Pie anxiety: simple techniques for well-behaved piecrust.

What do a spoonula, a large plastic bag, a spray bottle of water and parchment paper have in common? They’re all part of the arsenal when I start to make pie crust. Of course, there’s a rolling pin and pastry cutter involved, too. This messy business is one of the key steps to good pie crust. Really.

I’ve been baking a lot of pies lately. Crumb crusts, chocolate roll-out crusts (more on that one later), blind-baked crusts, double crusts. I can go from the thought of pie to a disk of dough resting in the refrigerator in under 10 minutes by now. This is the two-crust recipe I’m happiest with at the moment:

2 1/2 cups (10 5/8 ounces) Round Table Pastry Flour or King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (2 ounces) vegetable shortening
1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup plus 1 to 2 tablespoons (4 1/2 to 5 ounces) ice water

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, and salt.

Now comes the spoonula. It’s my favorite tool for getting underneath the rim of the shortening can. It’s also very good at getting the last bits of the stuff off the bottom. Normally I’m not much of a spoonula person, but there are a few things it does that no other utensil in the kitchen is quite as good at.
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Cut in the shortening until it’s in lumps the size of small peas.
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Here my other favorite tool goes to work: our Pastry Pro pastry cutter. Every single half-moon shaped pastry cutter I’ve ever used has been a big disappointment. I bend them all. The wire ones are the worst. This Pastry Pro thing has a flat bottom, which is blissfully ergonomic and works like a charm, even on hard, cold butter. Watch.
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Dice the butter into 1/2-inch pieces, and cut into the mixture until you have flakes of butter the size of your fingernail.

When we teach people to make pie at the Baking Education Center, this is the step people have the most trouble with. Anything that you’re nervous about when it comes to food tends to be overstirred, overmanipulated, or overhandled. Trust us. More is NOT better here.

Add the water, two tablespoons at a time, mixing with a fork as you sprinkle the water into the dough.
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Keep things on the dry side. The reason? Too much water means too much gluten and a tough crust. Think of all the rolling and squeezing this dough is about to endure. The more you work it, the more you develop the protein in the dough. Is there anything worse than hard pie crust?

When the dough is just barely moist enough in places to hold together when you gently squeeze it, transfer it to a piece of wax or parchment paper.
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I usually make a band of nascent dough the length of the parchment and about three inches wide. It’s ok if there are dry spots in the pile. Use a spray bottle of water to lightly spritz these places; that way you’ll add just enough water to bring the dough together without adding too much or creating a wet spot.

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Fold it over on itself three or four times to bring it together.

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You want layers? This is how you get’em.

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Folding like this also brings the dough together without overworking it.
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This dough is ready to be divided; it’s had about 5 folds.

Divide it in half (or 55-45; I usually make the bottom crust a little bigger).You can see the layers you’ve built in the cut side of the dough.

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Pat it into two disks 3/4-inch thick.

Roll the disk on its edge, like a wheel, to smooth out the edges.

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This step is another small thing that makes a big difference. When you start with even edges, your dough will roll out evenly, without a lot of cracks and splits. How many repairs have you had to make before having a big enough circle to line your pie pan in the past?

Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes before rolling.
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Another little step that makes a big difference. This rest does a lot of good things for your dough. The water in it gets more evenly distributed. The gluten gets to relax. And the fats in the dough firm up, which makes things flakier.

Time to roll.

This is where the plastic bag comes in. Mom taught me to roll pie crust between two layers of waxed paper, which I did for years, despite the wrinkles that inevitably occurred. When I moved into the professional food world, I discovered parchment paper, which had a little more body and didn’t give the dough a wedgie as I rolled it. One day, in the old test kitchen 5 years ago, the temperature was over 85°, and I had to roll some very soft dough. The only way I had a prayer of getting it to work was to slit one of our all-purpose bread bags up the side and across the top, and put that over the dough.

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Magic. I could see where I was going, I could reposition the plastic without tearing the dough, and best of all, the rolling pin stayed clean as a whistle. I’ve been rolling dough this way ever since.
How big? A 9-inch pie pan needs a 13-inch circle of dough. Of course, you can just put your pan upside down over the dough as you roll it. If you have an even inch of dough showing around the top, you’re there.
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Spray your pie pan, lightly. This will make getting the slices of pie out a little easier later.

Peel off the parchment and drape the plastic-topped dough over your hand. Lay in into the pan, and peel off the plastic.
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Make sure the dough is fitted down into the pan, not stretched or hanging in midair before you add the filling.

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Time for the filling.
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Next the top. At this point, I took a pair of scissors and trimmed the petticoat of dough hanging down so it was an even inch all the way around.
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I bring the bottom crust up over the top and then flute the edges. To vent the pie, I used a small cutter to cut holes in the top.
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Now for the tragic conclusion of the story. The pie was in the oven, baking nicely, and had another 15 minutes to go, when I foolishly forgot to bring a timer with me to a meeting. This is what happens when you bake a strawberry pie for 2 hours and 15 minutes.

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Strangely enough, the filling still got rave reviews!

