‘Easy as Pie!’ A saying that we all have heard before, but for many home bakers why does making a tender, flaky, crisp, and oh so rich and buttery pie dough remain so elusive? Is it the recipe? Is it the ingredients? Is it the skill of the baker? The answer is yes to all of the above.
As a Baking Instructor, I’ve heard so many students say to me “my grandmother (mother) was a fantastic pie maker and I want to be the same. But all my attempts produced a tough and hard pie dough. No one eats the crust. What am I doing wrong?”
The other question comes up in class is the use of vodka in the pie dough. A recipe that was developed and has been touted as “Foolproof Pie Dough.” by Cooks Illustrated, America’s Test Kitchen. Students have asked about it in class over and over again. I’m all for developing recipes that give folks success in the kitchen. After all, it’s about sharing what we’ve learned. I have a few issues with this though. First, I don’t think people are fools. Second, I like to keep vodka for its intended purpose, a cocktail. Third, It is the skills we learn and the practicing of those skill over and over that will help us develop into better bakers. There are no shortcuts to making great food.
Old School Pie Dough has 4 basic ingredients: All-Purpose Flour, Salt, Fat, and Water. That’s is all. Pies were a basic food that was served at every meal as our country expanded into the West. The Pioneer wife had those ingredients to make pie dough. With experience, they learned to create great tasting pies and crust. It was the filling that determined whether it was a sweet or savory pie.
How to make a great pie with a tender, flaky, crisp, buttery, rich, and ethereal crust is the essence of this post. I’ll walk you through the 3 things that will get you there.
First the recipe: Having a good recipe to start with. When relying on only 4 ingredients to make pie dough the proportion of Flour to Fat, Water to Flour is key. Weighing the ingredients is important when baking to ensure the proportions never change. You can increase the recipe by weight and still get great results. Measuring ingredients is not accurate and will throw off the proportions of the ingredients. I’ll provide you with a recipe that has both the measured and weight amounts. The process and technique of the recipe. Most pie dough recipes have you cut in all the fat until pea-size pieces form. Then add the water. This process causes the flour to need more water to be able to hold together. More water equals a tough crust. The process for this recipe is inspired by traditional French Methods for making tart dough. You will start by adding part of the fat to the flour/salt mixture. Cut in the fat until pea/grave size pieces. Then en-robe the flour with the fat by rubbing the mixture between your hands until the fat is fully mixed into the dry ingredients. The idea is to decrease the need for more water by enrobing the flour completely with the first addition of the fat. This also causes the dough to be tender (you cannot make the dough tough with the fat). Thereby reducing the need for more water to hold the dough together. You will know you’ve done this properly when you add the water to the dry/fat mixture and it pools on top of the dry/fat enrobed ingredients. Then add the remaining fat and cut that into the pea or gravel size pieces before adding the water. The pieces of fat left in the dough will cause the dough to be flaky. Similar to a quick puff pastry. Create a well in the center of the dry/fat ingredients in the bowl. The next step is to add the ice cold water and use a fork to toss the ingredients in the bowl turning the bowl the opposite way from the direction your tossing. Once the water has been added this is when you want to be mindful of not over mixing, stirring, or handling. The mixture will look very rough at this point. The next step is to scrape all of the ingredients onto a un-floured work surface. Mound it slightly. The next step is to fraisage the dough. A French baking term meaning; to smear or to incorporate the flour and butter with the palm of your hand. This process flattens all the pieces of butter into thin sheet layers causing the dough to be flaky when baked. Working from the outside edge, using the flat of your palm with one hand, compress and slide your palm on the dough. Working towards yourself. If you see any dry bit repeat one more time. The dough will more than likely stick to your hand, this is a good thing. Once the dough has been completely fraisage. Use a bench scraper to fold the dough onto its self. Mound and compress. Divide into two equal pieces. Form into a disk and wrap in plastic. The instructions below will have more details.
Second are the Ingredients: The quality of each ingredient is key. If you start with great ingredients you will make great baked goods.
- King Arthur All-Purpose Flour (unbleached, unbromated) – Available in all grocery stores. All Purpose flour in the United States has a protein content of 10% to 12%. King Arthur’s All Purpose Flour has a protein content of 11.7%. King Arthur is dedicated to producing unbleached and unbromated flour. Two chemical processes that are unnecessary to producing great flour. If you can’t find King Arthur flour use an unbleached, unbromated flour that you like. Call or email the company to find out if they use these chemical processes to make their flour.
