Of all the types of recipes out there, baking recipes can be the most cryptic.
After all, how often do you see phrases like, "Have ready 1/4 cup mirepoix in brunoise" in your standard...
As a somewhat seasoned baker, I can look back on the past five years and say with great certainty that my Achilles heel, my physical albatross, has been pie dough. 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 the proper means of making a pie crust as it is meant to be made.
Begin by preparing your ingredients. One of the tricks to perfect pie dough is cold ingredients. The colder the better. 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 freeze it for 15 minutes afterward. It's astonishing how quickly butter can soften at warm room temperature, and you want that butter cold! Another trick is to freeze whole sticks of butter and grate them into your flour, using a kitchen towel as a buffer between your hand and the stick of butter. This allows you to circumvent having to "cut in" the butter at all. I can never remember to do this, and I've made many, many pies successfully without using this method, but some people swear by it. If you're the sort that keeps "emergency butter" in your freezer, this method may be for you.
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 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.
To cut butter chunks into flour, you'll want to use a pastry blender. These 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 I find this silly. If you'd like to make pie dough more often, invest in a pastry blender. Using two knives would take forever and be pretty awkward, giving the butter ample time to warm up, which is something to avoid. Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly and fairly even-textured. The butter chunks should be the size of small peas. There will be a few larger chunks. This is fine.
You can also use your hands to cut in the butter. I have done this when I didn't have a pastry blender at my disposal, and I can safely say that you can make a good crust this way too. However, it's worth keeping in mind that your hands will warm up the butter as you work, so work quickly and refrigerate the flour mixture if necessary to prevent the butter from melting.
After cutting in the butter, add the ice water a tablespoon 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 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). Don't worry about this. At this point you just want to get the dough from mixing bowl to refrigerator as quickly as possible, handling the dough as little as possible. 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 1 hour, or up to a few days.
This initial rest allows the dough to hydrate and relax. Those shaggy bits and crumbly places in the dough? Those will disappear as the water you added works its way to every little grain of flour. You'll also have a much easier time rolling out the dough if you let it rest because you're giving the gluten in the dough time to relax. Resting helps prevent the dough from shrinking back as you roll it out as well as from shrinking in the oven. Not to mention the fact that you want your butter flecks to firm up again before rolling so you don't end up with a sticky mess. This rest ensures a flaky crust, which is what you want.
I would also like to put in a good word for the food processor here. Purists may balk, but the food processor is a great way to make pie dough. The process of cutting in the butter takes five seconds or so in a food processor, ensuring that the butter doesn't warm up (and also saving you considerable time). The only thing to watch out for is overmixing. When you add the ice water, pulse the dough just until it starts to form a crumbly ball. Grab some of the flour mixture in your hand and squeeze it--it should come together without being very dry or sticky. You want it to just come together. As the dough rests it will continue to hydrate, so even if it seems a smidgen on the dry side, after an hour or so it will come together nicely.
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 menu and don't know what to cook, 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.
Look for the next post in this series on making pie--rolling the dough.
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 much, if any, of the famed flakiness that shortening imparts.
Combine using a fork or a whisk in a medium bowl:
2 1/2 cups chilled all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Add and cut in, using a pastry blender (or use the food processor method discussed above), until the butter chunks are the size of small peas and the mixture looks mostly consistent:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, well-chilled and cut into cubes (alternately, you can freeze the sticks of butter and grate them on the large holes of a box grater into the flour)
Add by the tablespoon, stirring with a fork, until the dough comes together in a shaggy 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 2 hours or up to 3 days. You can also freeze the dough for up to a month.