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Why is my pie crust falling apart?

Yesterday I made a cherry pie. The flavor was great, but the appearance...not so much. Even though I cut slits for the steam, the pie came out of the oven with the top crust cracked and leaking. And even though I waited until it cooled completely, I cannot get an intact slice out of the pie plate--the crust just disintegrates. I usually make a mess of the first slice out, but after that, they come out pretty much intact. This time, the crust just crumbles. Can anybody help me figure out why?

My recipe is a work in progress--it's a hybrid of Cook's Illustrated, the New York Times, and my mother's recipe. Here's the version I used yesterday:

3 cups sifted pastry flour [I used King Arthur pastry flour] or all-purpose flour, plus more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon salt
14 Tablespoons unsalted butter [I used Organic Valley--the cultured European-style], chilled
7 Tablespoons rendered leaf lard, chilled
1/4 cup ice-cold vodka
1/4 cup ice water
1 Tablespoon white vinegar, chilled
1 egg white, slightly beaten

Sift together flour and salt. Cut butter and lard into flour until the biggest lumps of fat are kidney bean-sized. Combine egg, vodka, water, and vinegar. Pour liquid into flour mixture all at once. Blend with a spoon just until flour is all moistened. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before rolling out [I refrigerated it overnight].

Divide the dough into two balls and roll them out, one at a time, on waxed paper (you will need to sprinkle a fair amount of flour on the waxed paper, the dough, and the rolling pin to keep it from sticking).

To place the dough in the pie plate, flip the waxed paper over and peel it off carefully when dough is in place. Try not to stretch the dough as you’re putting it in the plate, or it will shrink back as it bakes. Trim so there is about a 1/2-inch of overhang all around. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before baking [again, I refrigerated the bottom crust overnight in the pie plate].

If the filling is going to be wet, brush the bottom crust with slightly-beaten egg white before chilling, to keep it from getting soggy [did that].

Fill the bottom crust and top with the top crust. Trim so there is about a 1/4-inch of overhang all around. Fold the overhang back over onto the rim. Seal edges together with fingers or the tines of a fork and fold just a little bit of it over the edges of the rim.

Adjust the oven rack to its lowest position. Place a baking stone in the bottom of the oven and preheat it to 400 degrees F. for at least 30 minutes.

Mask the edges of the pie with a pie shield or foil. Place the pie on the lowest oven rack for 15-20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees F. and move it down, directly on the baking stone. Follow the directions in your pie recipe for total baking time [I baked it for about 1 hour and 10 or 15 minutes total].

Here are of my some guesses:

The filling recipe calls for dotting the filling with 2 tablespoons of butter, cut in small bits. Is the problem that the crust is absorbing that?

Am I rolling it too thin? I had less than 1/2 inch of waste I need to trim after I get the crust on the pie plate. I'm using a standard 10-inch Pyrex deep-dish plate.

My filling was also too runny (I think the instant ClearJel I used was too old). Did the wetness of the filling affect the crust?

My mother's (very old) recipe called for a beaten egg, and less water than this (about 2-3 tablespoons). This was my first try without the egg. I'm pretty sure the egg was making earlier versions more sturdy, but nobody else uses egg in their pie crust, so it seems like it should be perfectly possible to do without it in mine!

Any other suggestions?

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  1. You need more liquid in pie crust dough -- either more cold water or vodka -- given the amount of flour and fat that you are using.

    1. You should have plenty of dough for a 10 inch crust, so I don't think too thin is a problem.

      My best guest is that you have not worked the flour enough, especially since you used pastry flour.. i.e. not enough gluten, the opposite of the normal problem of overworked / tough pie crust. I'm not sure how the alcohol / acid affects the texture (I just use water), but suspect that these might also reduce gluten formation.

      Also, you ratio of flour to fat to water seems high on fat, which combined with larger fat pieces may contribute to the weak structure. I generally take it something that is more like a cous-cous texture with some pea size pieces. I use 2 cups of flour to 12 oz butter to 6T water (this is good for a 9-inch 2-crust pies, but I have used this to get a 9in plus a 10in single crust pie.

      8 Replies
      1. re: firecooked

        Firecooked has it right. Pastry flour is low protein, which means less gluten. Vodka further inhibits gluten development - combine the two and your crust isn't going to have any structure at all. I would try it with all-purpose flour and see if that doesn't help.

