The best pie crusts are buttery, tender and flaky — all possible by learning just a few simple tricks.
Photos By Tim Nauman
The secret to a memorable pie crust is to build a dough resulting in lots of light, flaky layers that give way to a buttery tenderness in each bite. Those who bake top-notch pies with aplomb deserve our praise. Rest assured, though, that practice makes perfect, and almost any homemade pies will be tastier than store-bought versions. According to Ken Haedrich, author of the book Pie, “You can become about 85 percent proficient as a pie-maker in short order. The other 15 percent you’ll acquire over a lifetime.”
So be patient. Make small tweaks with each new pie. Try different fillings each season. Get used to the feel of dough in your hands. Become familiar with the quirks of your oven. The road to pie perfection is paved with lots of good (even delicious!) intentions.
5 Pie Dough Truths
1. Cold Is Key. The colder your ingredients are, the better your pie crust from scratch will be. You can even freeze flour and tools in advance. If the dough is kept cold until baking, the individual pockets of solid fat will melt in the heat of the oven, creating separations or flakiness in the dough.
2. Find Fabulous Fat. For the absolute best texture in pie crust (and results like your great-grandmother used to get), go with real lard. If you can find a source of lard from pastured animals, so much the better. If you opt for butter (or a combo of butter and lard) instead, use a tangy, cultured, European-style butter with a high fat percentage. The offerings of Vermont Creamery, Organic Valley, Plugrá and Kalona Organics are all widely available.
3. Use Your Hands. It is possible to use a food processor to make pie dough, but making pastry by hand is the best way to learn.
4. Plan Ahead. Pie dough can be refrigerated for a few days or frozen for up to a month if tightly sealed. If you bake a lot, save time by doubling, tripling or quadrupling your recipe.
5. Be Cool. As a baked pie cools, it becomes firmer. Most pies will be best if allowed to cool for at least an hour before serving. Custard pies should be allowed to cool for a few hours.
Basic Pie Crust
Don’t skip the vodka in this recipe — I’ve found that it’s one of the secrets to the tender, flaky crust you seek. Food scientist Harold McGee explains that it helps push dough layers apart as it evaporates in the oven. Meanwhile, the alcohol inhibits the formation of gluten, resulting in a dough that’s easier to roll out and more tender when baked. He says vinegar, buttermilk and sour cream yield similar results, but they add their own flavors. Tiffany MacIsaac, executive pastry chef of Neighborhood Restaurant Group in Washington, D.C., prefers vodka because it is odorless and tasteless, and she cautions against using too much. I have found that just a tablespoon or two of vodka makes a big difference — my tasters agree that the results are perfectly tender, flaky and delicious. Yield: two 9-inch pie crusts.
2 cups whole-wheat, whole-wheat pastry or unbleached all-purpose flour*, or a mixture, plus extra for rolling
1 tsp kosher salt
6 ounces lard or unsalted high-fat butter, cut into small pieces, chilled
1 tbsp vodka (or substitute apple cider vinegar)
1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water, as needed
*If you’re accustomed to eating whole grains and eating whole-wheat baked goods, try using 100 percent whole-wheat flour or whole-wheat pastry flour (pastry flour gives more delicate results). If you’re trying to learn to love whole-wheat, begin by replacing all-purpose flour with whole-wheat flour about a quarter of a cup at a time. To maximize the flavor of whole-grain goods, keep the flour stored in the refrigerator or freezer, and never use flour that smells rancid.
Making Pie Dough
Whisk together the flour and salt in a large bowl. Using a pastry blender or clean hands, begin to “cut in” or rub the bits of fat into the flour. Eventually you’ll have a mixture that looks like coarse sand or cornmeal. It’s OK to have some slightly larger pieces of butter, but there shouldn’t be many larger than a pea.
Sprinkle the vodka and half of the water over the mixture. Using your hands, form the dough into a thick ball that barely holds together. Add a tablespoon or so of water at a time, just enough to pull the dough together. For beginners, it’ll be easier to work with a dough that has slightly too much water, rather than too little. Shape the dough into two circles flattened to about three-quarters of an inch thick. Wrap each circle in plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour. If using all butter, you may have to let your dough warm up for 5 to 10 minutes before you’ll be able to roll it out.
Lightly flour a clean work surface. Unwrap a circle of dough and roll it into a 10-inch round with a thickness of about one-quarter inch. (Save the other circle of dough for another pie.) Ease up on the pressure as you approach the edge — you don’t want the edges too thin. Don’t fret about little cracks that develop as you roll. You can crimp together edges that crack significantly and use excess dough to patch up any holes.
Carefully line a 9-inch standard pie pan with the dough. One easy method is to roll dough on waxed paper or a silicone mat, then invert it over the pie pan with one fluid motion, gently settling the crust into place. Or you can gently fold the dough in half, lay it in the pan, and then carefully unfold it. Steal a bit of dough from an overhanging area to patch a hole elsewhere if needed.
Trim overhang to one-half or three-quarters of an inch, and crimp or flute the edges all the way around the rim between your thumb and index fingers.
Pre-Baking the Pie Crust
Many recipes call for pre-baking an empty shell. This helps prevent the crust from becoming soggy. Some recipes call for partially baked shells (par-baked), while others, such as for cream pies, require a fully baked shell.
For a par- or fully baked crust, prick the pastry all over with a fork before lining the pastry with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Then fill it with a layer of dried beans, rice or pie weights to keep the crust from puffing up (the beans can be used many times over). Cover the edges with the foil or with pie guards to prevent them from overcooking. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and bake the crust in the center of the oven for about 15 minutes.
Reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Remove the parchment and pie weights. Bake uncovered for another 15 minutes (until just barely beginning to brown) for a par-baked shell, or another 20 to 25 minutes for a fully cooked, golden-brown shell.
Ready to make a pie? Use your buttery, tender and flaky crust with this Homemade Pumpkin Pie Recipe, and start your filling from scratch with an easy Pumpkin Purée Recipe. Also, read Best Pumpkin Varieties for Cooking to learn more about heirloom varieties and their excellent cooking qualities.
Comparing White With Whole-Wheat Flour
As with most things in life, moderation is key. If you thoroughly enjoy a classic pie crust made with refined white flour, have at it — once in a while. King Arthur Flour’s unbleached all-purpose flour is a good choice. You owe it to yourself, though, to discover the wonders of full-flavored whole-wheat. In addition to a deeper, nuttier flavor, you can look forward to a much wider range of nutrients. Whole-wheat pastries are heavier than pastries made with refined flour, but you can start by replacing just some of the white flour with whole-wheat until you’ve made a pie crust with exactly the texture and flavor you like best.