By Chef Instructor Stephen Durfee, The Culinary Institute of America
Baking your own flaky pie crust is not as complicated as you might think! Here, Chef-Instructor Stephen Durfee shares his techniques to help you make the perfect pie crust.
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Many people are interested in learning how to bake, but they’re intimidated because they think baking is too complicated or scientific. It’s not complicated at all once you break it down. We’ll start with some basic pie crust tips, techniques, and definitions, then provide an easy pie crust recipe.
- Use cold butter to make the dough for a pie crust or biscuits; otherwise, the butter may be absorbed into the flour, and the dough will yield results that have a heavy texture.
- Overworked dough may shrink and develop a tough texture. For example, overworked dough in a pie crust may cause the crust to shrink away from the pan when it’s baked. This is a result of overdevelopment of the elasticity in the flour.
- Every time you apply pressure to a dough, it will have the tendency to shrink; always give dough an opportunity to chill in the refrigerator between making and shaping or baking it.
Butter v. Shortening
Shortening is almost pure fat, so using shortening instead of butter yields a flaky, delicate pie crust. But shortening doesn’t taste as good as butter does; further, a pie crust made with shortening may not have a golden brown color when baked. Pie crusts made with shortening are also extremely fragile and may break when you remove the baking beans.
Use a blend of butter and shortening to get a flaky crust that also has the color and flavor you can get only from butter.
Rolling Pie Crust Dough
After you’ve combined your ingredients for a pie crust dough and gently kneaded the dough to bring it together, allow it to rest and chill in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes before you roll it out; otherwise, the dough will be too soft to work with. Putting the dough in the refrigerator lets the butter firm up and makes the dough easier to handle.
When you remove the dough from the refrigerator, cut it in half. Generally speaking, you want about 1 ounce of dough per inch of diameter of your pie pan.
For a 9-inch diameter pan, use about 10 ounces of dough. That will ensure a round shape for your crust.Many people run into problems shaping pie crust dough into a circle when they roll it out.
To get an even, round roll, first dust the countertop with a little our to keep the dough from sticking. Then press the dough with your hands to make it look approximately like a hamburger patty. Again, don’t knead it too aggressively, or it will become too elastic or glutinous.
Once you have a round shape, dust the top of the dough with a bit more flour— just enough to keep the rolling pin from sticking. Press the rolling pin into the dough without rolling; pick up the dough, rotate it a quarter of a turn, and press again. Pressing helps the dough roll out in an even fashion; if you were to just start rolling right away, the crust would probably be thin at the edges.
You should try to work quickly as you’re shaping the dough; if it warms up too much, it will be dificult to handle.
Keep pressing and turning the dough to maintain a consistent round shape. This technique also ensures that the dough doesn’t stick to the countertop because you’re turning it a bit every time you press it.
When you reach the point where you can’t press the dough anymore, start rolling. Rather than rolling to the edge, just roll in small increments and keep turning the dough. Think of maintaining the general round shape without going off the edge. Again, because you’re turning it, you’re rolling the entire piece of dough. If the dough starts to stick to the countertop, dust a little more our underneath.
Keep your pie pan nearby to give you a good idea of the size your crust needs to be as you’re rolling. Don’t make it too big, or it will be difficult to handle. The finished round should overhang the edges of the pie pan by about half an inch or so; you will trim it after it’s in the pan. Before you pick it up, use the palm of your hand to feel the crust and make sure it’s even all around.
To transfer the dough, fold it in half, pick it up gently from underneath, and set it in the pan carefully. Unfold it and press it gently into the bottom of the pan. Trim the dough with a pair of kitchen scissors so that it hangs about half an inch away from the pan all the way around. Fold the overhang under to give the crust an even edge, sort of like hemming a dress. Once it’s evenly folded, check to make sure that it has a consistent look around the outside.
You can leave the edge of the pie crust folded or finish the edge by pressing it with a fork, fluting it, or crimping. (Pastry crimpers can be used to give a decorative finish.) To crimp the edge with your fingers, make a V with your thumb and fore finger and press it on the outside of the shell. At this stage, you could freeze the pie crust for later filling.
Every time you apply any pressure to the dough, it will have the tendency to shrink; give your pie crust an opportunity to rest and chill in the refrigerator for another 15 minutes before baking or filling.
The technique of blind baking is used for pies that have a custard filling, such as a chocolate or banana cream pie or a lemon meringue pie. Here, the crust is baked before the pie is filled.
