How to make a perfect pie crust (with recipes)

Pie dough, pumpkin pie, apple pie. The story will also talk about different types of fat, tips for rolling and crimping, so maybe include some shots of various fats (butter, lard, shortening) and perhaps a step-by-step of making and assembling a crust. (Kirk McKoy /Los Angels Times/TNS)
Pie dough, pumpkin pie, apple pie. The story will also talk about different types of fat, tips for rolling and crimping, so maybe include some shots of various fats (butter, lard, shortening) and perhaps a step-by-step of making and assembling a crust. (Kirk McKoy /Los Angels Times/TNS)
Published November 15 2017
Updated November 16 2017

When I tell people I grew up in a family of pie bakers, it’s easy to imagine I’m bragging. My mother’s pies are legendary — rich, velvety custard fillings or mounded fruit pies, each cradled in an ornately decorated crust, golden and with the most delicate layers. And don’t get me started on my grandmother; in her day, she was known as the "Pie Baker of Villa Park," a small suburb west of Chicago.

When I went to start baking my own pies, I didn’t think much about it. But then I sliced into that first homemade pie and found to my horror not a perfect take-for-granted pie, but a bubble of raw dough beneath the layer of filling. A dozen or so years later, a career change, several restaurant and catering jobs and a few hundred pies later, my skills have improved. I’ve learned a lot and continue to pick up tips. Recently, I spoke with some experts and tested more than a dozen combinations of fats, flours, ingredients and tricks. Here are my results.

Passionate pie bakers tend to have a religious zeal about what type of fat goes into their crusts, and not without good reason.

"Fats and shortenings are absolutely critical to pies," says Ernest Miller, research and development chef at Coast Packing Co., a major supplier of animal fats and shortenings. The type of fat determines flavor and can influence the final texture and color of the crust. Bakers tend to use one of three kinds — butter, shortening or lard — or a combination.

Lard is among the most traditional of kitchen fats, once made from heritage pigs specifically bred for their fat. Miller notes that shortening, with the introduction of Crisco in 1911, was created to mimic the effects of lard, but at a fraction of the price. "An all-Crisco crust will give you the best border," notes Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Pie and Pastry Bible, "but I don’t use shortening, because there’s no flavor."

As people began shunning shortening for health reasons, bakers looked for alternatives such as butter, even oil. I’ve taken to making my crust using a ratio of two-thirds butter to one-third shortening. I’ve found, particularly when I keep the fats cold until the crust goes in the oven, I get some of the benefits of shortening in my detailed borders plus the flavor of butter. Although my grandmother and mother preferred shortening, they would often brush the formed crust with butter before baking, for added flavor.

Fat and its ratio to other ingredients, particularly flour, is integral to a great pie. "I think too little fat is not a pie crust," says Los Angeles baker and pie specialist Nicole Rucker, a past winner of KCRW-FM’s Good Food Pie Contest. "Once you remove a certain amount of fat, you’re forming more of a bread or biscuit dough."

When it comes to flour, some experts swear by all-purpose, others by lower-protein pastry flour, all in the name of making a tender but flaky crust. If she’s using all-purpose flour, Beranbaum finds that adding a touch of sugar works to tenderize the dough, mimicking the results she normally gets using pastry flour.

A primer on fats

• Butter adds flavor to a crust, along with color due to the milk solids in the fat. However, over-mixing the butter can make the crust tough and crunchy.

• Shortening has a high melting point, which will give you a light and flaky crust and allow for creative decorations, but it lacks the flavor found with butter or lard.

• Lard makes a light and flaky crust. Leaf lard and rendered caul fat (another fat preferred by many bakers) have the benefits of lard with less flavor, perfect for dessert pies.

• Oil results in a crust that is generally more mealy in texture, though certain fruity oils, such as olive or some nuts, will lend flavor and coloring to the crust.

Flaky Pie Dough

1 tablespoon sugar

cup water

2 teaspoons cider vinegar

2 cups bleached all-purpose flour, chilled

Generous 1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons cold shortening or lard

cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut into -inch cubes

Ice water, if needed

Egg white, for brushing a par- or blind-baked shell

In a small bowl, combine the sugar with the water, stirring until the sugar is dissolved to form a simple syrup. Stir in the cider vinegar. Cover and refrigerate until chilled.

Pulse together the flour and salt until thoroughly combined. Add the shortening and pulse until incorporated (the dough will resemble moist sand). Add the butter and pulse just until the butter is reduced to pea-size pieces. Sprinkle the syrup over the mixture and pulse a few times until incorporated. Remove the crumbly mixture to a large bowl and very gently press or knead the mixture until it comes together to form a dough, adding additional ice water, a tablespoon at a time, if needed. Mold the dough into a disk. Cover the disk tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 1 hour. (You can also do this by hand, incorporating the shortening and butter with a fork or pastry cutter, adding the water, and kneading until it becomes a dough.)

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a large round roughly ?-inch thick. Place in the baking dish or pan, trimming any excess that extends more than 1 inch from the sides of the dish and crimping the edges as desired. Use any extra dough to make a decorative border.

Makes enough for 1 (9-inch) single crust pie with extra dough for a decorative or lattice top.

Source: Los Angeles Times

All-Butter Pie Dough

If you don’t want to go the shortening route, there’s nothing wrong with that. All-butter pie crusts are classic. And if made properly, they’re just as easy to work with.

2 cups all-purpose flour

teaspoon kosher salt

16 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into pieces

4 to 10 tablespoons ice water

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the flour and salt just to combine. Drop in the butter pieces and run the motor until crumbs the size of lima beans form. Add the ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and pulse the motor just until the dough comes together, taking care not to overmix the dough.

Turn the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and divide it into half. Press each half together to make a flat disc. Wrap in the plastic and chill in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours and up to 3 days. Or you can freeze the dough up to 6 months.

Roll the discs of dough into circles about -inch-thick. Use one to line a 9-inch pie pan and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes and up to overnight. Place the other on a baking sheet and chill until needed.

When you are ready to bake the pie, heat the oven to 375 degrees. If pre-baking, line the dough with foil and fill with pie weights, such as copper pennies, raw rice, or dried beans. Bake until the crust is pale golden and beginning to crisp, 30 to 35 minutes. If not, fill pie with desired filling and bake according to recipe instructions.

Makes enough for 1 (9-inch) single crust pie with extra dough for a decorative or lattice top.

Source: New York Times