How to make the best pie crust: four critical ingredients

Do you suffer from pie crust phobia? If so, you’re not alone; plenty of otherwise confident bakers find themselves furtively hustling a folded ready-made crust out of the supermarket freezer case into their shopping cart. But life doesn’t have to be that way; you can make the best pie crust ever by following these simple steps:

  • Choose a good recipe
  • Start with the right ingredients
  • Learn a few basic techniques

How to make the best pie crust via @kingarthurflour

We’ve written plenty about pie crust technique; our Perfect Pie Crust guide is a wealth of practical information, including links to foolproof recipes.

What I want to emphasize here is the importance of your ingredients: specifically flour, salt, fat, and liquid. Choosing those four ingredients wisely will lead to consistently great pie crust.

Making the best pie crust can be daunting — but not when you understand four basic ingredients and how to use them. Click To Tweet

How to make the best pie crust via @kingarthurflour

1. Flour: It’s all about the protein

What kind of flour makes the best pie crust?

Well, not high-protein bread flour! Use that for your chewy bagels. What you want for pie is flour that yields a tender, flaky crust, which means medium-protein all-purpose flour or low-protein pastry flour.

How to make the best pie crust via @kingarthurflour

What does protein have to do with it?

When you add water to flour some of its protein turns into gluten, an elastic substance that gives baked goods the structure they need to hold together (and to rise when appropriate). The higher the protein level, the stronger the structure.

Strong structure in yeast bread translates to high-rising; but in pie crust, strong structure can be perceived as tough — the last attribute you want applied to your apple pie. So stick to flour with a medium-to-low percentage of protein, which means all-purpose flour (11.7% protein), pastry flour blend (10.3%) or pastry flour (8.0%).

How to make the best pie crust via @kingarthurflour

Does the flour with the lowest protein make the best pie crust?

Not necessarily. Yes, you can make tender, flaky pie crust with pastry flour. But it can be a bit of a challenge, particularly for those uncertain of their pie crust skills. Pastry flour pie crust is harder to roll without cracking, and can split apart at the seams while the pie is baking.

That’s why I choose all-purpose flour for my pie crust. The dough is easier to roll out and move around and, despite it slightly higher protein, the crust is wonderfully flaky. In my book, the ease of an all-purpose flour crust trumps the marginal added tenderness of a pastry flour crust.

How to make the best pie crust via @kingarthurflour

2. Salt: Critical for flavor

Salt adds flavor to pie crust. Leave out the salt and, unless you’re used to following a salt-free diet, the crust will taste like cardboard.

I find that when using unsalted butter and/or shortening in your crust, about 1/2 teaspoon salt per cup of flour is just perfect. If you’re using salted butter, reduce the amount of added salt in your crust by 1/4 teaspoon for each 8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) of butter in the recipe.

Now, which salt is best? Kosher, flaky sea salt, table salt, or fine salt?

Since pie crust dough has very little liquid, choose table salt or fine salt. Their finer crystals will disperse more evenly throughout the dough despite the lack of water to dissolve them.

How to make the best pie crust via @kingarthurflour

3. Fat: Choose your favorite

Some of you love lard in pie crust. Others use liquid vegetable oil. There are those who swear by their grandma’s Crisco crust — and other bakers who eschew solid vegetable shortening for health reasons. Many people love an all-butter crust. And then there’s coconut oil … So many choices!

The best fat for pie crust? All will work, so it’s flavor preference and your own dietary choices. I alternate between an all-butter crust and one that’s part vegetable shortening, part butter.

How to make the best pie crust via @kingarthurflour

Why the combination? Butter is a major flavor enhancer, but its low melting point can be an issue. Shortening, with its higher melting point, adds stability to a baking pie crust.

If you have trouble with your crust slipping down the sides of the pan, or if your carefully fashioned crimp around the edge melts and puddles, blame butter. A combination of butter and shortening yields the best qualities of each: flavor and baking stability.

Want to learn more about these two fats? See Butter vs. shortening: the great pie crust bakeoff.

How to make the best pie crust via @kingarthurflour

4. Liquid: The ultimate key to texture 

As mentioned before, liquid + the protein in flour = gluten. And once that gluten forms, working it — by mixing the pie crust dough, then rolling it out — increases gluten’s strength and decreases the resulting crust’s tenderness.

The best pie crust is a perfect balance between fat, flour, and liquid. Too much fat and the crust may taste greasy and crumble as it bakes. Too much liquid can create extra gluten, leading to tough, chewy crust.