- Sea Salt (finely ground, iodine-free) – This once “gourmet” salt is now available in all grocery stores. Sea Salt adds flavor to the crust and helps bind with the water to build the proper gluten structure in the dough.
- Water – Ice cold. Either refrigerated or drop a few ice cubes into it to chill it down to 32 degrees F.
- Fat (Butter, Lard, or a combination of both) Butter (unsalted): The fat content of butter is not all the same. The USDA regulates butter as 80% butterfat with the remaining 20% being water and milk solids. Unsalted butter is used in baking recipes calling for butter because it allows you to control the salt content in the recipe. Plugrá is a European-style Cultured Butter that is slow-churned has less moisture content and a creamier texture when compared to average table butter. The lower water content makes for flakier, full-flavored baked goods. The other butter that is of high-quality fat, flavor, and low water continent are Lurpak, Kerry Gold, and Organic Valley. These butter contain 82% butterfat. Lard (non-hydrogenated) Known as Leaf Lard: Yes, Lard! We have been brainwashed by the makers of margarine and vegetable shortening that there is something inherently wrong with lard. As it turns out lard and butter have less saturated fats in them compared to margarine or vegetable shortening. Lard and butter are better for you. Leaf Lard is produced by rending the fat that surrounds the kidneys of the pig. Because it fell out of favor with home cooks and bakers it has become hard to find item for baking. Leaf Lard offers a slight porky flavor, producing an ultra-tender, flaky, and crisp crust that melts in your mouth. You can purchase leaf lard from Zingerman’s Bakeshop an Ann Arbor, MI. If you don’t live nearby you can mail order it from Rockwell Ridge Farm in Dodgeville, Wisconson. Butter and lard well wrapped and covered can be stored frozen for extended periods of time. Making sure to place the frozen fats in the refrigerator the night before making the pie dough.
Third, the baker’s skill. Yes, there is a learning curve to making great pie dough. Preparing a great dough, rolling, lining the pie pan, forming and shaping the edges are skills you can only get better at if you practice. I don’t know of anyone who was good at something the first time out. It takes practice if you want to be a better baker and pie maker. It is pretty simple. Making pies twice a year vs. making a pie every week for a year. The practice person will make making pies look effortless. Students are always amazed that I can make it look so easy. I have to remind them I’ve had 27 plus years experience of baking 5 days a week. Practice makes perfect!
Here is what you need to make your pie dough.
- Mixing Bowl
- Scale/Measuring tools
- Plastic Scrape
- Metal Bench Scrape
- Plastic wrap
- Rolling Pin (I prefer a French Tapered Rolling Pin)
- Pastry Brush
- 9-inch Pie Pan
- Parchment Paper
- 2 Cups of Dried Beans (preferred pie weigh)
Pie Dough Recipe
Measured Grams Ingredients
- 2 ½ cups 338 g. All-Purpose Flour
- 1 tsp. 8 g. Sea Salt (Fine ground)
- 1 cup 226 g. Fat (Butter, or half Lard & Butter)
(Diced cold butter into ¼-inch cubes)
- 5 Tbsp. 75 g. Water (ice water)
Mixing the Pie Dough:
- In a mixing bowl combine the flour and salt and blend with a fork.
- Add the ¾ cold fat (all the lard and half of the butter) into the flour mixture.
- Working quickly cut the fat into the flour mixture, using a pastry blender. Cut until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal with pea-size pieces of fat.
- With your hands rub the flour and fat together to enrobe the flour with fat. There will be no visible pieces of fat left. The mixture will take on a yellow appearance and will hold together when squeezed together in your hand.
- Add the remaining ¼ of reserved butter to the enrobed mixture and cut with a pastry blender until you have pea/gravel-size pieces of butter.
- Form a well in the center of the ingredients in the bowl.
- Add chilled water to the well in the center of the ingredients. Use a fork to blend the water and flour mixture until it just comes together. The mixture will be crumbly and not look like a cohesive dough yet.
- Scrape out the dough from the bowl onto an un-floured work surface and slightly mound.