        1. re: biondanonima

          That's just funny. I've read all the advice and conventional wisdom: "Don't add too much liquid. Use lower-protein flour. Don't handle the dough too much. You don't want to develop too much gluten!!" And apparently, I've over-done it! But I think you all are right: I'm not getting ENOUGH gluten development.

          Okay, back to the drawing board... (My husband is hating this--NOT. He has to eat all the experiments. They're messy, but they taste just fine).

          Thanks for your help--and if anybody else had more thoughts and suggestions, I would love to hear them!

          1. re: MsMaryMc

            I think the experts here have given you great advice. My amateur advice: you should pick one recipe and follow it exactly; combining recipes when you're baking can lead to disaster.

            1. re: walker

              Generally, in baking, I think you're right. Here, I don't agree.

              If I wanted to have my crust come out close enough to the ideal that each recipe-writer had in mind, first time, that would make sense. But there's something about just about every good recipe I've found that I don't like, as well as things that I do. The basic chemistry works the same in any flour/fat/liquid pie crust--I just need to find the right specific varieties of the basic ingredients, and the proportions, to produce the results I'm looking for. I'm willing to tinker and experiment as many times as necessary to get there (and my husband is happy to eat the not-quite-perfect experiments--they're usually not pretty, but they're hardly disasters!)

              1. re: MsMaryMc

                Going a step further - I tend to disagree with the old standby advice that you should always follow a recipe exactly when baking. For example, the amount of liquid needed to achieve the right texture in the dough varies not just by the flour you use but based on things like humidity and how you store your flour. Meanwhile, you and I can knead the same dough for the same amount of time and come out with markedly different results (doesn't really apply to pie crust, obviously). In a lot of ways, many baking recipes are more subject to change with day-to-day variations than non-baking recipes. Even recipes by weight are subject to change to get the best results.

                BTW, I agree with some of the other assessments - you need a little more gluten formation; you erred too far towards tender. You seem to be making a kind of variation on the CI crust - I think you've stumbled onto the reason they used AP flour rather than pastry flour.

        2. re: firecooked

          Your 12 oz is 24 tbsp fat to OP's 21, and she's using half again as much flour as you, so the problem is most definitely not too much fat for your method. About half the vodka evaporates so you are both using roughly 6 tbsp liquid.

          1. re: greygarious

            Oops... meant tablespoons, not oz.

          2. re: firecooked

            Correction - 12 Tablespoons butter, NOT oz

          3. Instead of a pie, it sounds like you're ending up with a crumble so I agree with the comment that it sounds like you're not getting enough gluten development in your dough.

            Also, instead of making a hybrid recipe, I'd personally stick with a crust you like or stick with a recipe that's tried and tested. Once you have a basic recipe, experiment with that to "make it your own."

            For example, I stick with the basic shortening, flour, water and a little salt recipes. I never found the need for egg, vodka or vinegar.

            5 Replies
            1. re: dave_c

              Only, I haven't found somebody else's crust recipe that I entirely like (not even my mother's--and that's saying a LOT). I am not a newbie baker by any means, and this is not a new project for me--I've been experimenting with pie crust for many, many years. I understand the basic chemistry behind it well enough to not be afraid to mess around with it. I am quite willing to accept some less-than-perfect results on the way to Pie Crust Nirvana.

              So thanks--I do appreciate the input on what's probably going wrong,and I do think you (and others) are probably right about the gluten development (or lack of).

              But as far as sticking to any one canonical recipe...where's the fun in that?? I do this for the enjoyment of learning what happens when I tweak it this way or that way. It's a quest--I take pleasure from the journey as well as the destination. I'm always looking for new ideas and input on the way--so please, keep up the specific suggestions for what to try next. But "stick to one recipe?" NOT an option.

              1. re: MsMaryMc

                What are you looking for in a perfect pie crust?

                There are many types of crust that can be used as pies which are all variations/premutations of one another. A few other names you can search for are ...
                Pate brisee
                Pate sablee
                Pate foncer
                Pate sucree
                Shortpastry

                1. re: dave_c

                  Thanks--but again, I'm not looking for another recipe. I'm looking for something more granular: advice on the varieties and proportions of ingredients in the recipe I'm using, and the chemistry of how they're interacting, and suggestions on how to adjust them for better results. I know there are some very experienced bakers here--professionals and home cooks--and people who have a good handle on food chemistry. I'm getting some great advice, so thanks for that!

