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Please Help the Pie Crust Challenged!

I admit, I come from a long line of seasoned pie bakers. Grandma, Mom, Aunts, Uncles - they can all make a mean pie crust. Me, not so much. I've tried Grandma's recipe (from an ancient Joy of Cooking), I've tried Cooks Illustrated with vodka, without vodka, all butter, butter and shortening, food processor, stand mixer, by hand with a pastry blender - none of it turns out the perfect pie crust.

Please, tell me your secrets. Details please!!!

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  1. 3 cups AP flour
    1 1/4 cups shortening (Crisco)
    1 egg, well beaten
    1 tsp. salt
    5 Tbsp. cold (ice cold if you have it) water
    1 Tbsp. Vinegar

    Cut shortening into flour using pastry blender until pea sized bits develop. Add salt. Combine egg, water, and vinegar. Add to the flour mixture and mix just until all ingredients are blended and rough/shaggy dough develops. Form into ball, cover with plastic wrap and set aside in refrigerator one hour.
    Divide into four pieces (one for each bottom crust, one for each top crust) and roll to approx. 1/8 - 1/4 inch thickness.
    Proceed as you typically would with forming bottom and top crusts.
    If you pre-bake the shell, bake at 475 degrees for about 8 - 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Be be sure to dock and weight the bottom of the crust in the pie tin..
    Do not substitute shortening with butter or margarine ..... and try to handle the dough as little as possible. Overworking the dough develops the gluten and you don't want high levels of gluten development in a pie dough.
    Also, the amount of water may vary from 4 - 5 Tbsp. depending on humidity and how you measure the flour. It's sometimes advisable to use 4 Tbsp + 1 tsp. and add the last two tsp. when you see how the dough ball is forming.

    9 Replies
    1. re: todao

      Thanks! I'll try this one next. I'm doing a quiche on Sunday, so I'll see how it goes. No magic secret, though, huh??? :)

      1. re: jenhen2

        No magic secret. Just gotta be sure not to handle the dough more than necessary to avoid toughening the crust. Which also means remembering to keep it from getting too warm under the rolling pin when rolling it out. Just press the ball of dough flat with your hand, start rolling from the center toward the edges; turn and repeat until desired thickness if achieved, and go for it. My wife has used this recipe for thirty years. Tried others (before trying this one and after being given this one by a very good friend and always returns to this, her "no fault" pie crust. I'm very fussy about pie crust. I believe that any idiot can fill a pie shell but if the crust isn't tender flakey the pie isn't worth eating. With this recipe, I often enjoy eating the crust with a cup of coffee before even cutting in to the filling.

      2. re: todao

        I've made pie crust with many many different recipes. Sometimes I use all butter, sometimes I use butter and crisco, if I have it I use butter and lard. Sometimes I use some cream cheese as well. This is all just to say that it's probably not the recipe that's your problem but the technique. As long as a recipe has adequate fat (about 1/4-1/2 cup per cup of flour) good technique will turn out a good pie crust.

        Unfortunately, good technique takes practice. I made bad crusts for years before finally getting the touch. Here are some tips I learned along the way (these are for a flaky, not cookie-like, crust):

        1) if you're not sure, it's better to add too much water than too little. Too much water might make the dough tough, but too little water will make it dry and hard to work and then you'll end up overworking it, which is much worse.

        2) don't cut the fat into the flour too much. Try holding some of it back. Cut in the first batch of fat in pretty uniformly and then add the part you held back and cut that in only a little (you should still see lumps of fat about the size of peas).

        3) if you're after a flaky crust and have a light touch, you can pat and fold the dough a couple of times before refrigerating it, which will add to the flaky layers.

        4) you can use a food processor for cutting in the fat, but always add the water by hand in a bowl. Also, the food processor will never give you as flaky a crust as doing it by hand. (I speak from experience). I use my fingers to rub the fat into the flour, but i realize i'm in the minority. Use whatever method you feel comfortable with.

        5) the fat should be cold, but not too cold. If it's too cold you may end up overworking the flour. I find that frozen butter is too hard and requires me to work the flour too much, resulting in a tough dough. If you're using a food processor however, it's okay to use frozen butter.