- With the flat of your palm of one hand. Starting at the edge furthest away from you. Compress and slide your palm 3 to 4-inches. The dough will stick together and to your hand. Use a plastic scraper to remove the dough from your hand before compressing again. Repeat this until you have worked across the entire dough. This process is known as fraisage. A French baking term meaning to smear or to incorporate the flour and butter with the palm of your hand. This process flattens all the pieces of butter into thin sheet layers causing the dough to be flaky when baked.
- Using a metal bench scraper, scrape and fold the dough onto itself. This will keep the butter layered throughout the dough. The butter pieces should be visible in the dough.
- Compress the dough with both hands to form a mound. Divide into two pieces.
- Place into plastic wrap and compress and form into a disk 6 to 7-inches across. Wrap the disk of dough in plastic wrap.
- Chill dough for a least 1-hour before rolling it out. (The pie dough can be made 2 months ahead and frozen wrapped well and placed in an airtight container. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before using)
Rolling out the dough:
- Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and firmly tap the dough with rolling pin to make the butter in the dough pliable. This will make it easier to roll the dough.
- Lightly dust the rolling surface with flour. Unwrap plastic wrap from the disk of dough.
- Place the disk of dough on the surface and lightly flour the top of the disk with flour.
- Using a rolling pin start rolling the edge of the dough closest to you and roll from the center to the edge away from you. Start and stop ½-inch at the bottom and top edges. After each roll, give the dough a ⅛ turn. This will prevent the dough from sticking and help make a perfect circle. Re-flour the rolling surface and dough if the dough sticks. Continue to roll and turn the dough until it’s about 1/8-inch thick and is at least 1-inch bigger than the pie plate you will be using.
- Using a pastry brush to brush off any flour that is still on the dough.
- Using a rolling pin, roll up the dough onto the pin. Center the dough over the pie plate and unroll the dough. Gently ease the dough down into the pie plate, making sure not to stretch the dough.
- Fold the extra dough under at the outside edge. Compress the dough into a triangle shape to seat the dough on the pie pan edge. This will help the dough not slide down or off the pie pan.
- Form the edge with your desired finish.
Blind Baking Single Crust
- Single crust – Pumpkin, Custard, Pudding fillings (Blind Bake) if the crust will be Blind Baked, trim the dough to a ½-inch from the edge of the pie plate, folding the excess dough underneath to make a thicker edge, finish the edge with your choice of edging.
- Dock the dough. (using a fork, poke the bottom and side of the pie dough all over)Freeze the dough for 20 minutes before baking.
- Remove the chilled pie dough from the refrigerator line the crust with crumpled parchment paper (crumpling the parchment paper will make it easier to fit onto the pie dough), pressing the parchment paper snugly against the bottom and sides of the crust.
- Fill with 2 cups dry beans to weigh the parchment paper down. (These beans cannot be used for any other purpose and will last for years)
- Bake the crust at 375° F. for 18 to 20 minutes or until the crust begins to brown. Remove the parchment paper with the dried beans.
- For fillings that require a short baking time (pumpkin, custard, etc.) continue baking the crust for 6 to 8 minutes. Then fill and bake the pie at this point according to recipe directions.
- For filling that are not baked (Chocolate Cream Pie, Lemon Meringue, etc.), continue to bake the crust until well browned, another 10 to 14 minutes more. Cool before filling.
- Double crust (fruit pies)– Use the same rolling method to roll the bottom crust as the directions above. Using a rolling pin roll-up the bottom dough. Position the edge of the dough over the pie plate edge and unroll the dough. Gently ease the dough down into the pie plate, making sure not to stretch the dough. Fill the pie with the fruit filling according to your recipe. Leave the edge unfinished and lightly brush with egg wash. (1 whole egg, 1 egg yolk, 1 Tbsp. water; beaten together)
- Roll out the top crust until it is 1/8-inch thick and 1 ½-inch larger than the pie plate edge. Brush off any extra flour and roll up on the rolling pin. Center the top crust over the fruit and dough edge. Trim the dough ¾ inch from the pie pan edge. Fold the excess dough from the bottom crust over the top crust edge and seal, by lightly pressing with your fingers. Create your edge choice.
- Brush with egg wash and cut vents with a paring knife.
- Bake pie at 375° degrees according to the time on the recipe, or until juice bubbles from the center of the pie vents. Remove from the oven and cool before cutting.