Pie Crust Primer
1. You can make crust by hand, or you can make it in a food processor. Depending on how many batches of crust I am working on, I alternate between the two. If I’m making one pie, then I just do it by hand – it means having fewer dishes to wash after I’m done, and I’m generally not a fan of washing the dishes, perhaps because I do it so much. If I’m making multiple batches, I stick to the food processor – it has more wattage than my forearms, and though I’m pretty strong for my size, the food processor is stronger. However, if you’re a pie crust novice, I strongly recommend that you do it by hand. Why? Because you will get a much better feeling for texture and wetness of the dough when you’re observing it first hand. Also, it’s much harder to overwork the dough when you see it in front of you, rather than when it’s in a food processor bowl behind a layer of plastic.
2. Keep everything cold. The bowl, the pastry cutter, the knife (with which I cube the butter) – all go in the fridge before I make the crust. Sometimes, when it’s a very hot day, I measure out my dry ingredients and stick the bowl, with the dry ingredients, in the freezer for 5 to 10 minutes. It makes a difference. When I cube the butter, I put it on a pre-chilled plate and place the butter in the freezer for about 5 minutes to firm up again.
3. Butter vs. shortening vs. leaf lard. Look, I’ve eaten many a pie in my day and there are folks who swear by shortening, folks who swear by leaf lard, and folks who swear by that vodka in your pie crust Cook’s Illustrated recipe. Me – I’m an all butter girl. And yes, I’ve tried all those other versions and aside from my general dislike of shortening, I think that if you can achieve crust perfection with a minimum of ingredients, you’re in better shape. To me, an all butter crust just tastes the best. It also makes it easy for me to serve pie to my friends and family who don’t eat pork.
4. Visible pieces of butter. While I wouldn’t say this is the most important point, this is the most important point to read for most people who feel like making their own pie crust has been a frustrating experience. You’ll see many recipes and instructions on how you’re supposed to see pieces of butter in your pie dough. Visible butter = flakiness. The pieces of butter create little steam vents in the oven as the moisture evaporates from the butter, creating small air pockets, which in turn, give you flaky crust that shatters lightly when you bit into it or break it off with your fork. If you don’t see the flakes of butter in your dough while you’re rolling it out, chances are you’ve overworked the dough. Not all is lost, you can still make decent pie with it, but for the crust that dreams are made of, aim for small pieces of butter. The trick, really, is how to get there? And this is where my primer will differ from the rest. Most instructions/recipes/blog posts will tell you to incorporate your pieces of butter with your dry ingredients until the butter is the size of peas. But I am going to recommend that you work your butter in only until it is broken into pieces the size of lima beans or slightly larger. Keep in mind, your butter will be in different size pieces (it is virtually impossible to get them to be all the same size), but you’re aiming for 3/4 of the butter pieces to be the size of lima beans or slightly larger. How big is a lima bean, you might wonder? I’d say it’s about the size of 2 to 3 peas. You will then drizzle in your ice water and incorporate it into your dough, at which point, those larger pieces of butter will become smaller, pea-sized, which is what you want when you chill your dough. If you’re starting with pea-sized butter pieces BEFORE you add the water, then your butter will pretty much be fully incorporated into your dough by the time you’re ready to chill it.
5. Flouring the counter, flipping the dough, rotating the dough. Okay, so you made you pie crust, you chilled it, and now you’re ready to roll it out. You’ve been told you have to work fast, so now you’re nervous: the pie crust is somewhat hard, not that rollable, and your counter is sticky. But you’ve also been told that you can overflour the counter and your dough and make it dry and cardboard-like — so naturally you are nervous about the whole process. Here’s how I recommend you do this. Place the disk of dough on a lightly floured counter. Sprinkle some flour on top of the dough and rub the flour into your dough as if dusting it. For the ladies, I like to use the analogy of powdering your face: you want to dust just enough to create a thin layer so you look polished, but not so much as you look like you’ve escaped an Elizabethan-era ball. Roll your rolling pin back and forth, starting out in the center and moving to the edge. Rotate the dough 90 degrees. Repeat with the rolling. Repeat with the rotating. Take a look at the dough on the bottom. If it’s sticking, use a bench scraper to unstick it from the counter and flip it so the bottom becomes a top. Powder the crust with some flour and continue to roll and rotate, flipping the dough over after 3 or 4 rotations. As your dough circle (or amoeba) starts to get bigger, you will need to use the pasty scraper to unstick it from the counter. Keep the counter lightly floured. Also, remember to roll the dough out from the center to the outer edge. Keep doing all this until you have a blob large enough that you think a pie dish will be more than enough for. Place the pie dish on top (or better yet, hover the pie dish over the dough) and see if there are at least 2 to 3 inches extra area around. If the answer is yes, then you’re ready to transport the dough to the pie dish. [If, at any point, you feel like the dough is becoming too soft and warm, just stick it in the fridge for a few minutes to cool off. While you wait, have some cold water to drink – it’ll cool you off too.]