        6) keep at it until you figure out what works for you. Everyone seems to have a different way that works for them. I have one friend who turns out incredible pie dough using oil, which I never thought was possible. If you can, watch someone whose crust you love make the crust and pay close attention to their technique.

        7) invest in a marble topped board (or other cold smooth stone) for rolling out the dough. I do find this makes a difference, as does having a good rolling pin. If you can't do that, then try rolling between sheets of wax paper. Also, always let the dough rest outside the fridge for 15 minutes or so before rolling it. Rolling dough that is too cold will usually result in over-rolling and a tough crust.

        hope this helps. but really, practice makes perfect. good luck!

        1. re: missmasala

          Thank you ever so much!

          I'm another one who can bake anything else but do lousy and frustrating pie crust. My great aunt who was a monster in the kitchen and baked every loaf of bread her family ever ate was the same way.

          I've added your notes to my recipe database. I will especially review my recipes for that ratio of fat to flour.

          1. re: missmasala

            As a PS I had been using this "No Fail" pastry with good results until this Thanksgiving when I doubled the recipe and had disastrous results that seemed to be all shortening and melted rather than baked over the fillings.

            http://www.cooks.com/rec/view/0,1937,...

            1. re: rainey

              So, this no-fail works well *unless* it's doubled? (It seems like any recipe should be OK if carefully doubled, halved, etc. -- but sometimes (usually when baking?) it just ain't so!

              1. re: rainey

                It may not be well-understood, but water quantities for pastry (or other liquids, for that matter) are mostly suggestive, not rules. Pastry is very delicate and the absorption properties of flour vary daily, depending on factors such as the weather, the temperature in the room, where it is stored, etc. Doubling up a recipe can be a disaster for this very reason. Liquid should always be added slowly and adjusted to compensate for the flour properties on the day it is being made. There is a reason that water is measured in tablespoons of water, rather than cupfuls and it should be added in small amounts till the dough incorporates, because it cannot be taken out, once added.

                1. re: rainey

                  doubling pie crust recipes is usually an okay thing to do. I guess I would think back to make sure you doubled all the ingredients properly. From what you described, it sounds to me like the pastry was too "short." Is it possible you lost count of the flour and added too little. Or doubled the shortening wrong and added too much. Not that I'm questioning your math skills, but i have done that in the past. I lose track of how much I have already measured or get distracted and double improperly.
                  Again, practice can help this. If, when you're rubbing in the shortening (or butter or whatever) if you hold some back you can, with practice, tell when the flour has had enough rubbed into it. Then, even if you have extra, you don't have to put it in.

                  In my experience, if the flour-shortening mix seems to hold together before the water is added, the crust will end up too short and greasy and will melt.

                  1. re: missmasala

                    Oh yeah! I *assume* it was my mistake exaggerated by the fact that it's a very soft dough anyway and, so, I didn't recognize my error earlier.

                    The thing is, I can occasionally make a decent pie but, as a rule and compared with my other baking, I'm still struggling to master the art.

            2. This recipe made my first successful flaky and light pie crust this Thanksgiving. I think the secret might have been that the cube of butter was fresh from the freezer and I chopped the frozen cube up and used it right away. This recipe is a combination of several other recipes.

              Flaky Pie Crust

              Makes single, 9-inch pie crust

              Ingredients

              1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
              1-1/2 teaspoons sugar
              1/4 teaspoon salt
              1/2 cup (8 Tbs, 1 cube) butter, almost frozen
              2 tablespoons shortening, very cold
              3-1/2 tablespoons ice water (water with ice chips in it)

              1. Mix flour, salt and sugar in food processor fitted with steel blade. Scatter almost frozen butter in 1/4 inch pieces over flour mixture. Cut butter into flour with about 5 or 10 2-second pulses. Add shortening and continue pulsing food processor in until flour is pale yellow and resembles coarse cornmeal with butter and shortening bits no larger than small peas, about five more 2-second pulses. Turn mixture into mixing bowl.

              2. Sprinkle 3-tablespoons of ice water over mixture. With a fork, press down on dough and stir until dough sticks together, adding up to 1/2 tablespoon more ice water if dough will not come together. Shape dough into a ball with your hands. Flatten into 4-inch-wide
              disk. Dust lightly with flour, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 60 minutes before rolling.

