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Pie Crust...I will not be defeated!

Okay, pie crust is my nemesis. My arch-rival. It is the Lex Luthor to my Superman; the Megatron to my Optimus Prime; the Gargamel to my Cook Smurf.

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I have "made" numerous pie crusts, and of the ones that I could even get into the pan, they all turned out tough... the rest fell apart before I could even get them there. (The problem isn't the actual physical act of moving them, by the way - I can do both the quarter-fold and the technique where you wrap it around the rolling pin.)

Anyway, I've tried Alton Brown, David Lebovitz, Mark Bittman, Sur la Table / Art & Soul of Baking, Williams Sonoma, Dore Greenspan, and a couple others...and there's something I'm missing here.

Although I've tried a number of different recipes and they do vary a bit, as a general rule I use 1.25 c flour (a bit more than 6 ounces), 1 stick butter, a teaspoon or so of sugar, a pinch of salt and they all call for 3-4 tablespoons of water (which I THINK is my problem; see below). I don't think it's the recipes; these are all reputable and respectable folks whom I have no doubt can make a mean, flaky pie crust. It's me.

For ingredients I use: King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose flour, Land O'Lakes unsalted butter, filtered-tap water, Domino white sugar, and kosher salt from Penzey's. I cut the butter into 1/2 inch pieces and freeze it, I leave the water in the fridge for over an hour, and this past time I even set the dry ingredients in the food processor bowl in the freezer for about 15 mins before starting. I don't think it's the ingredients; again, it's me.

So here's what happens: I pulse the dry ingredients a couple times just to get them mixed together. Then I add the butter 1 piece at a time and pulse once (for a total of 8 pulses) and then a couple more pulses until the butter is pea-sized, give or take.

I turn the butter/flour compound into a mixing bowl and I sprinkle the water in, a tablespoon at a time, stir it into the dough...and it all goes to heck right here.

I simply do not understand how 3 tablespoons of water can make 1.25c flour and 8T butter into a dough. It doesn't come together at all. Even if I mash the stuff as hard as I can into a ball, it will fall directly apart. Same with 4, 5, and even 6T water. If I turn the dough out now and press it together, it will barely hold together - and when I take it out of the fridge to roll it out, it WILL crack and fall apart. (And for those of you wondering: yes, I have in fact tried this with 3, 4, 4.5, 5, 5.5, and 6T water. It won't roll out properly, even if I only chill the dough for an hour and let it rest for 10 mins outside of the fridge before rolling it.)

Once I get in the 8-10T range (or more), the dough will hold together enough for me to turn it out, press into a disc and get it in the fridge. It rolls out fine, then; I roll out, turn, roll out, turn, roll out, turn, etc, and keep it from sticking. Then I get it in the pan and blind bake it for about 20-25 mins at 400F (with foil and pie weights), and lo and behold... I have a crust so tough that it is almost literally inedible.

You can't cut it with anything other than my sharpest chef's knife, if even that, and you sure as heck can't chew it. The only thing I can figure is that the extra water makes me have to work it too much and so the dough gets tough from being overworked, although I don't know that for a fact. All I do know is that every single pie crust I've ever had hold together long enough to get into the pan has been tough as nails, and those are the ones that have 2-3 times the required amount of water.

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So, here's what I think my problem is: I'm not mixing the water into the dough properly.

I just don't know how to make the dough turn into "large, shaggy clumps" as seen on page 172 of Sur la Table's Art & Soul of baking without adding 1/2 cup or more of water to the dough.

I'm afraid of overworking the dough; should I stop being afraid of that? When I mix the water into the flour/butter compound, should I really dig in and mix it HARD? Right now I'm just sort of folding it in, and it's crumbly well past 3-4T of water.

Effectively, then, my real question is: how in the world do you get a mere 3T of water to turn that much other stuff into a dough?

Any advice at all would be greatly appreciated. I feel like I'm an expert on pie crusts - believe me, I know all about them - but I can't seem to make it work in practice... all my knowledge is theoretical.

Thanks, again, in advance!

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  1. OK I am an infrequent pie crust maker but here's where I think you are going wrong: the butter 1 tablespoon at a time and pulse method. You are maybe getting some of the butter too warm with the food processor or overworking the first pieces.