6. Transporting the dough to the pie dish. My favorite way is to just drape it, so it hangs, over my rolling pin, and gently place it over the pie dish, then using my hands to fit the dough just so there’s an overhang which I can trim, tuck, fold, what have you. Place a piece of plastic wrap over the pie dough, and refrigerate for 30 minute to 1 hour before blind baking. If you don’t chill, even with pie weights, you run the risk of shrinking your bottom crust – which isn’t the end of the world, but if you have a lot of fruit in the pie, might cause the pie to leak when you bake it with the filling the second time.
7. To blind bake or not to blind bake. Here’s how I look at this: You just spent time and effort making pie dough. You’ve chilled it. You’ve rolled it out. You’ve transported it to the pie dish. And now, the fate of this pie rests in your hands. Soggy bottom crust or crispy, flaky bottom crust? For my money (and my effort) I’d rather make my pie making process a teensy bit more complicated but wind up with the kind of pie where your guests proclaim, “This crust!! This crust!!” and upon this proclamation fall into the happiest of pie comas that can only be induced by the most amazing crust. So my recommendation, especially in the summer, especially when it comes to really wet, juice-producing fruit, is to blind bake, and blind bake like you mean it.
8. Once you blind bake, cool your bottom pie crust and prepare the pie filling. You can roll out the top pie crust (like a boss – because now you’re a pro!) and either use the whole crust (remember to cut some vents), or make lattice or decorative circles, and place them on top of the pie. Don’t forget the egg wash and a tiny sprinkling of sugar – so your pie looks glossy, shimmery, and all-over gorgeous to match its gorgeous and delicious interior.
9. Very important – let your pie cool before you cut it. Why? Yes, warm pie is delicious, you’re absolutely right, but if your pie is filled with the kind of oozy fruit you want to fill your pie with this summer, trying to cut and serve your pie while it’s still warm might not work out for you so well and you might be serving deconstructed pie to your guests. Now, that might not be even in the slight bit important to you, but in case it is, just remember to let the pie cool. Presentation can be important.
And that, I think, is it. Did I answer all the pie questions? Did I miss anything out? If you still have questions that I haven’t addressed, please add a comment below and I’ll answer/amend this primer as time progresses.
All-Butter, Flaky Pie Crust
2 sticks (1 cup; 8 ounces; 226 grams) unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups (315 grams) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon (12.5 grams) granlated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup ice water, plus additional as needed (you might need up to ¼ cup additional)
1. Dice the butter and refrigerate it for 5 to 10 minutes to firm up. In a large, wide (preferably chilled) bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt. Add the butter and, using your pastry blender, start working the butter into the flour mixture, cutting the butter into the flour and scooping the flour over. When your butter pieces, for the most part, are the size of lima beans (some will be the size of peas), stop working the butter into the flour. [If using a food processor, pulse the butter a few times until the pieces are the size of lima beans.]
2. Drizzle the ice water into the mix (make sure to omit the ice cubes), and using a spatula, start to gather the dough together. If you need additional water (you might add another ¼ cup), add it 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing and gathering the dough. Once the dough starts to come together in large clumps, using your hands, gather the dough together, and start kneading it gently into a uniform ball. Knead a few times until the ball of dough comes together as if it’s always meant to be that way. Make a ball out of the dough, divide it in half, and flatten each half into an even disk. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate, for at least 1 hour (I like to let it rest overnight) and up to 3 days, before using. You can also freeze the dough, but be sure to let it rest in the refrigerator for 24 hours before using. [If using a food processor to make the dough, drizzle the water in and pulse a few times until the dough starts to come together. Dump the dough into a bowl and knead it a few times to that the dough is in a uniform ball with pieces of butter still visible.]
Makes enough for 1 2-crust pie.