With Thanksgiving next week, I thought it would be appropriate to share my tips a perfect pie crust. I’ll be honest, the first time I made a pie, the crust was hard as a rock and tasted like cardboard. Guys, I used melted margarine. I am so embarrassed to admit that. In my college apartment full of 6 girls, no one ate it. That’s a true testament to how bad it was. Good thing it’s only been up hill from there!
Pie crust has developed a reputation for being difficult pastry to make. It’s actually pretty easy. I’ll take you through step by step.
Lets first talk about the ingredients and their function in the dough (this is the baking nerd coming out in me), then we’ll move on to other technicalities.
Flour – When I was in Culinary Arts we used cake flour in our pie dough, although the recipe we worked with suggested pastry flour. Cake or pastry has enough gluten to develop structure, but not so much gluten that the pie crust will become hard. You can find cake flour in bulk bins at Winco, if you have one near by, or in the baking isle. If I am being honest, I use all-purpose flour in my pie dough now that I’ve graduated, and the crust turns out just fine, but I will admit that cake flour did make a tender crust.
Fat – Butter guys! BUTTER! It makes for excellent flavor and a tender crust. You can also use hydrogenated shortening (a.k.a. Crisco) which is a popular choice. It works easily into the dough and it is cheaper than butter. Pies produced in mass quantities often use shortening simply because shortening is cheaper. But we all know butter tastes better. I do use shortening for when I am baking an empty pie shell because they tend to shirk less.
Liquid – Flour needs water to develop structure. Simple as that. Too much water can create a tough dough. Be careful with the water, you really do not need a lot to make a pie dough. You can also use milk. Milk creates a richer dough, and the crust will brown quickly and will not be as crisp. I personally have never used milk, so I can’t say what I think is better.
Pie dough should be kept COLD! The fat should not soak into the butter, we just want to create flakes. Use COLD water and COLD fat. (We’ll get to this later, but you should see the butter when you roll out the dough.)
Pie Dough Types – And What Type to Use
- Mealy – When someone says a mealy pie crust, this refers to how the butter has been cut into the flour. If you are trying to make a mealy pie crust keep cutting in the flour with either a pastry blender, a food processor, or a fork (we’ll come back to cutting in the dough), until the mixture looks like corn meal. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Use this dough for in soft, custard type pies like pumpkin where the filling is runny. When in doubt, use mealy pie dough. You can never go wrong with a mealy dough.
- Flaky – For flaky dough, the fat is cut into the flour until the fat looks about the size of peas. When you roll out the dough, you will see fat that hasn’t been blended all the way and that is okay. This is best used with fruit pies.
Let’s move on to making the dough. I love this recipe (scroll down for printable recipe) and procedure because there are only 5 ingredients. How easy is that?
- Dissolve salt and sugar in COLD water and set aside in refrigerator.
- Sift flour in in a mixing bowl and add the fat, cut up into tablespoon portions.
- Cut in the fat with a pastry blender, a fork, or a food processor until the dough is either mealy or flakey. I personally use a pastry blender. You have to stop and scrape the blender off as you go, but it’s a great way to get the job done. I would use a food processor, but I don’t have one. ☹
- Add water/sugar/salt mixture to the dough. Knead the dough gently until the water is absorbed and you have a smooth dough. Let the dough rest in the refrigerator while you prepare the filling. (Be sure the filling is COOL before adding it on top of an unbaked pie crust. A hot filling will create a soggy bottom crust.)
- Wrap the pie dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 20 minutes in the refrigerator before you roll out dough.
Assembling the Pie
- Lightly flour your rolling surface. If your making a top and bottom crust, scale portions of dough as needed. Roll out the dough into a large circle, about 1/8 inch thick.
- Carefully fold dough in half or wrap around a rolling pin and place into pie pan.
- Arrange the dough, being careful not to stretch the dough. Poke holes with a fork in the bottom of your pie dough. This will allow for steam to escape. If you are not adding a top crust, you can flute the edges if you’d like, then cut off excess dough, if you are adding a top crust, wait to flute the dough. If you are baking an empty pie shell, skip down to the “baking” section. I also like to the the dough rest in the refrigerator again for another 20 minutes if I am baking an empty shell.
- If you are adding a top crust, add COOLED filling. Brush edges of crust with water and place the top crust over the pie. The water helps to seal the pie dough together. Press or flute edges together and cut off excess dough.
- Create steam holes, by cutting slits in a circle or poking holes with a fork. Lattice tops should be rolled slightly thicker, about 3/8 inch.
- You may brush the top of your pie with an egg wash, milk, or melted butter. The egg wash will give a shiny appearance and the milk or butter will are not shiny, but will give a nice, brown appearance. Sprinkle top with sugar if desired. I like to sprinkle sugar over the crust of apple pies.
- Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees. The high heat helps the bottom crust from soaking up the filling. Fruit pies are left at the high heat for the entire baking time.