              3. I rolled out the dough on a smooth pyrex glass cutting board with a standard wooden rolling pin. I tried a marble rolling pin, but is was just too heavy and hard to control. Use plenty of flour and also a steel spatula to slide under dough if it starts to stick. Roll the dough from the center out and rotate it a 1/4 turn after each pass of the rolling pin. I think the cold glass is better for the dough than a wood surface.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Antilope

                That frozen butter thing really works for me for making scones. I spent decades trying to make a memorable scone before I discovered frozen butter by accident.

                But I see that missmasala recommends against frozen butter for pastry... ::sigh::

                1. re: rainey

                  Hey, if frozen butter works for you, go for it! To each his or her own.

                  I find that if the butter is too frozen and hard, when i rub it into the flour i end up overworking it. But if it works for you, that's great. what's important is that everyone finds a technique they are comfortable with and keeps at it until they feel they have mastered it.

              2. You haven't detailed in what ways your crusts are sub-par so it is hard to know what you are doing wrong - but if you are failing with CI's recipes I suspect you aren't heeding temperature and/or resting time recommendations.

                15 Replies
                1. re: greygarious

                  Actually, it's more the fat cutting that's the problem, I think. Either too big chunks or too small. I think missmasala is right - I don't practice. I've convinced myself that i can't do it, to I don't do it often.

                  This Thanksgiving, I made a lemon pie and filling was great. Crust was okay, but I made the CI recipe per instructions. Rolled it out and fitted into pan - actually, at this point, thought it looked much better than other attempts. Still, had some pretty big chunks of rolled out butter, which I know is not ideal. Anyway, I froze dough in pan for 30 mins. Removed from freezer, lined with foil, filled with dried beans and baked per instructions. Dough slipped down the sides of the pan an collapsed on itself, so what should have been 1 1/2 inch high sides were about half that. Also, didn't get even browning - when I lifted the foil, it pulled up parts of the dough so some ended up much thinner. It wasn't a total disaster, but not what I'd consider a success.... Maybe more practice is just what I need.

                  1. re: jenhen2

                    Try the CI method of grating the stick of frozen butter on the largest holes of a box grater, then toss into the flour with a fork, This distributes the butter perfectly throughout. To blind bake, fit the dough into the pan, then place a second pan the same size over it. Invert the "sandwich" and bake, removing the extra pan as soon as the crust is done. Gravity keeps the crust from shrinking.

                    1. re: jenhen2

                      hmm, foil shouldn't stick to pie dough--it has too much fat.

                      Also, all-butter pie crusts will shrink a lot more during baking than crusts made with shortening or lard (butter has a higher water content, which evaporates) so if you stretch or pull dough at all during placing in pan/primping crust, that will just shrink back during pre-baking.

                      I think chunks of butter are ideal in the dough--that's what creates flakiness. however, if the crust slipped down sides of pan and collapsed on itself, then it sounds like there was too much fat it in--it was too greasy.

                      I say start with a simpler recipe than CI's, either Todao's above (I don't like the taste of an all-shortening crust but the egg in it will add nice structure) or one from the joy of cooking or something like that. I find that CI recipes are sometimes too complicated and intimidating. pie crust shouldn't take a long time or be complicated (i can't imagine grating the butter--who has time for that). Pies used to be an everyday thing in parts of the US and no one was fetishizing the process the way we do today. They were just combining some fat and some flour, adding water, and rolling it out.

                      If you feel you always cut in the fat either too big or too small, try my suggestion from above. Take two-thirds of the fat and cut it in really small. keep working it until the mixture feels almost like coarse cornmeal. Then take the last third of the fat and work it in until it's in pea-sized pieces.

                      I just made a crust tonight (took me five minutes to put the dough together) I put about a cup and a quarter of flour in a bowl. to that I added 3 oz of cream cheese and 2 tablespoons of butter. I worked that together with my fingers until it felt sort of crumbly. then I added two tablespoons of lard (not the supermarket kind but some leaf lard I render myself) and worked that in just until little pea-sized bits remained. (this is less fat than is usually in a pie crust, but i find i can get away with it when i use cream cheese.) then added about 3 tablespoons water that had a smidgen of vinegar in it. Tossed and folded with a fork until it came together, then quickly formed it into a ball with my hands. went into fridge for about 20 minutes (yes, longer is better, but I didn't have the time).