                  My main concerns up until now have been flaky texture, and good flavor. I grew up on my mother's pies, which had the most exquisitely light, flaky crust I've ever had. But the flavor of her crusts...not so much. That's probably because she used 100% Crisco. I've been reading various recipes, and experimenting with other fats, and that's how I came to the 2:1 ratio of butter and lard (it was suggested in a New York Times article http://tinyurl.com/6w88na7 where the author tested a whole lot of different fats and combinations). I like the flavor of that combination a lot more, but I'm still working my way back toward something resembling the texture of my mother's crust. I know I won't ever duplicate her results exactly with those fats, but I'm looking for the best possible compromise of flavor and texture.

                  Up until now, I hadn't been concerned about my crust falling apart--the beaten egg was probably preventing that--but without the egg, this last time, that became a real problem.

                  I'd also like my pies to look a little prettier. I think that's more my technique than the recipe--I'm still trying to get the hang of making the edges tidy and even and perfectly-crimped. The butter is probably also a culprit in making them more melty and messy-looking after baking, so I may have to live with some of it. But my mother's pies looked like a food stylist's dream, so realistic or not, I have a pretty high standard in my head that I'm trying to live up to!

                  1. re: MsMaryMc

                    The trick to getting a pretty and nicely edged all-butter pie crust is to roll and form the crust, then freeze it for about half an hour before baking it in a preheated oven.

                    I think you are having trouble with water amounts. Do you live in a drier climate?

                    Also, some newer recipes advise to beat the fat in your kitchenaid with half of the flour, then to blend in the rest of the flour, then the liquid. This works very well and makes a plastic dough that results in a flaky crust.

                    1. re: sandylc

                      Nope, not exactly dry--I'm in Seattle! I think I've just gotten so thoroughly convince that I had to go easy on the liquid, I've been TOO stingy with it.

                      I'm adding that suggestion about beating half the flour and the fat to my list of things to try. I've read it a few places and at first I was skeptical, but it does keep coming up, and some people swear by it.

            2. cherry pie wants a lattice crust. you got a lot of water to get rid of.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Chowrin

                Interesting...I hadn't thought of that. I've never done a lattice crust--i figured I'd tackle that skill after I got closer to being satisfied with my basic flat crust. But that's a good point--my cherries are fresh ones I've had in the freezer since last summer, and they are REALLY juicy. I'll have to try that, too.

                1. re: MsMaryMc

                  make apple pies with the flat crust. but lattices are actually easier to make, for me, because i don't need a full flat piece with no holes.

                  1. re: MsMaryMc

                    You don't necessarily need to go to the trouble of overlaying or basketweaving lattice strips. You can use a mini cookie cutter to cut a LOT of decorative holes in the top crust (before applying it). And places like King Arthur sell decorative stencils for cutting top crusts.

                2. I just wanted to give y'all an update, and say thanks again for all the great advice.

                  I actually took a big leap this weekend and entered my first cooking contest: a cherry pie bake-off. I took the consensus advice here and used all-purpose flour instead of pastry flour. That made a BIG difference. I also added more ice water, which made the dough easier to work with, and probably helped with the texture. The crust held together, and it was beautifully flaky. I was pretty happy with it!

                  i didn't win, but I was in good company--there were 17 entries, and some of them were really, really good. Still, I was pretty happy with my pie, and I think I had a respectable entry that belonged on that table. And, I learned a lot.

                  I think I have the basic crust recipe down at last, but I made a couple of mistakes: again, I think I've taken some of the conventional wisdom for making the bottom crust crisp and not soggy, and gone too far with it. I brushed it with beaten egg white and let that set before adding the filling, and I baked the pie (after warming it on a low oven rack for the first 20 minutes) directly on a baking stone in the bottom of the oven. I ended up with a nicely-browned but tough bottom crust. Also, while I have the flavor of the filling just where I want it, it still came out too runny. I use Instant ClearJel to thicken it, and I seem to veer between too glue-y and not thick enough. Still need to find the sweet spot. I was going to try a lattice crust, but chickened out at the last minute--since it was for the contest, and I only had time for one try, I knew I'd be good and pissed if I screwed it up. I do want to try it next time! Guess my husband is going to have to eat more experiments (OH, NO!!!)

                  Again, thanks for your help!!