    The way I learned in high school home ec was to use a pastry blender or 2 butter knives (cutting in opposite directions) to cut up the butter into little crumbles with the flour. A fork works too. Some of your clumps will be big and some will be actual crumbs but just don't overdo it. Then sprinkle your water in until it comes together -- but it still might be kind of crumbly-looking but it's still OK. I'm always surprised by how dry it looks but then it still somehow becomes crust. But don't expect it to look like "dough" like bread dough when you do this. Somehow when you roll it out it smushes together into something that works. (Haven't done this in a while but hopefully someone who has will chime in if I am laughably off-base.)

    1. In the recipes I've used, one adds all the pieces of butter at once, so that when mixed they become uniform sized. Otherwise, the ones added first would melt from the processing. Also I have found 3 T of water to be quite adequate.

      1. I would try two things: change your recipes a bit: substitute shortening for some of the butter. All butter crust is better suited for fruit tart where one wants more of a crispy, cookie like texture. Pie dough should be tender and flaky. Second, up the salt a little bit to give the crust some flavor, especially if you are using unsalted butter.
        Here is my ingredients for a single crust, just enough for a 9 inch pyrex standard pie:
        1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (i am not picky, Gold Medal works fine)
        2/3 teaspoon salt
        1 tablespoon sugar
        3 ounces of cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, no need to get too precise, roughly 1/2 inch
        2 tablespoon chilled shortening
        3 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoon of COLD water
        Pulse all the dry ingredients together. Put in the small pieces of cold butter and the shortening.
        Pulse until the mixture until the fat is smaller than peas size. Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl. Slowly dribble in the cold water, mixing it with a large fork. A few drops of extra cold water will not hurt.
        Transfer the dough to a large sheet of plastic wrap. Fold the plastic wrap loosely over the dough and form into a nice flat disc by pressing with the palm down and using your other hand to push the dough inward. Chill the dough thoroughly. I roll the disc of dough between two plastic wrap or parchment papers. No extra flour is needed, dough do not stick to the any surface and easy to transfer the rolled circle into the pie plate. Chill the pie dough about 30 minutes before using.
        From my experience of teaching how to make pie crust using a food processor, two of the most common problem are:
        1. most cooks do not cut in the fat fine enough into the flour. Most recipes call for 'pea size' and that just leaves too much flour dry that is not coated with fat. When you get to 'peas' size stage, give the processor another two or three quick pulses.
        2. When mixing in the cold water into the flour mixture, there is a fine line between over-and under mixing. I have found that most beginners (paranoid from all those warnings of "DO NOT OVER WORK") do not mix in the cold water thoroughly enough, making the dough very crumbly. Use a big fork, dribble the cold water while pressing down with the fork. Mix a little, it is ok. A little extra mixing (as long as you are not using your warm hands) is better than adding more water which would really make your dough tough. If you work the dough right, 2 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoon of cold water is enough.
        For a double crust pie, it is easier for me to make the recipe twice and get two equal disks. No need to wash the food processor, etc.
        I hope this helps. Takes a few crust to get it right.

        2 Replies
        1. re: PBSF

          Ditto your point about the flour/fat not being blended enough, but the main flaw in NB's method is that he's gone overboard trying to avoid warmth and overworking. (See paragraphs below.) I use my family's handed down technique (not from any book I'm aware of) and I was always told to blend the fat into the flour just until the you start seeing coarse crumbs though part of the butter is still in bitty pieces. We also use either European butter (Plugra) or a mixture of butter and shortening. Someone I know says she uses part butter and part solid coconut oil, but I can't vouch for that.

          But I think perhaps that nickblesch went overboard w/ the chilling, and instead of the butter being too warm, it is frozen rather than cold, which means the water it contains doesn't mix w/ the flour, necessitating extra water to hold the dough together. Then, during rolling or baking, the butter releases its water and you've got a tough crust. NB did you read about freezing the butter somewhere, or did you just figure that if cold is good, colder would be better?