                      Also, another trick for a better bottom crust (not for prebaked shells) is to put the pie on the floor of your oven (on a baking tray) to bake for the first 15 minutes.

                      Practice again and let us know how it goes.

                      1. re: missmasala

                        Grating frozen butter takes no time at all - FAR faster and easier than cutting into tiny cubes! You render leaf lard yourself, and you think grating is complicated and time-consuming? More power to you, but your method sounds a lot fussier than any of CI's. Adding egg or cream cheese makes for a sturdier shell but it is not flaky enough to qualify as what I personally would consider a pie crust.

                        1. re: greygarious

                          my cream cheese crust is plenty flaky.

                          and i render the lard once a year, not every time i use it.

                          i've tried grating the butter and i find it way more time-consuming than simply cutting it (and adds one more thing to wash) but hey, as my point in my first post was, each to his own.

                          people turn out amazing flaky pie crusts with thousands of different recipes (including ones with oil!!!), so the key lies in the technique, not the recipe. which is why the OP needs to make lots of pie crusts. it's all about practice until you get the feel for it.

                          I accept that there are some more involved recipes that might work better for a novice, but i worry that if it's too complicated it will keep a novice baker from making pie crust a lot, as it will seem like a chore. That's why i think people should find the simplest recipe that works for them and keep at it.

                          People will have different opinions about what constitutes a simple recipe depending on their kitchens and inclinations. I have a small kitchen with negligible counter space and must handwash most things, so I shy away from pie crust recipes that use too many vessels and utensils (food processor, grater, and a bowl? that's two too many for me) that's why i use one bowl and work it in by hand. Someone with a large kitchen and two dishwashers may find that the grating/food processor/bowl method works better for them and that's fine.

                          1. re: missmasala

                            When I use frozen butter in my scones, I just cut off thin slices with a chef's knife. The frozen butter shatters as it is cut away and the shards are perfect to just toss in the dry ingredients.

                            Doesn't take long. The results are perfection for scones.

                      2. re: jenhen2

                        "I froze dough in pan for 30 mins. Removed from freezer, lined with foil, filled with dried beans and baked per instructions. Dough slipped down the sides of the pan an collapsed on itself, so what should have been 1 1/2 inch high sides were about half that."

                        It sounds like you might be stretching your dough instead of rolling it. It has to be rolled out from the centre to keep it's size and shape. If the edges are just being pulled outward, they'll spring back, shrink and collapse, as you described.

                        We once bought a new style rolling pin and had to send it to the yard sale pile because our crusts were shrinking so much more than with our old rolling pin.

                        1. re: middydd

                          That's interesting. My rolling technique was (becuase it was the recipe with vodka and thus requires extra flour to roll out) to generously flour my granite counter top. Then, I took the well-rested dough (2 days) from the fridge and used my french rolling pin (all wood, no handles, tapered at the very edges), and rolled from the center out, turned the dough, rolled again, etc. until I had 1/8 inch thick ound. I then rolled that onto the pin and unrolled into a tin tart dish. I lifted the excess up and pressed the dough down into the corners. Trimmed off the remaining excess and then froze. How does one know if she is stretching versus rolling? Please advise. Thanks!

                          1. re: jenhen2

                            That was my exact experience with a tapered pin like you describe, my crusts shrunk terribly until I switched back to an old style, heavier pin with separate handles.

                            1. re: middydd

                              oh, great to know. I had heard they were better but will try my old regular one next time. Great tip!

                              1. re: jenhen2

                                i have both kinds and never use the french one to roll out pie crust. the american separate handled one works much better.

                              2. re: middydd

                                I bought a French pin based on the CI recommendation and much prefer it. because of the way it feeds dough out toward the edges if the proper rolling technique is used.

                                1. re: greygarious

                                  French rolling pins look intriguing, but I just can't bring myself to spend $ 15 or $ 20 dollars for a tapered stick.

