Perfect Pie Crust

By Emily Stephenson

Photo by Emily Stephenson

Last week, when it was over 100 degrees outside, I had a pie baked by a professional, and even her dough was crumbly (warm butter means crumbly dough). I appreciate that there is a fabulous bounty of fruit available during the summer, the stuff of luscious pie fillings, but hot weather makes getting a perfectly flaky crust difficult.

I didn’t realize this until I started baking my own pies last summer. After more than a few less-than-ideal pie crusts, I did some research beyond the recipe at hand. I’m happy to report that, just like in school, extra-credit work really does pay off.

In honor of the last month of summer, here is the most useful advice I’ve found in pursuit of a perfect pie crust:

  1. After adding a little water to the butter and flour mixture, pinch a bit of it between your fingertips. If it holds together, the dough is ready. While the dough is resting in the refrigerator, the water will continue to hydrate the flour. This way, you’ll use less water than if you were expecting the dough to form a ball, and your crust won’t be tough. (If you have a vacuum sealer, you can see this in action: the difference in texture between when you seal the dough and when you take it out 30 minutes later is pretty incredible. Removing all the air expedites the process.)
  2. Many recipes say the butter should be no larger than pea-sized when cut in, but that doesn’t mean they should be exactly pea-sized. When I first started making dough, I didn’t cut the butter into the flour enough. I had pieces of butter that were too large, which meant I had to use more water to get the dough to come together, and my end result was very tough crust. When you’re cutting in the butter, you’re looking for bits of butter of a variety of sizes, none of them larger than pea sized. This doesn’t matter as much if you are using a food processor, but if you’re cutting in the butter by hand, keep cutting a little more.
  3. Don’t rush the resting time. You can’t over-rest dough (within reason) but you can certainly start working it too soon. Leave it for an hour or more in the refrigerator.

Any other tips I’m missing? I’d love to hear from dedicated summertime pie bakers.

Posted in Baking

16 Comments

  1. Flori Schutzer said...

    Replace the water with vodka. It evaporates faster as the crust bakes and results in a crisper flake.

    • Torym said...

      Vodka.

    • Bee Moreland said...

      Exactly what I was going to say. Although, I only replace half the water with vodka (and chill both thoroughly.) The alcohol prevents some gluten from forming. Gluten, being the magic that makes bread dough chewy, is the culprit in a tough pie crust.

  2. Andrea said...

    I tried a dough of half Crisco and half butter, and it was really good. I realize Crisco may not be everyone’s idea of a healthy food item but as far as pie crust goes, it does the job.

    • Bee Moreland said...

      I use half butter, half rendered pork lard (from a pig we butcher each year) and it is heavenly.

    • Cheryl said...

      Andrea, after years of trial and error, I have arrived at the same conclusion: a fifty/fifty blend of Crisco and butter yields a perfect crust every time. All Crisco is, well, Crisco-y tasting and all butter is harder to work with, not to mention caloric. Plus the combo is just super easy to roll out which I do between sheets of plastic wrap. I make both are super cold, I freeze the Crisco and have it on hand all the time. I

  3. Adele said...

    If using water versus vodka, make sure it is ice water to keep the butter chilled.

  4. Marion said...

    Please can you give us the recipe you used?

  5. Kathy said...

    Where’s the full recipe that uses these techniques?

  6. Barbara said...

    Keep everything as cold as possible. I do use a food processor because it is so much quicker, and quicker means it’s easier to keep the ingredients colder. Resting overnight makes the dough more forgiving (if you can plan ahead). Also, chill your pastry board if you use one for rolling out the dough.

  7. Geri said...

    Lard works really well too! Though I have to render my own to get it from organic pork fat. Lard contains some monounsaturated fat and has less saturated fat than butter. Gets a bad rap but has been used forever in the South and we have some of the best fruit pies ever!!

  8. Emily Stephenson said...

    Marion and Kathy,

    This is some additional information to keep in mind with any pie crust recipe you use! Though if I were going to recommend one, I’d say use the pie crust recipe in How To Cook Everything, The Basics.

  9. Abigail McElroy said...

    In the book how to cook everything. To answer you all. I love and use his recipe but he’s overboard on sugar like a northerner making southern cornbread. A little is good. But don’t get carried away! But yes his recipe is my favorite on pie crust, just lessen the sugar and a bit less salt. It’s all about flour to fat ratio. And here’s an interesting one I learned from Dallas. Don’t chill your dough. Roll it out in the pan, tuck flute, and then chill. Geez that worked! Then fill! Cool. If it’s double crust instead of just an eggwash like making challah, which I do. Add a spot of cream and a pinch of sugar. Hello awesome! Cheers!

    • Cheryl said...

      Made an amazing CRACK-free pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving using a technique new to me. First I froze the rolled out crust in the pan. Then, I blind baked the crust a la Bittman. When it came out of the oven, I brushed with egg white. Let it sit. Filled with pumpkin. The science behind this is that the crust cannot draw the filling into the crust during the baking and therefore it does not crack. It worked perfectly. Oh and I used all brown sugar and added a Tablespoon of corn starch, both things I’d never tried. Best. Pies. Ever.

  10. Jyo said...

    I ended up using just a little over 2 tablespoons of ice water. Didn’t need the 3 tbsp that the recipe called for.

  11. Carole T Fleisher said...

    I use fresh orange juice instead of water and I use half crisco/Half butter. Perfect, delicious crusts every time!

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