I have read at least 100 different articles all claiming to be the key to achieving that perfect, tender, flaky pie crust. They’re all wrong. There is no secret, it’s easy…as pie (sorry). It comes down to technique, butter, salt, sugar, flour and water. Nothing more. This article walks you through every step, in what is probably too much detail. It’s not rocket science, but my goal is to answer every question you could have before you need to ask it.
Technique comes first because that’s the number one way to ruin a pie crust. I think by now, everyone has heard of, and is overly familiar with gluten. It’s a protein that develops when you work water into flour. Gluten is what allows kneaded dough to stretch, but can cause pie crust to shrink and become tough. Too much gluten makes for terrible pie, but too little gluten will get you all hulk-smashey as well. Once, I thought I could outsmart dessert by using cake flour, which has less gluten, in my pie crust. It mixed up beautifully, rolled out perfectly, and fell apart completely when I tried to pick it up and transfer it to the pan. Lesson learned: don’t make a quadruple batch for Thanksgiving until you know your recipe works. The other lesson: pie crust needs some gluten, just not too much.
Everyone loves short cuts, but unless you’re making 10+ crusts at a time, it’s best to make your pie crust by hand with a pastry blender. Mix your dry ingredients, flour, salt and sugar, then work in your very cold butter. You are coating the flour with fat to prevent too much gluten development, and you blend until small (pea sized) chunks of butter remain. You want your butter to be well chilled so that those chunks stay somewhat intact.
Butter is about 80% fat and the rest is water and milk solids. The milk solids caramelize giving good flavor and color, but the water is the key. As the pie crust cooks, the butter melts, the water evaporates, and the steam puffs up the crust creating tiny air pockets between paper thin flakes. This is why butter will ALWAYS be better than shortening. Shortening and lard will make the most tender crust (the fat coats the flour more completely, thus lowering gluten content), but butter will be the flakiest thanks to it’s fat and water content.
You want small chunks of butter because when you roll out the dough the chunks spread thin. If the chunk is too large, and you bake the crust, the butter melts and you’re left with a giant hole in your crust. Believe me, this sucks. Don’t do it. You can thank me later.
So how do you tell if the butter is blended enough? When I see that my pieces of butter are about the size of peas, I grab a handful of mix and squeeze it together in a fist. It should hold together when I open my hand. But it should also break apart easily if I start moving the clump around in my hand. When you’ve gotten to that stage all you have to do is add the water and you’ve got your perfect crust.
If there’s a hard part to making pie crust, it’s adding the water. Only because there is no set amount to use; The amount of water depends on your flour, the humidity, and how thoroughly you’ve blended in the butter. You add just enough cold water to get the mix to start to hold together in clumps. Err on the side of adding less water than you think you need, because the water will be absorbed more evenly as the dough rests. Your dough should not be a cohesive mass when you are done mixing. Rather, it will be somewhat clumpy, I call it “a shaggy mess.” Do not knead the dough. If i’m making multiple crusts at once, and I have a large clump of dough, and dry mix at the bottom, I’ll remove the dough and just add a small amount of water until the dry mix comes together.
Once your dough is mixed, divide it and shape the piece into disks, and then cover and let rest in the fridge for at least 30 min. If it rests much longer than that in the fridge, it’s best to let the pie crust sit out to soften a bit before attempting to roll it out. Othewise it will split and you’ll have a very hard time getting a round circle of dough.
So that’s the technique. Here are the ingredients:
All purpose flour is the way to go for pie crust. Bread flour has too much gluten, cake flour, too little, and self rising has chemical leaveners that have no business being in pie crust. All purpose is just right.
This recipe calls for iodized salt; if you use kosher or sea salt, you’ll have to adjust the amount called for. Morton Salt has a pretty great conversion chart.
The sugar called for in this recipe is not enough to make the crust sweet. This dough works perfectly in sweet or savory applications. The sugar should not be omitted because it is this sugar, along with the milk solids, that create that awesome browning you get in a perfectly flakey, well-baked crust. Sorry people, without the sugar, it just doesn’t taste right or brown properly.
So here’s the recipe that yields 2 pie crusts:
2.5 cups (338 g) All Purpose Flour
2 Tbsp (25 g) sugar
1 tsp (7 g) salt
2 sticks (226 g) cold butter, cut into 1/2″ cubes
1/4–1/2 cups (55–110 g) cold water
Whisk together dry ingredients
Cut butter into dry ingredients with a pastry blender until small pea sized peaces of butter remain
Add just enough water until you have a clumpy, semi cohesive dough
Divide dough in half and shape each half into disks
Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 min
Roll out and use according to your recipe
Pie Baking Tips:
If you are baking a single crust pie (pumpkin, pecan, chess, anything without a top), I highly suggest blind baking the crust: After you form the crust in the pan, you should refrigerate it for at least an hour (overnight gives the best results). Dock the crust (poke tiny with a fork on the bottom and sides to prevent it from puffing up), then freeze the crust for at least 40 minutes prior to baking. Take a square of parchment paper and crumple it into a ball; this creates creases which allow the paper to fit more snugly into the pie shell. Uncrumple the paper and press it into the pie crust to create a protective barrier over the crust. Fill the pie plate with dry beans or rice or pie weights to keep the crust from puffing. Bake the weighted pie shell for 25 min at 375 degrees Fahrenheit, or 325 for convection. Remove the weights and parchment. The crust should be starting to brown around the edges, and the middle will still be pale and wet looking, but starting to get a little bit puffy. Return the unweighted crust to the oven (turning the pie from front to back in the process), and continue to bake for 15 minutes more. When you pull it out the bottom of the crust should look dry and be at least starting to brown.
If your filling does not get baked, just leave the unweighted crust in the oven for a few more minutes, until it is evenly brown.
While you are pouring in your filling that requires additional baking, turn the oven down to 325 degrees, 275 for convection. When you’ve filled your pie return it to the reduced temperature oven and bake until the filling is set (or almost set, depending on your recipe), turning halfway through. Reducing the temperature will allow the filling to bake evenly and slowly, without the crust burning. To give you an approximation, my pumpkin pie takes about 45 minutes at 275 in a convection oven, and I turn it after the first 25 minutes. This time will vary depending on your filling.
So, why blind bake? Have you ever had a pumpkin pie with a raw, leather like crust on the bottom? It’s because the baker didn’t blind bake. And it’s gross. Blind baking starts the crust cooking/browning process, and you get a flakey crust throughout, even on the bottom. Keep in mind, all ovens are different, and the timing/temperature might need adjusting at your house; these times/temperatures are what work for me in my kitchen.
If you are baking a double crust or lattice topped pie (apple, cherry, blueberry, etc), you cannot blind bake, but there is still a trick to get evenly cooked crust. I bake these pies at 375 degrees Fahrenheit, 325 for convection. I bake them for about 25 minutes, then I turn the pie from front to back. They bake for an additional 20 minutes, or until the pie looks almost done on top. Here’s the trick: I remove the pie from the oven and cover it with heavy duty (or doubled up regular) aluminum foil and return the pie to the oven for another 30 minutes. Uncovered pie tops bake faster that the bottoms, so tenting the pie gives the bottom a chance to catch up with the top without the top overcooking. After the 30 minutes pass, I remove the foil and usually cook for about 10 minutes more, or until the top is done and the filling (if at all visible) is bubbling in the center. Honestly after all that time in the oven, I’ve never had a problem with the filling being undercooked by the time the pie looks like it’s ready to come out of the oven. Again time and temperatures might change with your oven, but these are at least some basic guidelines.
So there you have it. I use this crust and these methods every day at work with great results. Comment if you have questions!