                                  1. re: Antilope

                                    Nor I - mine came from Kitchen Etc. and was $6, about 8 years ago. Chances are that Bed, Bath & Beyond now has them, since they took up the slack when ET and LNT closed. With their everpresent discount coupons, they should be affordable.

                                    1. re: greygarious

                                      Thanks, I'll check it out. I was referring to Amazon prices. Currently the cheapest delivered is about $ 12.

                      3. I just took a pie class from L'Academie de Cuisine and it was the most helpful class since my pie crusts have been hit or miss, mostly too tough. We were given a recipe for an all butter crust that is so flakey and tender. If you want, I can post the recipe. But, the main poinst I took away are:

                        1) everything very cold, all the time, and stop and refrigerate if you need, at any point along the way.

                        2) I used a stand mixer. Put flour and very cold butter (I cut it into little cubes and then freeze quickly while I assemble everything else) in the stand mixer and mix only until the edges of the butter are dulled. Not until coarse crumbs like most recipe ask for.

                        3) add water and lemon juice (again, I mix it up and keep in the freezer as I assemble the other parts) quickly. Mix just until it's a "straggly mess." You don't want it forming a ball or coming together.

                        4) Dump onto cold countertop and quickly assemble, touching as little as possible, I had to give it a quick couple of turns but the instructor didn't. There will be chunks of butter in the dough that you can see, up to dime size pieces. Gather into disk shape (large hockey puck), wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

                        At this point, you can leave it up to two days or freeze. When ready to use, the instructor said the biggest mistake people make, in the whole process, is in rolling. Flour the surface lightly. Start from center and push out. Using a dough scraper (never touch the dough at this point or butter will melt) slide under dough and turn. Roll again from center out. Turn w/ scraper (I use a spatula and it works fine). Repeat. Flour lightly as necessary. If it sticks to the rolling pin, clean it off w/ a towel and continue. When flat, put on parchment (I use silpat), cover w/ plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: chowser

                          Thank you! Also adding your notes to my recipe database.

                          And I'd be very pleased to have your recipe.

                          1. re: rainey

                            Here you go:
                            2 1/2 c. flour (King Arthur AP unbleached)
                            1 c cold butter cut into cubes
                            1/2 tsp salt
                            1/2 c. ice water
                            1/4 tsp lemon juice

                            I'll post a picture of the apple pie I just made with this crust if I can get a decent shot. I'm a terrible photographer.

                            1. re: chowser

                              Thanks.

                              I'm thinking 2 1/2 cups of flour results in a double crust pie?

                              What temp would you bake a blind crust at? How about a filled fruit pie?

                              1. re: rainey

                                Yes, it makes enough for two 9" or a mile high apple pie, thanks I forgot to mention it. For the mile high apple pie, we baked at 400 deg for 45 minutes. For blind baking, we didn't cover it in class but I do it at 350 but length of time depends on the filling. For more custardy ones, like pumpkin, I'll do it longer but not bother for something like the mile high apple pie. She doesn't recommend docking the crust first or brushing with egg wash on the bottom crust before filling. But, we did brush the top w/ egg white wash (with a little salt) and to adhere the two crusts. She also recommended, if we wanted little cut outs like leaves, to make them and bake them on the size and adhere after the pie is baked. She said the shapes hold better that way. There you go--a four hour class summarized in three posts, although I didn't go into the mile high apple pie, pecan pie and pumpkin pies we made which were all amazing. A cup of cream in the mile high apple pie...

                        2. I was "Cordon Bleu" trained, back in the day BEFORE food processors were things that every household owned. I aced every pastry class following basic rules. You HAVE to use your fingertips. You "rub," using a gentle touch, the ice cold (and you can use chunks of frozen butter if you use this method) shortening into the flour, lifting up the flour all the while and taking care not to warm the shortening (butter or otherwise) too much. If it warms, put the entire bowl into the freezer for a short while after you rub the shortening into the flour. Then (as someone said below) using a FORK, gently incorporate ice-cold water into the flour. Refrigerate the dough till well chilled, before rolling. Marble or granite make good surfaces for rolling dough because they stay cold. The key to good crust or pastry of any kind is keeping everything cold. You can even place the bowl over a larger bowl with iced water in it. One thing we were taught, but since I always have fairly cold hands I never had to do it, is that if you place ice cold water onto your wrists, it cools your hands down. I don't know if it works because I never needed such "desperate" measures.