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: MsMaryMc

                    Good job! Pies really are quirky to make! My mom and grandmother broke every pie-making rule in the book, yet were known for their pies. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason and you just have to find your own way of making them. My solution to the pale, soggy bottom was to start using foil pie pans - it works for me!

                    1. re: MsMaryMc

                      I'm glad to see your update; definitely try the lattice crust next time! You don't need to make it fancy for everyday cooking, even when I'm serving company I rarely do a perfect weave. No one notices!

                      Anyway, I missed your first post, but I wanted to encourage you to keep trying! Most of pie-making is about getting a feel for how everything should be. People always ask me the recipe for my pie crust, but just having the recipe would never work. I'm happy to let someone watch though: that way, they'll know what I mean by "worked in correctly" or "enough water." Once you get it down, you'll figure out what rules you can break (I rarely use ice water), and what takes it over the top (for me, half butter, half leaf lard). I made six or seven pies trying to figure out the right amount of salt....ah, the things we do for pastry ;-)

                      1. re: caseyjo

                        I know what you mean--I have my mother's recipe, but I never could get the kind of results she did with it. She just had a touch that came from nearly seventy years of practice. She broke ALL the rules--nothing chilled, working in a hot kitchen...and yet her pies were legendary (how much so? This is the footstone we put on her grave http://casagordita.com/images/Coot.jpg ).

                        I'm getting closer to her standard, but I'm developing my own recipe and techniques that seem to work for me. I think it really is about what works for YOU.

                        1. re: MsMaryMc

                          Wow, that is an amazing footstone!

                          It seems like so much of cooking is figuring out what works for you, and not being scared to experiment :-)

                          1. re: caseyjo

                            Yes, yes, and yes! plenty of things to be scared of ("heating and cooking milk" is notoriously fidgety). Pie ain't one of them.

                            Have fun, and if the pie crust shreds, roll it out again. won't hurt it.

                      2. re: MsMaryMc

                        clearjel and whatnot are really not necessary to get a non-soggy fruit pie.

                        Just macerate your fruit with sugar and a small amount of cornstarch; drain off the resulting liquid; and cook it down briefly in your microwave to get it to thicken.

                        With apples, I routinely par-cook the apples slightly as this not only expresses more liquid (which can then be cooked down) but also causes a chemical change in the fruit itself which helps it to hold its shape during the final baking. It seems counterintuitive but the science is there. I'd been doing this for decades before I found out WHY it works. It was just something that I was told would solve my soggy crust problem when I was a kid, it did, so I continued to do it.

                        I doubt you'd get quite the same effect with cherries (re the strengthening of the structure of the fruit) but it would be worth while to parcook them briefly to express more of the juices. Then cook the juices down - only takes a few minutes on the microwave (depending on the strength of your microwave). I don't cook cherry pies nearly as often as apple, but when I have, this seems to have worked just as well as it does for apples.

                        Then let the fruit cool to room temp, add to your rolled out pie crust and pour the thickened juices over the top. You preserve every bit of flavor but avoid the soggy crust problem entirely.

                      3. You might want to check out a blog called the Art of the Pie with Kate Mcdermott. She has a video on how she makes pie crust.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Ruthie789

                          Thanks--I read it regularly! She's actually located here in western Washington, and does a half-day workshop that I'm dying to take (I just have to come up with the $200). Or, when I win the lottery, I'll sign up for her 4-1/2 day Pie Camp out on the Olympic Peninsula. Mucking around with pies for five days with a master pie-maker and a few other equally-obsessed pie geeks--that's my idea of a fabulous vacation!

                          1. re: MsMaryMc

                            Sounds like that is a plan and on your bucket list, its on mine too! I am trying to get her to come to Montreal....As for your pie dilemna, I have the same with mine. It falls apart and looks like a patchwork quilt once I roll it out. However, I joined a community kitchen and we made pies last fall and what a blast it was. We rolled pie crust out on a pie crust mat, and since then have been using that and it has made a difference. It is still not pie perfection, UGH,.. I am also quite a good baker, but pie, pie is my challenge. My Mom could make a pie without any fuss and that's what I want to be able to do!

                            1. re: Ruthie789

                              If it falls apart, you want more water. just chop it back to pea sized, and add the water (I do this ALL THE TIME. never hurts it a whit!). Then reroll. (also, yes, something nonstick beneath is a lifesaver)