A pie is only as good as its crust. No matter how tasty your filling — be it apple, chocolate, pumpkin or coconut cream — a pie will crumble unless it’s built on a sturdy foundation.
Learning how to make a perfect piecrust is a little like how to ride a bicycle. It takes a lot of effort at the outset and a willingness to fall a few times — or in this case, eat a few lousy, rock-hard crusts. But once you’ve got it, you’ve got it for life.
Take these piecrust tips to heart, and you’ll never buy another pre-made crust again.
Anyone can do it
Home cooks have been making amazing pies with golden, flaky crusts as long as pies have existed, and they didn’t need expensive food processors, mixers or gadgets to do it. A bowl, a knife, a fork, a rolling pin, a pie pan and a willing heart is really all you need. And a pastry blender, if you want to get fancy.
Flour, salt, sugar, fat. That’s it. That’s all you need for pie perfection. For fat, you can use butter, vegetable shortening, or lard, or some combination thereof. Butter is more flavorful and shortening makes for a flakier crust; a combination of the two offers the best of both worlds.
It’s how you combine those four ingredients that makes or break a pie crust.
First, make sure all the ingredients are super cold. Do not take your fat out of the fridge until it is time to go into the bowl. When you’re gathering your ingredients, put some water in the freezer so it’s ice-cold by the time you need it — five to 10 minutes should do the trick.
Here’s what you will need for a single flaky pie crust:
1-1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup cold unsalted butter
1/4 cup cold vegetable shortening
1/4 cup cold water
The tricky part
Blending in the fat is the hardest part of making a pie crust, and it’s the point in the process where things tend to go wrong.
Break up your fat into smaller chunks; if you’re using sticks of butter, cut them down into tablespoons.
Start cutting the fat into the flour mixture with a pastry blender, pressing down four or five times and then tossing the bowl. Keep doing this until the bowl is full of small pebbles of pea-sized dough with a few larger chunks.
Then add just enough ice-cold water to hold the dough together. Too little liquid and the dough won’t hold; too much, and the crust will be too hard.
Form the dough into a disc and let it cool in the refrigerator for about an hour before rolling.
Getting this part right is both as easy as it sounds, and harder. Under-work the dough, and you’ll end up adding more water to absorb the flour. Overwork it, and you’ll melt and stretch the butter, and the crust will turn out hard and leathery. Your hands are warm, so it’s important to touch the dough as little as possible.
Cutting in the fat correctly is an instinct you’ll develop with practice, and probably after you mess up a few pies. Don’t feel bad about it — even a bad pie is still pie, and you can always eat your failures over a bowl of ice cream.
Ditch the cheap aluminum pie pans
The disposable aluminum pie pans you buy at the grocery store are convenient for potlucks, but that thin aluminum reflects heat instead of absorbing it, resulting in undercooked crusts. Go with glass or ceramic instead.
No, really. After you’ve cut in the fat, add equal parts freezing vodka and water to the dough. The alcohol won’t promote gluten formation and will burn off while cooking, making for a tender, flaky crust.
Invest in a pie bible
My favorite baking tome is “Pie” by Ken Haedrich. It’s so well-loved, the spine is falling apart, and nearly every page is spattered with pie goo. If it were any other book I’d be furious, but in this case, it’s a compliment.
After you’ve got the basic science down you can start to have fun with the ingredients, incorporating things like cornmeal, ground nuts, graham cracker crumbs, pretzels, crushed cookies, or even cheese.