But strike just the right balance — sufficient fat for tenderness without greasiness, and just enough liquid to hold everything together — and you’ve struck pie crust gold.

How to make the best pie crust via @kingarthurflour

Water, milk … vodka?

Some bakers use milk or buttermilk in their pie crust. Thanks to their milk solids, both will help crust brown and add a bit of tenderness.

But the classic liquid in pie crust is water — ice water, to be precise.

Why ice water? Ice water keeps the bits of fat in the dough cold and intact (rather than melted and dispersed). This creates little pockets of fat that, as the pie bakes, gradually melt and form tiny caverns in the crust — which we describe as flakiness.

How to make the best pie crust via @kingarthurflour

Vodka in pie crust has been a popular substitute for ice water in recent years. Why? It’s said that its lower percentage of water (alcohol is part water, part ethanol) means less gluten development, yielding a more tender crust.

In my experience this is partially true; using vodka in pie crust makes a soft, silky dough that’s lovely to roll out. But the resulting crust isn’t any more tender or flaky than an ice water crust.

And crust whose liquid is 100% vodka can border on being too tender, since less of its gluten has been activated. An all-vodka crust (especially one made with higher-proof vodka) can occasionally fall apart as you move it from countertop to pie pan.

How to make the best pie crust via @kingarthurflour

“Add just enough liquid.” What’s just enough? 

Less is more: The less liquid you add to pie crust dough (within reason), the more tender it will be.

Here’s my preferred way to add just enough liquid to pie crust. I typically make our Classic Double Pie Crust recipe (because if you’re making pie crust, you might as well make a double — you can always freeze one for later).

Once the fat, flour, and salt have been combined in my stand mixer (yes, my stand mixer; it’s easy and effective for making pie crust), I add a “nip” of vodka. You know, one of those little 50-ml. bottles.

When the vodka is thoroughly dispersed, I dribble in ice water just until the dough starts to come together. And I mean just enough water. Watch carefully as you stir; when the dough starts to clump, and you grab a handful and squeeze it and it doesn’t crumble into pieces, stop adding water.

How to make the best pie crust via @kingarthurflour

Gather the dough into a ball.

How to make the best pie crust via @kingarthurflour

Divide it in half, and flatten each half into a hockey puck-like disk.

That’s it. You’re done. You’ve just made the best pie crust for apple pie, pumpkin pie, [name your favorite] pie. Given correct handling (and you can check our pie crust guide for tips), your crust will be tender and flaky, golden brown and flavorful.

How to make the best pie crust: your takeaways

  1. Use a reliable recipe.
  2. Choose all-purpose flour or pastry flour.
  3. Don’t skip or reduce the salt; it’s critical for flavor.
  4. Various types of fat work well; choose your favorite.
  5. Add just enough liquid to hold the dough together.

Still doubtful? Gather your ingredients and give our Classic Double Pie Crust a try. I doubt you’ll be heading back to the supermarket freezer case anytime soon!

How to make the best pie crust via @kingarthurflour

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Lorraine Stevenski

    Question: Why does my piecrust shrink down the sides when I prebake? I do refrigerate the piecrust in the pan 30 minutes before I prebake? I use an all butter recipe and KA AP flour. I do use a food processor to make the dough….have for years.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Pie crust sometimes shrinks in the pan for a number of reasons, but the most common causes are over-working the dough and/or not letting it rest before baking. Try folding the dough over onto itself a few times to incorporate the butter and the liquid rather than kneading or mixing vigorously. (We provide a step-by-step demonstration of this process in this article on our blog: Flaky, tender pie crust.) It’s also important to let the pie crust chill in the fridge for about a half hour (at minimum) before baking. This allows the gluten to relax, which will prevent it from shrinking in the oven. Check out more tips like this in our full guide to blind baking a pie crust perfectly. Don’t overwork, chill the dough, and be sure to use a high-quality flour like King Arthur All-Purpose so it’ll be sure to hold its shape. Good luck and happy baking! Kye@KAF

  2. sandy

    I love posts about pie baking techniques. This is a really helpful one. Question- I have seen recipes that add sugar to the pie dough and I have been tempted to do that to add a touch of sweetness. I have not tried it because I have been concerned that the sugar will change the texture of the baked dough. Also, the amount to add seems to vary a lot – from a few tablespoons to much more. Other than adding sweetness does adding sugar change the crust?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Sandy, pie pastry can range in sugar content quite a bit. Most traditional recipes (like our Classic Single Pie Crust) don’t call for any sugar at all. Then there are recipes that are often used to make tart crusts that are called pâte sucrée, which contain quite a bit of sugar. (The “Amazing Tart Dough,” part of our Midsummer Berry Tart recipe is a good example of pâte sucrée.)

