers, and other people need a lot of practice to recognize the right consistency.

  2. E November 13, 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    By the way, the purpose of the vodka or rum is to make the crust flakier. Vodka doesn’t add any taste at all; you can taste the rum ever so slightly.

  3. Cate November 13, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

    Love pie crust! I’m a big fan of the two-step method for cutting in butter. Half the butter goes in and gets forked/dough whisked/whatever you prefer into small pea-sized chunks, and the other half then gets put in and turned into cranberry-sized chunks. let it rest a tad, roll it out….and the method you suggested works for me pretty much every time. I think I learned this from a King Arthur Flour book at one point, but I know they have recipes/info/suggestions on their website, which I highly recommend for experienced and novice bakers alike!

  4. apt9000 November 13, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    Thank you for this! I have always had issues with pie crusts so hopefully this will all help. Especially the bit about the resting… I too am not particularly patient so I often go straight from stand mixer to rolling board. And it always ends up too sticky, and it ends up with too much flour and the texture ends up way off. But now I know, and knowing is half the battle. :)

  5. The gold digger November 13, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    E, I also read that the vodka adds moisture without promoting the development of gluten. So you can roll out the crust easily but it doesn’t get tough.

    I use lard in my crust. Very nice and flaky. Is there anything that isn’t enhanced by bacon-related products?

    My grandmother always told me not to overwork the crust (which is essentially what you have said here) to keep it from getting tough (ie, you don’t want to develop the gluten). I, too, rock on pie crust, although I don’t make enough of them that I have ever gotten good with making a pretty fluted edge.

  6. teteatete November 13, 2011 at 5:15 pm #

    I have a natural affinity for pie crusts as well. Well, let me clarify: once I discovered all-butter crusts, I was a natural. Twistie, my hat’s off to you for making perfect crisco crusts!! My grandmother spent hours teaching me and I ALWAYS had a hole in the middle or it was too sticky. Looking back, I think it’s because we didn’t rest the dough. Maybe that was the secret!

    But, butter makes everything better anyway, so I’m not surprised it’s easier. I also like that if I make a woopsie while moving the crust or crimping, I just rub it til the butter melts back in to place.

    A note on Frozen Crusts: if you have a Trader Joe’s close to you, they are a fantastic source for frozen crusts (both puff and non-puff). They are ALL BUTTER. If you ever read the back of a Pillsbury or Pepperidge Farm box, prepare to be disgusted (if you’re as devoted to label-reading as I am).

    Oh, and one other thing: If you’ve managed to get a decent looking piece of dough rolled out but it isn’t perfectly round or if you aren’t good at decorating, many pies can be turned in to galettes where the more rustic looking, the better!

  7. marvel November 13, 2011 at 9:24 pm #

    The best pie crust I ever made resulted from an error in reading the ingredients list: instead of a half-STICK of butter with 1/3 cup Crisco, I put in a half-CUP of butter with 1/3 cup Crisco. Never had a pie crust so soft and flaky. I’ve tried it since following the recipe but it’s not so good. I should make the “mistake” more often…

  8. barbara November 14, 2011 at 12:27 am #

    ooh, some good tips! Mine is along the lines of cool cold ingredients; I make my crusts with cold milk as the liquid. My mom always makes them that way, and I swear they’re flakier than with water.

  9. Miss B November 14, 2011 at 2:35 am #

    My not-secret secrets are: Use a box grater to grate frozen sticks of butter into the flour/salt/sugar/other dry ingredients, mix with your fingertips, and stick the bowl in the freezer for another ten minutes before adding the liquid. Use half cold water/half yogurt or sour cream, plus a good spoonful of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice. Mix with a fork until mostly mixed, and finish with your fingers. Get it into a ball, wrap it up, and refrigerate for at least an hour before rolling it out. Works every time, and bakes up like puff pastry. I’ve come to the conclusion that pie crusts that are perfect after baking have to be kind of icky-looking and probably icky-tasting before rolling out/baking.

  10. Twistie November 14, 2011 at 4:07 am #

    I love that so many of you have yet more tips, tricks, and fun ideas to add to the pot, as it were!