For this technique, line the unbaked pie shell with parchment paper, then pour baking beans (dry beans from the grocery store) or pie weights into the shell. Fill the shell evenly with about half an inch of beans, pressing them to the edges.
Poking holes in the bottom of the crust to prevent the dough from bubbling up is called “docking,” but this step is not necessary when you line the crust with beans in blind baking.
Bake the crust until it is an even golden brown color.
Fruit pies can be done with a simple bottom crust and, perhaps, a crumb or streusel topping, but a more elegant fruit pie generally has a rolled-dough top.
For this, you can use one sheet of dough to cover the top of the pie and cut some holes in it, or you can make a lattice top. A lattice top is not really very complicated to make, but it gives your pie a great wow factor!
For the first option, a single sheet of dough covering the top of the pie, spoon the filling into the pie shell in the pan, then brush a little bit of beaten egg around the edges of the shell before covering it with a second piece of rolled-out dough. Trim the edge of the second piece of dough with a pair of scissors and flute it.
To make a lattice top, start with a piece of rolled-out dough that has been chilled in the refrigerator. Again, give the dough enough time to chill and relax so that you don’t have to worry about it shrinking as you cut it. Use a ruler and a crimped pastry wheel, a pizza wheel, or a knife to cut strips of dough that are about 3⁄8 inch wide (or wider or narrower, depending on the look you want). Take the time to cut the strips carefully, keeping the width consistent.
The next step is simply to weave the strips together. Instead of assembling the lattice on top of the pie, you can make it off to the side on a piece of cardboard or the back of a cookie sheet. Then, put it in the freezer for about 10 minutes before transferring it to the top of the pie in the pan.
Again, brush the edges of the filled crust with a bit of egg; then slide the frozen lattice onto the top of the filled crust. Wait a few minutes for the frozen lattice to soften a bit before you press the edges of the two crusts together; otherwise, you might tear the bottom crust. You can then trim and flute the edge.
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Making Pie Crust
- 2 1/2 cups flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 10 oz cold butter
- 5 oz cold water
Typically, a pie crust is made by hand, but it can also be made in a food processor. Start out with the flour and butter that is cold and has been cut into small cubes. Toss the butter with the flour so that all the pieces are evenly coated. Use your hands to literally rub the butter into the flour. The goal is to get the butter pieces distributed throughout the flour yet make sure they remain independent, that is, in discrete pieces. When you add water to the dough later on and roll it out, the pieces of butter will be flattened, and when you put the pie crust in the oven, they will expand in a flat, lateral network that will make the dough rise unevenly and lead to a flaky texture.
Having cold butter is important for this method. If the butter is warm, it could become greasy and be absorbed into the flour; that could lead to a dough that has an unpleasant, leaden texture. The butter should be cold enough so that you can press it through your fingers but not so cold that it is difficult to work with. You want to be able to break it up into pieces that are about the size of peas.
Alternatively, you can put the dough on the counter and chop it up with a bench scraper, a couple of knives, or a pastry blender to help cut the butter into small pieces. It may take a few minutes to get the butter rubbed in thoroughly.
Next, add the salt (to keep the dough from becoming bland) and the water. Use a plastic scraper to mix the water in with the dough, turning the bowl as you go. If the dough starts to stick to the scraper, push it off with your fingers.
You’re not necessarily trying to make the dough come together in a ball inside the bowl; you just want to make sure that it has been evenly moistened. When it reaches that point, stop using the scraper and transfer the dough to the countertop.
Gently knead the dough to bring all of it together; again, don’t overwork it. Use the heel of your hand to press it together to make sure the butter is evenly mixed throughout. At this point, the dough may feel tender and little bit wet. When you put it in the refrigerator, the texture of the dough will have a chance to even out, so it won’t feel wet when you take it out.
Allow the dough to rest and chill in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes before rolling. Roll out the crust, transfer to a pie pan, and trim and finish the edge.
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Common Questions About Pie Crust
Pie crust is generally made with four primary ingredients: flour, water, fat, and salt.
Vinegar is sometimes used in pie crust to inhibit gluten and create a more tender and flakier crust.
You should not use salted butter in pie crust. You can do it, but the flavor is not controlled by you as the amount of salt in the butter is already decided by the butter company. Use unsalted butter and decide on your own level of salt.
When it comes to making pie crust, butter contains more water and can be more difficult to work with due to a lower melting point, but compared to shortening, the flavor is better and nuttier, and butter doesn’t leave a residue on the tongue like shortening.