                          All "old-fashioned" cooks "rub" the shortening into the dough for a flaky crust.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: koshermasterchef

                            I don't know if they are hot or cold, but i always use my hands as i find that is the best way to get a feel for the dough.

                          2. i have a specific problem with my crust - it cracks - a lot. When i go to start rolling it out, on the fist pass it will usually crack an inch or more on the side I roll towards. It never gets any better. I can never roll out a perfect circle because I'm always chasing cracks around the edges. Yes, I did let it warm up a bit before rolling and it was refrigerated overnight.

                            Too little water? I only add enough for it to come together.

                            Is there any way to fix this? I have three more portions to roll out. The first one I did was a disaster as usual.

                            6 Replies
                            1. re: shadesofjay

                              it does sound like maybe you added too little water.

                              I've read that pounding the dough a little with your rolling pin before rolling out helps to prevent cracks. never tried it, though.

                              the alternative is to patch the cracks. usually after baking the patches are not noticeable.

                              1. re: missmasala

                                The way pounding the dough was explained to me was that it softened the fat that had been hardened by chilling. Much like your theory of frozen butter getting overworked, the idea is that if you mechanically make the fat relax a little, you can roll it more efficiently so you're done before you develop any gluten.

                                1. re: rainey

                                  I have had the same problem of cracking, although other times I have made pastry just fine using the usual techniques mentioned on this page. I have noticed that the cracking seems particularly bad when i've left the pastry in the fridge for a day, as opposed to the usual one hour. I think leaving in the fridge too long exacerbates problems of adding too little water. After a day or two the pastry is very hard and despite leaving it to warm up for an hour or two is still very hard to roll without cracking or completely disintegrating. I think in future i will add more water, try the mechanical bashing, and only leave pastry to chill for one hour max, and leave longer to come up to a rollable temperature. Also i think the cracking might be worse when making pastry with self raising flour... although when i patched it together it did make a beautiful light crust for a warm strawberry pie!

                                  Any thoughts on this theory anyone? Maybe I'm just adding too little water and a day in the fridge ought to be fine?

                                  1. re: Noelly

                                    A very common pie crust mistake is not adding enough water. When there is enough water the dough should be soft and spongy and roll out easily.

                                    1. re: TrishUntrapped

                                      I find this to be true as well. I generally use lard in my pie crusts and 6-8 Tbsp of water. 2 cups flour , 2/3 cups lard, dash of salt makes a double crust. I generally use food processor as it is quick and easy. I only chill dough for 20-30 minutes wrapped in plastic wrap so water does not evaporate in fridge.

                              2. re: shadesofjay

                                Your crust is not sufficiently hydrated. Try a vodka crust - the principle is that alcohol allows a wetter, easier-to-roll dough but then cooks out, so the finished crust is still crisp and flaky. Vodka is the usual choice because it is half alcohol and flavorless but you could use other spirits if you do the math according to the percentage of alcohol. For example, you might like to use amaretto in a peach or pear pie, or Calvados with an apple pie, for flavors that complement the filling.

                              3. Frozen butter, cold flour, tupperware pastry mat, Clean new spray bottle filled with ice water.

                                No matter the recipe, take 2 tablespoons flour out and replace it with 2 Tablespoons corn starch to duplicate a pastry flour.

                                Mix all the dry powders very well together (flour, sugar, starch,salt, etc) and dump them on the mat.

                                Use a coarse veggie grater, grate the frozen butter over the top of the dry powder. Grate about a third at a time, and toss it around with a bench scraper to mix. Try to coat the shavings of butter , don't make a lump.

                                Now, use the spray bottle. Spread your dry/butter mix out, spray with water and so gently push the heel of your hand away from you. Don't worry about measuring the water, use a fine mist. You will feel the dough come together and all of the traces of dry powder will disappear. Try not to completely mush the butter. Freeze/refrig then roll out.

                                1. Secrets! =3
                                  1. ONLY butter cut in zagged chunks frozen when added.
                                  2. Ice water always ice and I mean ice'd water.
                                  3. Hand mix only
                                  Like you most are crust challenged.