    @E., I’ve certainly heard about the vodka/rum trick, but never used it simply because we don’t normally keep much liquor on hand around here. I’ve thought about trying it, but then I’d have to find ways to use the rest of the bottle. Hmmm… I guess I could do my father’s old trick of making his own vanilla extract by putting a sliced vanilla bean in a bottle of vodka and letting it brew for a couple months.

    @Cate: the two-step method sounds like an excellent guideline. I like it.

    @The Gold Digger: There are, indeed, very few things in life that cannot be improved with bacon and its by products.

    @teteatete: I had never looked at the ingredient list on a frozen pie dough, so thanks for the tip.
    Also? Galettes are fabulous and fun to make. I recently made my very first one and it was really delicious. I made it with pears and pine nuts, and it was a huge hit.

    @Marvel: When you make a mistake like that, stick with it! Speaking of which, have I ever told you about my barley risotto? I made that goof at fourteen, and have continued to ‘goof’ that way when the mood strikes ever since.

    @Barbara: I’ve never tried using milk instead of water. I may just have to do that one of these times.

    @Miss B.: I’ll have to try out your recipe one of these times. It sounds fun!

  11. ChaChaHeels November 14, 2011 at 8:35 am #

    I’ve resorted to buying pie crusts so that pies I make turn out edible–but I have to say I can no longer put up with all the preservatives and science experiment ingredients in those products. There really is no reason not to sell frozen crusts made with flour and butter or flour and lard–nothing else–but that’s not what’s on the market, it’s margarine and Crisco all the way. I know people swear that that stuff makes a better crust, but I can’t imagine how flavourless and unhealthy plastic compounds would make pasty “better”, and that stuff is just not something I want to eat. It also gives me the creeps to know I’d be serving it to people in food I make.

    So I’m going to give it the old college try and follow your advice. I love the idea of giving the crust extra flavour, too. If I just keep failing at it, I can always make tartes–with ground up nuts or other ingredients, filled with things you’d find in pies as well. Sure I’ll miss crusts, but nature has a way of filling the void, right?

  12. SarahDances November 14, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    My big secret with pie crusts, and advice to anyone who struggles with them, is that pie crusts can smell fear! If you start into it believing it will be an unmitigated disaster, it very well may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once you’re convinced you’ve got it licked, find your crust zen (I use a simple all butter, flour, and water recipe out of an old Martha Stewart cookbook), and it’ll never do you wrong.

  13. Rubiatonta November 14, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    You’ve got all my tricks down for “tender as your mother’s heart” crust — everything goes in the fridge the day before (flour, water, fat); work fast and loose; and keep the edges covered.

    As for my fat of choice: lard, lard, lard. Nothing else is as flaky.

  14. E November 15, 2011 at 1:10 am #

    Twistie – Airplane bottles! One tiny bottle makes two pie crusts!

  15. Judith November 15, 2011 at 3:16 am #

    I have eaten Twistie’s pie crust and can vouch for how wonderful it is.

  16. Impkitti November 16, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    I am the Pie-Crust Queen of our group of friends. I often flavor by crusts with added ingredients, but have never used the alternate liquid idea. I think I will try it this Thanksgiving.

    To keep from overworking my crusts, I barely mix in the liquid, then, while still quite chunky, I turn it out onto a flour-dusted linen napkin. Twist the corners up tight like a steamed pudding and give it 4 to 6 good squeezes. All ready to Rest and Roll.

    I roll the crust out on the lightly flour dusted napkin. I find I use less flour and you can turn the napkin to roll out evenly.

  17. Chiken November 16, 2011 at 4:40 pm #

    In my experience, you can either freeze the dough for 10-15 minutes or refrigerate it for 30+ minutes — but in any case letting it rest and get cold again before rolling is imperative. Also, it is much easier to roll without sticking (and to transfer to the pan without breaking) if you place the dough between two sheets of floured plastic wrap.

  18. ZaftigWendy November 18, 2011 at 5:22 am #

    I, too, am a fan of the all-butter crust. And I eschew the pastry cutter because I find it WAY too slow and ineffective. I rub the butter in by hand.

    I also always add a bit of sugar and a GENEROUS pinch of kosher salt to every pie crust.

    I also find that shortbread cookie doughs make lovely pie crusts. They won’t do a crimped edge, but they’re great for freezer pies.