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ingredients and techniques

Let Them Eat Pie: Rolling Pastry Dough

meg's picture

There are approximately 53 pie recipes in the Joy of Cooking, the vast majority of which call for flaky pastry dough. You could go through life only making pies with crumb crusts, and that would be a tasty existence indeed, but there are some pies where a crumb crust simply will not do. And pie dough is easy to make. Really. If our forebears could turn out legendary pies without refrigeration, without air conditioning, and with temperamental wood stoves and hearths, we can easily do the same. The only thing we are lacking today that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers possessed is confidence and the heirloom know-how that used to be passed down from mother to daughter. Confidence is gained through making pie dough over and over and over, making mistakes, fixing those mistakes, and remembering not to make the same mistakes the next time around. The know-how is what we're here for.

The trickiest, most accident-prone aspect of making a pie crust is the rolling process. This is my opinion, of course. There are lots of other places where pie dough can go from lovely to lamentable, but the rolling seems to be the point where a lot of would-be pie bakers go wrong.

I have discovered why unsuccessful or inferior crusts are so common--pie dough can sense fear. Of course there is more to it than that. It does matter what kind of flour you use, if you overwork the dough, what kind of fat and how much you use...but the clincher, and perhaps what is hardest to understand, even more difficult to explain, is that it matters how you approach your dough.

After giving the dough a long rest in the refrigerator, it may be tough and unyielding. Let the dough rest for several minutes at room temperature. If you try to roll out a very cold, very hard piece of dough, it will crack. This is not the end of all things, but you can save yourself the frustration.

Lightly but evenly flour your work surface. Roll out the dough with intent, pausing to rotate the dough to prevent sticking. This is crucial. One of the more common mistakes I see in this regard is the cook moving around the dough, approaching it warily from every direction. You must move the dough rather than letting the dough move you. Move it constantly. After every stroke of the pin, rotate the dough. At any sign of sticking, throw a little flour underneath and keep going. At first, this will feel awkward, but you will come into your own soon enough.

Once rolled, the dough should be approximately 1/8-inch thick. A common pastry mistake is to roll the dough so that it is thicker in the center than at the edges. This is to be avoided because thinner places in the dough will brown (read: burn) more quickly than thicker areas. To prevent this, try using a French rolling pin (a wooden pin that is thick in the middle and tapered at the ends) and refrain from rolling the dough to the very edges. Roll from the center of the dough to within 1 inch of the edge, rotate, and repeat.

Once you've rolled your dough, transfer it to the dish you intend to use. Wind the dough around your rolling pin, making sure it is floured and will not stick to itself. Unroll the dough over the dish, and gently press it into the corners of the pan. Trim any excess dough, leaving an overhang of about 1/2 to 1 inch. Chill the dough immediately for about 30 minutes.

If you should be so lucky as to have a marble rolling pin (and if you do a lot of pie baking or have any interest in flaky pastry doughs, such as croissant, I recommend getting one), use it for this application. You should not need to bear down on the pin at all, as it is significantly heavier than a wooden pin. Marble pins are marvelous to work with, since their mass and conductivity keep the dough cooler. Should you own a marble slab and a marble rolling've got it made. Just remember to turn the dough as you roll and you're set.

Don't miss the next installment of this series, where I will discuss blind baking a pie crust.


Becky P's picture

I've inherited my mother's "pie crust paranoia." She was a wonderful cook but said that she could never make a good pie crust. I figured that if she couldn't make one, I certainly couldn't, so I've stuck with the pre-made refrigerated crusts whenever I've made pies.

No more! I too shall (without trepidation) make a perfectly tender, flaky crust for my next pie. Thanks for the great directions!

meg's picture

Awesome! I had a lot of trouble with pie crust, too, until I got the roll and turn, roll and turn, roll and turn thing down. It really prevents your dough from sticking. Also, if your crust is very cold, don't be afraid to let it warm up a bit. Just remember that butter starts to melt at about body temperature--most home kitchens never get this hot, so you don't have to be paranoid about it.
Good luck!

JillB1204's picture

I agree that roll and turn is important too. I also make sure that I make the crust the day before I bake it. It gets firm, and rolls out like a breeze. For those who can do it, I also replace half of the water with vodka. The vodka evaporates and leaves a really good buttery and crisp crust...

Karen's picture

vodka! interesting, I just saw an old recipe for empandada dough that called for dry white wine..I thought at first it was a joke and the wine was for the cook, but no! I used it and my dough has been coming so beautiful! light, airy, flaky...I never thought I would get there, but I did! so next time I will try the vodka...thanks

SuzieQ's picture

I can cook/bake anything- except a pie crust! And I really think that a pastry dough CAN feel your fear. However, I'm ready to try again and this is the method I'll use. One of the first cookbooks I bought when I got married almost 41years ago was The Joy of Cooking. It is very well used! I'm thinking it may be time to but the75th Anniversary Issue. So happy I found your web site!

meg's picture

Hi SuzieQ!
Great to hear that you're ready to get back on the horse! If you have any questions or need some troubleshooting help, please leave a comment and let me know.

jerseysuek's picture

Thank you Meg for this! I've "tried" to roll out dough on the counter before but failed. Now I've done it 3x with great success!! Turn, turn, turn is the secrete. I've always used waxed paper, but needed to master on the counter. Got an apple pie in the oven as I type. Soooooo happy I've found this site!!!

Standard dude's picture

I love the action shot, blurry hands - whoosh! :D Making pastry rolling cool again.

Lucille Surette's picture

The only home-ec class I missed in my entire school life is the one on making dough and pie crust. This has inspired me. After all if I fail, the sky will not fall and I can try and try again.

Robert Yarnold's picture

It is not true that a marble rolling pin stays 10° cooler than ambient. This contravenes the laws of Physics. The marble will be at room temperature - say 70° -and is a good conductor of heat compared to wood. So when you touch it it cools down your skin, which is potentially at body temperature of 98°, so the marble feels cold.

john's picture

You're right Robert. Thanks for catching that!

Adele Keyes-Raines's picture

When I got married to my chef husband in 1957, he came to the marriage with the original copy of "The Joy of Cooking." As a newlywed, I read that front to back and repeated. Then after a year of marriage, he upgraded. That to got read more than once. Like so many, it became my "bible". Thanks to all the Rombauer family members for a lot of happy memories.

john's picture

On behalf of all Rombauers and Beckers past and present, your welcome and thank you!

Kelly Otas's picture

This airy effect can also be achieved with a little baking powder. It does the same thing the vodka did in your dough, and is a good substitute for alcohol.

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Note: Mezcal joven is unaged mezcal, so it will look clear like silver tequila.
2 medium ripe pears, cut into 8ths lengthwise (I used Bartlett)