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. Kathryn Godley

    I have been omitting salt from pie crusts for years and been well-satisfied with the taste of my crusts, but I will try adding salt to the next one after reading this.

    I always use my stand mixer and it works great. Food processor overworked the dough no matter how little I pulsed.

    My cousin Jeff shared a tip that I now always use: I measure the max amount of water at the beginning of the process, and put the measuring cup in the freezer. When I’m ready to use it, it has a thin skin of ice on top. I believe this allows me to use less water. I’m afraid even though the KAF recipes always say, “ice water”, I was being lazy and using (cold) water that had been stored in my refrigerator.

    Reply
  2. Pat

    Great advise on all parts of your pie dough tips! Love King Arthur flour all I use and my pies are a favorite for many.

    Reply
  3. Cheryl

    Hi PJ,I use the vinegar,egg,water mixture,do you add slowly until it seems mixed
    And holds together?what would cause it to tear when u roll it out?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      When pie dough tears, it often means you’re using too much force to roll out your pie crust and also potentially using flour with too low of a protein content. Try working the dough less next time, working slowly, carefully, and rolling the dough as little as possible. (Check out this video on our website for tips about how to roll out pie crust.) As far as the flour goes, try using King Arthur All-Purpose Flour if you’re not already doing so. Its 11.7% protein content is just the right amount to give your dough strength while still being tender enough for pie. Good luck and happy baking! Kye@KAF

    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      You should just go by whatever pie recipe you’re baking. I was using our Apple Pie, which bakes at 425°F for 20 minutes, then 375°F for 40 minutes more. Hope this helps — PJH@KAF

  4. Kelly

    Can you cut in the shortening or butter in a food processor? It’s hard for me to get it cut in evenly and I have arthritis in my hands?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Kelly, we have just the resource you’re looking for: How to make pie crust in your stand mixer. This is helpful for those of us who have tired hands but still want to make fantastic, flaky, homemade pie crust. We prefer using a stand mixer over a food processor, as it’s less likely to overwork the mixture. We hope this helps, and happy baking! Kye@KAF

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