- For custard pies, like pumpkin, or key lime (any pie with many eggs) reduce temperature to 350 degrees after 10 minutes. This is to avoid overcooking the pie and curdling the eggs.
To flute or not to flute (you know, crimp the edges up in a cute little ruffle). Some people say it just adds a hunk of tough crust that no one eats, and others think it makes the pie pretty. I think if you use the right crust recipe, everyone will eat the entire crust weather it is pretty or not. So flute or don’t. But it does make for a good looking pie!
Pie Crust Faults and Solutions
Problem: Soggy Bottom
This means that the crust has soaked up too much moisture from the filling.
- First, use a mealy dough. Mealy dough soaks in less liquid than a flaky dough. (See mealy dough vs. flaky dough above.)
- Bake the pie at the bottom of the oven to cook the dough. Also start baking at a higher temperature to set up the crust, then lower the oven temperature.
- Add fillings after they have cooled to about room temperature. Hot filling will melt the dough before it has had a chance to bake.
Embarrassing story time: I was assigned to bring a pie for Thanksgiving and my sister’s-in-law house. I shared my pie crust recipe on Reddit, and it went semi-viral-ish. Like thousands of people read my recipe and up-voted it and somehow my in-laws had heard about this. I made a Dutch apple pie and naturally I got nervous and totally screw it up! I forgot to bake my pie at the bottom of my oven. The crust was so soggy it hardly held together. It was very quiet during dessert and my brother-in-law said, “I like the crumble on top…” I was dying, guys. I should have explained myself, but I didn’t. Bake your pie on the bottom rack!
Problem: Dough too Stiff or Tough
- If your pie dough is typically hard and crunchy, one possible solution you could try is to add more fat. Fat makes for a nice tender crust. If you’re adding more fat, cut back on the water just a little.
- Try mixing/kneading the dough less. Dough that has been over worked develops too much gluten which makes for a tough crust.
- Again, not enough shortening and too much water.
- Dough over worked. Let your dough rest before putting it in the oven and don’t stretch the dough when you lay it in the pan. Have you ever tried to roll out a pizza dough, but it just shrinks right back down? This is the same concept. The gluten needs to rest.
I honestly have problems with shrinkage when I bake an empty pie shell. My mother in law bakes her pie shell upside down. So she turns her pie pan over and lays the dough over the upside down pie pan. If you have two pie pie pans that are the same size, you can place a second one on top so the pie dough is sandwiched in between the pie pans. You can also use pie weights, or line the bottom of your dough with tin foil or parchment paper and use rice and dry beans as pie weights.
Problem: Crumbly crust
- Add more water. This is probably the most obvious. If your pie dough isn’t sticking together, stick it together with some water! But only a little at a time!
- And now that you’re adding more water, cut back on the fat. I think I’m seeing a pattern here!
- Improper mixing. Make sure that the water and fat is evenly distributed in the flour.
Problem: Filling boils out
- Cut more steam vents in the top dough. Those cuts in the top aren’t just for looks, the steam has to go somewhere! If there aren’t enough holes, the steam will make it’s own.
- If the filling boils out around the edges try pinching your top and bottom crusts together better. You can even use an egg wash to make them stick.
- Use less filling. I know we like our pies to look nice and full, but over filling pie can cause a disaster in the end. Try using a little less filling.
The recipe below is enough for one pie bottom. Double the recipe to make a top. Sprinkle any left over pie crust with cinnamon sugar and bake it for something to snack on!
- *Double recipe if you need a top crust.
- 1/4 cup cold water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 1 cup flour
- 7 TBS butter or shortening. I usually use half and half, and all shortening if I am baking an empty shell. Please, don’t use margarine in pie crust.
- In a small bowl, dissolve sugar and salt in cold water. Set in refrigerator to keep cold.
- In a mixing bowl add the flour and fat. It is a lot easier to cut the butter into smaller tablespoon portions before you start using your pastry blender or fork. Cut the butter into the flour, and continue to until the flour is flaky or mealy. (See above). You can also put the butter and flour in a food processor and pulse until you have the desired consistency.
- Next pour in the water and gently knead the dough until smooth. You may need to add a little flour until the dough is no longer sticky. Let the dough rest in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.
- Next, flour a surface and roll the dough out to about 1/8 inch thick and transfer to a pie tin. You can flute the edges or use a fork to make a nice design and cut off any extra dough if you aren't using a top crust.
- Poke steam holes in the bottom of your crust with a fork. Place the dough in the fridge and allow to chill before baking, even if your are baking an empty pie shell. This would be a good time to prepare your filling or wipe down the counters. Be sure the filling is cool before you fill your pie.
- Bake at 450 for 10 to 15 minutes if you are baking an empty shell on the bottom rack. If you are using a filling, bake according to directions.
Don’t be afraid to play with your pie dough to find what’s just right for you, which means more pie for you!
Not your traditional Thanksgiving pie, but this is one of my favorites! Its great for the summer or a refreshing change from pecan, apple, or pumpkin pie. Sour Cream Lemon Pie