          Since all the other ingredients in his method are equally frigid, the fat never melts even a little before the dough is created and rechilled in the refrigerator. The fault is that we now have food processors. If a person were trying to cut in the fat w/ a pastry blender or a couple of forks, it physically couldn't be done before the fat softened a bit. A food processor makes it possible to get to the "pea" stage while the butter is still rock-hard.

          NB, I can see how hard you've been trying not to let the mixture get too warm, and not to overmix or overwork it. I think that actually easing up a bit, chilling rather than freezing and processing a bit longer and you'll have it! Let us know when you become victorious.

          1. re: Stein the Fine

            I have the exact same problems that the original poster has and came here looking for answers. You gave, by far, THE MOST useful, well thought out answer of all 70 replies on here. You actually took the time to read the original post and didn't make any assumptions. I, too, believe I am guilty of "over-trying". We want SO BADLY to do everything right, that we overdo it. The thing is, though, a lot of advice DOES venture into the "freeze your fats in the freezer" area and even advises to put your flour into the freezer as well! It is stressed SO MUCH that everything needs to be AS COLD AS POSSIBLE that we refuse to touch the dough longer than a second in fear of ANYTHING getting warm or melting the least little bit. We're so afraid of it that our dough is crumbly because we don't want to touch and are afraid to even smoosh it together with our hands. I have also had the water issue because the ingredients we use are so cold, the fat doesn't incorporate properly and so we have to use even more water to bring it together, and thus, becomes vastly overwatered once the butter actually does start to melt in the oven. THIS MAKES SO MUCH SENSE!!! Thank you for giving a real, scientifically based, thoughtful answer! Thank you again! I will come back and let you know how my next crust goes!

        2. Rather than critique your pie crust recipe (I see a number of things that I disagree with) try this one once - at least once. I'm confident you'll abandon the one you've been using.
          For two two crust pies or four single crust pies:
          3 cups AP flour
          1 1/4 cups vegetable shortening (Crisco - forget about butter)
          1 egg, well beaten
          1 tsp. salt
          5 Tbsp. room temperature water
          1 Tbsp. white vinegar
          Combine salt and flour
          Use pastry cutter or opposing knives to cut shortening into the flour to form pea sized bits
          Combine egg, water and vinegar
          Form a well in the flour and add the egg/water/vinegar mixture (dump it into the well)
          Use a fork to combine all ingredients just enough to pull everything together. Do not overmix.
          Form the resulting dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for 30 - 60 minutes.
          Remove the dough from the fridge, leave it covered and allow to rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes
          Divide into four equal pieces (you can set two of them aside and hold them in the fridge for about two days or freeze them until a later time if you don't intend to use them right away)
          Put the dough ball on a lightly floured surface and press with your hand, then roll (from center outward; turning the dough if you need to so that it rolls out evenly)
          Place dough into pie pan, dock with a fork and bake at 475 degrees for about 8 minutes. Remove from oven, fill as desired
          For two crust pie, fill the bottom crust, cover with top crust, vent top crust and bake your pie as you normally would.
          The only way to mess this up is to overwork the dough - don't handle it any more than necessary.

          1. Edited because I misread the first post.

            I suspect two things: You're using the wrong fat (probably not enough, but I didn't do the math on your ratios), and you're working it too much.

            Are you at a high altitude? That changes things too.

            Pie crust really doesn't feel anything like bread dough. It just barely holds together before you roll it. You can practice on a pat crust till you get the hang of it. Then get yourself some of those round plastic zipper crust bags. You pop the dough inside and they force it into a perfect round. Once you use them, you'll wonder how you got along without them -- until you get to the point where you don't need them any longer really. I still use mine most of the time. Here's the King Arthur version:

            http://www.kingarthurflour.com/shop/i...

            In the meantime, please help yourself to my Aunt Susie's "Never Fail Pie Crust" here (though I laugh at how many very different recipes use that name):

            Sift together:
            1 1/4 cup flour
            1/2 teaspoon salt
            1/2 teaspoon baking powder

            Cut in 1/2 cup shortening, coconut oil or lard with a pastry blender. (Fumbling with two knives is for the birds.)

            Mix just until mixture resembles course cornmeal.

            Add 3 tablespoons ice water. Mix together gently until the mixture leaves the bowl.

            Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for one hour before rolling out.