Susan Reid
About

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.

comments

  1. Patsy Langston

    I see so many finished pie crusts that are beautiful but I always have difficulty keeping the edges from getting too brown so I place aluminum foil around them. The instructions and the demonstrations I read and see very seldom mention having this problem. Is it just me or it is just not being mentioned? I am determined to make pie crusts from scratch and will keep trying. Any advice?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It’s not just you, Patsy, we promise! It happens to all of us, so the tin foil trick is a good one. Pie shields also work well. Thanks for sharing this tip. Bryanna@KAF

  2. Mary

    I just wanted to say thank you for posting this. I’ve had pie crust disasters all of my adult life! I used your method with my mother’s crust recipe and I’ve finally made a crust almost as good as hers used to be – although definitely not pretty like hers. My son (who previously told me to just “stick to apple crisp – THAT tastes like Grandma’s!”) told me I was almost there – but my apples are still “too thick”.

    Reply
  3. Random Dent

    I have discovered a technique that I hope will revolutionize pie-crust making, and eliminate all the anxiety involved!

    I made 4 batches of pie crust simultaneously (with identical ingredients but each handled differently) to see what REALLY makes a pie crust flaky. And….brace yourself….it doesn’t have anything to do with big “peas” of solid cold butter in the dough.

    The best, flakiest, layer-y-est batch was made with MELTED BUTTER!

    It was very easy. I spent a little more time working the dough, but compared to cutting in the butter (or grating frozen butter, or hauling out & washing the food processor) and the suspense of wondering whether it’s going to come out okay, it’s utterly worth it.

    1) Mix dry ingredients with melted butter. Very little/zero water will be needed. Don’t worry if it’s crumbly and doesn’t come together in a ball.
    2) Wrap and chill dough.
    3) Treat like puff pastry: roll out a rectangle, fold in thirds, rotate, repeat 2 or 3 times (I did not refrigerate between rotations as with puff pastry, but it may be a good idea if your kitchen is very hot).

    I rolled the dough between 2 pieces of plastic wrap (the bread bag method would be fine, too) and used the bottom layer to gather, fold, & rotate the dough. This kept my hands from warming the dough and from getting greasy.

    You’re “working” the dough this way, but you’re not *kneading* it, which would probably be a bad thing!

    There are some other factors I’d like to test, to see if I can simplify this even further or guarantee even better results. But this eliminates a lot of what I find tedious in making pie crust.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi there. I am fascinated by your experiment, and would love to see photos of the results, if you took any. I’m curious about the size of the flake in the melted butter crust. Was there a distinct space between the layers, or did the crust shatter into smaller shards when you put your fork through it?
      Your technique of folding the dough is not very different than mine; also crumbly nature of the dough before it goes in to rest.
      By melting the butter you separate the water in it from the fat, and create a formula that’s similar to a lard-based crust (lard has no water in it, so the combination of lard and water brings you to a place that’s very close to the melted butter technique).
      We heartily endorse any an all ways to lovely pie crust, and I expect to be trying your technique as soon as I am able!

      Thanks so much for sharing this idea with us. Susan

  4. Jerel

    I want to make a crust using the white whole wheat flour rather than the regular flour. Do you have a version of this using only the white whole wheat? If not, how would you change the above? There is a recipe on this site for a whole wheat pie crust, but there is sugar in it, and I don’t want to add sugar to the crust.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Jerel, simply omit the sugar from the whole grain crust recipe, and you’ll be fine. Susan

  5. Donna

    I was never much of a pie crust maker , and was always intimidated by the idea of making one. I usually use the pre-made ones. Then, I read this blog, followed the directions step by step, and viola, excellent pie crust! No more pre-made ones! Will be using this recipe for my Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. Thanks, King Arthur Flour!

    Reply
  6. Peter Gordon

    I read about a technique that French bakers use. They spray the counter with a little bit of water and then work the dough on that. It is the equivalent of spraying the dough, just an indirect delivery. I have seen the folding technique applied to quick puff pastry. I achieves the layering and distribution of the fat without all the hassle of a big butter block that goes with puff pastry. Finally, another French technique is to smear the dough with the heal of your hand to break down the larger clumps of butter. Of course this requires a bench scraper to get it off of the surface but it seems to work for the French.

    Reply
  7. Dana

    After reading this post, I am once again encouraged to try making a pie crust. My problem is always the same….When I sprinkle the water into the flour/shortening-butter mixture I ALWAYS end up with wet gummy places in my mixture. Even when I go less is more with the water, I have the quarter sized gummy places in the dough. I have let the dough chill overnight hoping the excess moister would be absorbed by dryer flour in the surrounding dough with still no luck. How do I sprinkle with water a tablespoon at a time while tossing with a fork and prevent this?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      A spray bottle is the secret weapon in pie crust making–use it to add the required amount of water, spritzing in about 1 tablespoon at the time. This will evenly disperse the water without creating the dreaded wet spot. Spray bottles can be found at most local grocery stores, or even some dollar stores. I hope this helps reduce your pie anxiety! Kye@KAF

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