      Both the flavor and texture of the pie dough change with the addition of sugar. It tenderizes the dough so it makes it softer and more delicate, but it also makes it less flaky. Pie dough with sugar will be more like a shortbread cookie crust than a thin, flaky pastry. If you add just 1-2 tablespoons of sugar, you won’t see results that are very pronounced. If you start to add more than this, you might notice a change in the final product. Check out this article on our blog about making flavored pie dough for more ideas and inspiration. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  3. Carolyn B

    My mother always made an excellent pie crust with lard. Very light and flaky. Most pie crust recipes can’t beat it. My sister recommended King Arthur’s Classic Double Pie Crust recipe and between the recipe directions and the “Tips from our Bakers” that follow, it is nearly foolproof! I especially like the tip to use a spray bottle to moisten the dough at the end so it will hold together without becoming water logged. For Sara S, I do substitute 2 ounces of lard for the vegetable shortening. The results are perfect. I get a sense of the flakiness and a hint of the lard flavor that pie crust made with lard has and I think the overall flavor is better because of the butter.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Cold ingredients are always helpful when making pie crust, Delores! You can even keep it in the freezer since it won’t freeze. Use the whole little 50ml bottle. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

  4. Happy

    That’s great you add whole wheat flour Pam! It’s good to know the ratio that you use, and the extra nutrition is always welcome!

    Reply
  5. Sharle Chiles

    Do you use the whisk attachment in your stand mixer when making crust? Have you ever used a Cuisinart w/blade attachment to make piecrust? Thanks so much.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi, Sharle. When making pie crust in a stand mixer, we use the paddle attachment. We don’t usually use a food processor but if that’s your preferred method — go with it! Just keep an eye on it as the dough will come together quite quickly and you don’t want to overwork it. Quick pulses are best. Annabelle@KAF

  6. Linda knewstub

    Hi
    I once tried a crust recipe that included apple cider vinegar. It did turn out flaky and didn’t alter the taste really. Do you think the vinegar could be acting in a similar way to the vodka?
    Unfortunately I lost that old family recipe and can’t replicate it ☹️
    Linda from Upstate NY

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Vinegar and vodka are both great ingredients many bakers use in pie crust, Linda. In fact, we have a whole blog article dedicated to vinegar in pie crust we think you’ll find interesting. It does condition the dough a bit but it also keeps it from oxidizing and turning grey as it rests in the fridge. We hope you’ll do some experimenting and that you can eventually recreate that piecrust you enjoyed so much! Annabelle@KAF

  7. Pam Baker

    I love my pie crust. And I’ve learned that pie crust and pie in general, is a very personal thing. If you loved your mom’s pie, chances are, nothing else is good enough. So I don’t ask anymore. I make it, if it gets eaten, must’ve been good, if not, must’ve not been to their taste and take no offense.
    But I really, really hate when people go to all the bother to make a “homemade” pie and use a store bought pie crust. Because I taste it straight away. Huge difference and so NOT worth the calories. My tricks are….
    1-mix 1/2 KAF whole wheat flour with 1/2 plain white flour
    2-mix 1/2 lard with 1/2 salted butter
    3-use ice cold water
    4-refrigerate the dough before rolling it out if it’s a warm day
    5-cover the edges with foil or protector

    Love this blog….you guys are the best!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Cheryl. You can Freeze and bake fruit pies fully assembled or just the plain dough for about three months. You can freeze your dough in a disc or you can roll it out and freeze it right in the pan — baker’s choice! Annabelle@KAF

  8. Sara S

    Hurray for another pie baker who uses a mixer! Results look closer to hand mixing (which is more work) than results from a food processor, which is too fast for me and tends to over-process.
    Thanks for your explanation of why all-butter crusts slump, even when refrigerated before baking. My supermarket sells farm lard (as opposed to the hydrogenated bricks). Any opinions about using it instead of veg. shortening?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It should be pretty comparable, Sara! We haven’t tested it to be sure, but we have a feeling you’ll have very similar results as you would with shortening, with the possibility for a slightly savory flavor. Annabelle@KAF

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