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ingredients and techniques

Let Them Eat Pie: An Instructional Series

meg's picture

As a seasoned baker, I can look back on the past ten years and say with great certainty that learning how to make a proper pie crust has been among my proudest moments in the kitchen. Many an attempt at pie-making has been thwarted by shrunken, greasy crusts. I have done my reading. I have practiced. I have been stoic and stalwart and persistent, and yet pie dough eluded me for so long that it is with a certain degree of pride that I can speak today of how a pie crust should be made. On that note, the first rule is to not beat yourself up if your pie crust doesn't turn out perfectly. I wish there was a silver bullet for pie dough, but really it's all about practice. The good news is that no one will mind eating your practice pies as you *ahem* strive for excellence.

Begin by preparing your ingredients. One of the tricks to perfect pie dough is cold ingredients. Make sure your butter is chilled. I like to cut my butter into small-ish chunks before adding them to the flour. If your kitchen is very warm, you may want to cut up the butter, then refrigerate it for 15 minutes afterward. It's astonishing how quickly butter can soften at warm room temperature, and you want that butter cold! Butter has a low melting point, somewhere between 90˚F and 95˚F. Note that this is lower than your body temperature. This means that the more you handle the dough or the butter, the more likely it is to soften or even melt. Once butter melts, it will never be the same. You can't bring it back.

Having said all this, there's no need to be paranoid. Don't let a rigid idea of what making pastry dough should be like prevent you from doing it. I make pie dough in the summer with room temperature flour and butter that has only been in the refrigerator, not the freezer. I get great results this way. But one easy way to up your game and help ensure success is to keep things nice and cold. If at any point during the process of making pie dough, the butter starts to feel greasy and you suspect things are warming up a smidge too much, throw the whole shebang into the fridge for 10 minutes. Have a nice drink of water, listen to your favorite power anthem, and breathe. Then proceed.

To cut butter chunks into flour, you can use a pastry blender or your fingers. Pastry blenders are cheap little devices that allow you to efficiently cut the butter into smaller and smaller pieces without touching it with your hands. I've often read that you can use two knives for this process, but that sounds like a good way to let your butter heat up too much because the process is taking too long. Using your hands is another perfectly viable method. In fact, it's one I've come to prefer because it allows me to really feel what's going on with the dough. When you "cut in" the butter with your fingers, what you're really doing is flattening the chunks of butter between your fingers. Flatten every chunk of butter, rubbing it into the flour. By the time you've done this, some of the butter pieces will be larger and some will be smaller and some will be tiny. This is good. You do not need the butter pieces to be uniform in size. 

After cutting in the butter, add the ice water a few tablespoons at a time. For most single-crust pie dough recipes, 3 tablespoons of ice water just about does the trick. Double that amount for a double-crust pie dough. If the dough still seems too dry, add more ice water a teaspoon at a time. Dough can go from too dry to too wet really quickly, so it's best to be cautious with amounts. Some folks swear by using vodka in place of half the ice water or by adding some vinegar to the water. These things are fine to do, but I have found that they are really unnecessary. It's all about keeping the butter cold enough and how you handle the dough

Stop adding water when the dough has just come together in a rough ball (many recipes refer to this stage as being "shaggy," and it is just that--there will be shaggy bits of dough that hang off the ball of dough). There should not be a bunch of dry flour left in the bowl. If there is, you should add a bit more water. The dough should be cohesive and not crumbly or cracking. At this point you want to get the dough from mixing bowl to refrigerator fairly quickly. Flatten the ball of dough (if making a double-crust pie, divide the dough in half before flattening it) to about 1 inch thickness, wrap it snugly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes, or up to a few days.

This initial rest allows the dough to hydrate and relax. Those shaggy bits in the dough? Those will disappear as the water you added works its way to every little grain of flour. You'll also have an easier time rolling out the dough if you let it rest because you're giving the gluten in the dough time to relax. Stella Parks at Serious Eats likes to roll out her pie dough immediately rather than letting it rest. She has great reasons for doing this, so you should check out her post too! I still favor letting my dough sit in the fridge for a little bit before rolling, mostly because I usually make my dough right before I make the filling for my pie, so that short rest gives me time to preheat the oven and make my filling without worrying about how warm my kitchen is. And 30 minutes to 1 hour isn't long enough to make the dough stiff. It's still nice and pliable after I take it out of the fridge.

Finally, don't forget that your freezer is your friend. Whenever I make a batch of dough, I double it and freeze the half I'm not using immediately. Wrap the dough in two layers of plastic wrap, then place it in a labeled plastic, zip-top freezer bag. The next time you're planning a dinner and don't know what to make for dessert, just take the dough out of the freezer to thaw overnight, and the battle is half-won.

Not that making pie is anything like battle. In fact, I like to think it's quite the opposite.

My Basic All-Butter Crust

Makes enough dough for one double-crust pie

This recipe is based on JOY's Deluxe Butter Pie Dough. The main difference is that I simply omit the shortening altogether. I find that using all butter yields the most flavorful crust, and if you treat the dough right, you won't lose any of the famed flakiness that shortening imparts.

Combine using a fork or a whisk in a medium bowl:
     2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
     1/2 teaspoon salt

Add and cut in, using a pastry blender or your fingers, until the butter chunks are flattened and the mixture looks mostly consistent:
     1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, well-chilled and cut into cubes 
Add by the tablespoon, stirring with a fork, until the dough comes together in a shaggy, but not dry or crumbly, mass:
     About 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons ice water
Divide the dough in half, handling it as little as possible, and shape each half into a disc about 1 inch thick. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or up to 3 days. You can also freeze the dough for up to a month.


Chris 's picture

How much does this recipe yield? Should I double the recipe for 2 pies?

meg's picture

This recipe makes enough dough for two single-crust pies or one double-crust pie.

Sharon Toji's picture

I normally do increase the recipe, because I have some old-fashioned fairly deep ceramic pans. I like the build the crust up on the sides by cutting strips, and putting two layers around the top, and then pressing my finger down, and pinching together the parts inbetween. This makes a pretty "home-made" pie crust. It can be used with single crust or double crust pies. If you have extra dough, and it's not enough for a few tart shells to freeze for later, you just do what my mother, Bessie Chapin, Mark Becker's mother-in-law did, and make little "snails" with a little butter, sugar and cinnamon for the grandchildren. Put them in a pie pan and bake them, and they are delicious! I ate many as a child, and always make a few now if I have little ones in the house.

john's picture

Awesome! Thanks Sharon!

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