Sunday, May 15, 2011

How to Rock a Flaky Pie Crust

Pie is pretty much one of the most awesome desserts ever. You can use any kind of crust you want and you can usually just wing it with the fillings. If you're making a fruit pie you're even getting a few vitamins in there, too. That's kind of rad. That being said, I know there are a bunch of people out there who are intimidated about making a pie at home. Or maybe you do make pie at home, but you always use a store-bought crust or only make pies with graham cracker crusts because it's easier. I want to change that.

Here's the thing. Pie crust is actually pretty simple once you understand a few things about how it works and what makes it behave the way you want it to. It took me years of trying recipes for pie crust that tastes like cardboard before I finally had my "Eureeka!" moment. Now, I can pretty much rock the pie crusts every single time. It's easier than you think it is.

There are about as many recipes for a plain old pie crust as there are types of pie fillings. It can be overwhelming. Try this one if you're looking for a simple, flaky crust. The ratios in this recipe make the dough easy to work with and it comes out flaky every time if you keep a few things in mind while you're making it. Here's the overview: don't overwork the dough and keep it cold. Did I mention keep it cold? Because that's the big one here.

Super Awesome Flaky Pie Crust (I got this recipe from somewhere on the internet a while back, but I can't remember where)

This makes enough for two crusts.

2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) non-hydrogenated margarine like Earth Balance, cubed, divided
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) non-hydrogenated shortening like Earth Balance
1/4 cup ice water
small amount of non-dairy milk of your choice (any kind is fine, I usually use rice or almond)
1 tablespoon sugar (or you can use one of those cool packets of vanilla sugar)

Before you begin, go ahead and cut up the margarine and shortening and put it in the fridge until immediately before you're ready for it. I put half of the margarine on one plate and the other half with the shortening on another since you'll add them that way. The cubes don't have to be small, either. I usually just cut lengthwise twice so each slice will give you four little cubes.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, salt and sugar. Add half of the margarine.

Using a pastry blender or a fork, mix this until you get a coarse meal. You don't want any large pieces of margarine left at this point. Aim for something like in the photo above.

Take the remaining margarine cubes and the shortening out of the fridge and dump them in the bowl.

Make sure your hands are clean and dry at this point. If you need to wash them, put the bowl in the refrigerator while you do it. Now, use your hands to mix everything. You want to use your hands because you'll have more control over the size of the chunks of margarine this way. A pastry blender or a fork will end up making everything a bit more uniform and that's not what you want. Just keep squishing everything through your fingers for a minute or two, it doesn't take long.

You're aiming for the dough to look like this. I know, there are probably bigger pieces than you might expect in the bowl. Resist the urge to make everything uniform and just stop mixing. This step right here is part of what makes a flaky crust act flaky. Keeping everything super cold until it gets into the oven is another part of that. You want to keep the fats as separate as possible within the dough until it gets shocked into baking when you put it all in the oven. I don't really understand the science behind it, but I do know it works.

Now you want to go ahead and add the ice water to the bowl, a little bit at a time, mixing gently with a fork to incorporate it. I always end up needing the entire 1/4 cup of ice water, but if you don't need that much to get a nice, soft dough, don't add the rest. Basically you want the dough to be soft and smoothish looking. It shouldn't be sticky or tough. (I forgot to take a picture when I was at this point, so just pretend that you know what my dough looked like here.)

Divide the dough in half and flatten each half into a little disc. Wrap it up in parchment paper or plastic wrap or even just put it in a little container if you want and put the dough into the refrigerator. You want to let it cool for about 4 hours. You can even let it chill overnight if you want, but you don't need to do it for that long. I know. 4 hours is a long time, but you really want to make sure that this dough is cold, cold, cold. You can try putting it in the freezer for part of the time if you're in a hurry, but sometimes that doesn't chill it all the way through or it ends up freezing the margarine too much and you don't get the same results.

Preheat your oven to 450 F. Go ahead and get your filling ready just before the 4 hours is up. I decided to make a strawberry-rhubarb pie. I'll get more into fillings in a second post tomorrow.

Take one of the discs of dough out of the fridge and roll it out on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle just a tiny bit of flour on top and rub some on your rolling pin, too. You don't want much, just enough that your rolling pin doesn't stick. Try and get it round and just a bit larger than your pie dish. Don't worry if your dough isn't a circle. Mine never is. Perfect circles don't taste any different than my crazy shaped dough, anyway, I'm pretty sure.

Gently fold  the dough in half and put it in your pie plate like this. Unfold it to cover the entire dish. Try and get the dough as flush with the sides of your dish as you can so there won't be any giant air bubbles between the crust and the dish when you're baking it. You want the dough to be just a bit larger than your dish right now so you can fold it over the top crust. Add your filling, then put your pie plate in the fridge and take out the second disc.

If you want to make a lattice crust, you can cut the strips out with a pizza cutter or a sharp knife. I usually like to use the pizza cutter. Don't worry if your strips are uneven, no one will notice once it's all assembled. If you have a strip that breaks, just put that part underneath one of the other strips when you're assembling it on the pie. I have 4 broken strips on this particular pie, but I bet you can't tell where they were. That's the great thing about a lattice crust. It's very forgiving and it looks great.

If you're making a flat crust, follow a similar procedure to how you made the bottom crust. Make sure to cut some holes in the top of the pie so the steam has somewhere to escape. If you don't, your pie might explode all over the oven and you really don't want that.

Now you want to fold the overlap of the bottom crust over the top one. I've never really been very good at making this part look pretty. I envy the people that can make cute little ripples in their pie crust from pinching it. I just sort of suck at that for some reason. No matter, I just use a fork and press it all in place. Cut away any extra dough with a knife.

Brush the crust with your non-dairy milk and sprinkle it with the remaining sugar. I really like using those little packets of vanilla sugar for this. It adds a nice bit of extra flavor to the pie.

Put your pie in the freezer for 15 minutes. Yes, I just said freezer. You want to make the top crust just as cold as you possibly can before it goes into the oven. It also helps to keep the filling from making the bottom crust soggy before it can start to bake.

Take the pie directly from the freezer and put it into the oven. Bake for about 10 minutes and turn the heat down to 375 F and bake for 45 more minutes. At this point your crust should be a nice golden brown with crunchy sugar bits baked into it.

You want to bake the pie at the higher temperature first to give the crust a nice toasting right off the bat. That'll keep it from getting soggy.

Tomorrow I'll talk pie fillings so you have something to put between this awesome flaky crust of yours.


  1. EEE! This is perfect timing! My rhubarb plants are coming back with a vengeance this year and I'm so excited to make pie again this summer. My first pie attempt was last year and it was really tasty, but I want them to be AWESOME. Yay!

  2. What a wonderful post! Very helpful, thank you!

  3. That pie looks amazing! Unfortunately I can't find non-hydroginated anything here, so I generally end up using recipes that call for vegetable oil. I did an oatmeal pie crust that was to die for, and lost the recipe =(
    Can't wait to read about the pie fillings!

  4. Camila, you could also use hydrogenated shortening that's made with vegetable oil. As long as you're not eating it all the time, maybe it's not so bad?

    Alternatively, you could just replace the shortening with more margarine and that should work, too. It's hard to get a nice, flaky crust using vegetable oil, unfortunately. It just mixes in with the flour too easily and doesn't create those layers that you need in the dough.

  5. Thank you for the suggestions! I'll try that next time and tell you how it went =)