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Pie dough frustrations

I'm determined to conquer pie dough! I know it takes practice but there's one element that is driving me crazy.

Everything is nice and cold. The recipe is simple. I use pastry/cake flour, unsalted butter, a tsp of salt and tblsp of sugar. I cut in the butter with a pastry blender until I THINK the pieces look 'pea sized'. Then I add the water (1/4 cup at first as per the recipe) then a tablespoon at a time. No matter how careful I am, the dough will not form into a ball. I don't want to add too much water but when I try to form it, it crumbles and falls apart. If I add too much water, it gets sticky (no good). Tonight it somehow achieved both - I think it was on the verge of too much water and yet it still wouldn't hold together.

When I finally got it into a ball, divided it and wrapped it in plastic wrap it didn't look anything like the picture. I could see larger pieces of butter (even though I cubed it) in the dough and sections were starting to fall apart so it wasn't a nice neat disk.

What am I doing wrong????

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  1. You're not kneading (or working the dough) enough.

    Even though the common refrain of "don't overwork the dough" is true when it comes to making pie crusts, the key here is "overwork".

    You still need to do some kneading.

    1. A little kneading is in order. Think smear the dough across the worktop, and then gather together again. Then rest/chill to let the gluten relax again.
      And if you think the dough needs a bit more liquid, use vodka; the alcohol (mostly) evaporates in cooking, but holds the dough together for workability.

      1. You can try Beranbaum technique of working the dough using the plastic bag. I think it helps keep the heat of your hands from melting the butter, not to mention keeps your hands clean!

        1. Yes, it sounds like a kneading problem. But to be honest.............about 80% of the time now I use one of those Pillsbury crusts. They are so easy and really quite good.

          1 Reply
          1. re: FriedClamFanatic

            For me, the crust is everything. I have no problem with fillings. Lemon meringue, chocolate cream, apple, pecan...no problems there. If I bought the crust, I might as well buy the whole pie! But that's just me. I get something like 'pie crust' in my head and I won't stop until I learn how to do it.

          2. Very interesting suggestions! It's true that I am leery about working the dough too much. Everything I've ever read about pie crusts warns you about that. Also, the recipe I'm using has you working the dough together in the mixing bowl, not on the worktop. Maybe I'll try that next time.

            My hands do tend to be warm so I run them under cold water and then dry them before touching the dough.

            Maybe like some other people have suggested on other posts - I'm thinking too much! ;)

            1. I was just reading another thread that went on and on about how you shouldn't knead pie dough. LOL. For a 'simple' recipe, pie dough has so many variations on ingredients, quantity and technique it can drive you to distraction.

              The other thing is that the texture of other people's pie dough looks so different from mine. The pie dough in cookbooks and cooking shows looks so soft and fluffy and blond. Mine is somewhere between damp, firm and crumbly, and darker with small to medium visible butter pieces.

              What is it supposed to feel like?

              3 Replies
              1. re: Quinnish

                and yet... I make my dough with a stand mixer :)
                Personal trick... freeze the butter/shortening, then grate with a coarse grater. Then toss or quick mix with cold water in a stand mixer or food processor.

                1. re: Quinnish

                  mostly, it sounds (to me) as though your dough needs a bit more moisture. 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, 1 part water (by weight)

                  1. re: Quinnish

                    The sugar could be causing it to brown too much. Notice that most the recipes don't have any sugar in them.

                  2. I make an all butter crust in my food processor. Pastry flour ( I use White Lily all purpose and cold butter cut into 1 TBS pieces, a bit of baking powder, and salt. Pulse and pulse until the dough looks like a a bunch or large crumbs. Gather together into a ball. Refrigerate for 1/2 hour or longer.Then roll out

                    1. This is how I make my pie crust these days:

                      It took me a little while because I was perfectly happy with my crust and I didn't think it could make much difference, but it really does produce perfect dough every time, better than any I had ever made.
                      You don't even have to stress out about how cold everything is.

                      5 Replies
                        1. re: saria

                          Yes. The fat/flour paste method is completely reliable - you get perfect results every time, as long as you are sure to process the fat and flour fully in the first step. It's the only way I make pie crust.

                          1. re: saria

                            I did try this method, and I was not happy with the results. My husband's comment was, "Why did you mess with something that was already perfect." And truthfully, it wasn't as good as my usual crust.

                            1. re: roxlet

                              What is your usual recipe/technique?

                              1. re: biondanonima

                                I pretty much detailed it downthread. I use a mixture of butter and crisco, I grate the butter into the flour, and then cut in the previously cut up and frozen Crisco, ice water in the bowl, then I turn it out onto a board and use a few more drops where the flour is still dry. I amalgamate the dough by pushing it away from me using the heel of my hand, and then I gather into two disks, cover with plastic wrap and put into the fridge for at least an hour. I'm always willing to try something new, but in this case, my pie eaters were not that pleased.

                          2. That seems like a lot of water. Doughs can vary a lot depending on the weather conditions, so proportions can vary as well.

                            I use an old Fanny Farmer recipe: 2 cups flour, 2/3 cup fat (usually shortening, sometimes lard, sometimes a mixture), salt, and ice water (i.e., the water container actually has chunks of ice in it). I use a pastry cutter to mix the flour and fat, supplemented with fingers, until I have lentil-sized pieces - I think pea-sized is too big. Then I add the water a teaspoon at a time until I can form the mess into a ball. It's a bit sticky.

                            Was your butter at room temperature when you tried to incorporate it? Or the same temperature as the flour?

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: tardigrade

                              I forgot to mention that the recipe was for two 9" single crust pies. That's why there's so much water.

                              The butter was icy cold when I incorporated it. It was cold when I diced it and then I put it in a bowl with shrink wrap and put it in the freezer while I got the dry ingredients together. It wasn't frozen at all - just very cold. The water also had ice cubes in it to keep it cold, the bowl was chilled, the flour and sugar were chilled. Even I was chilled! LOL :)

                              1. re: Quinnish

                                Could it be too cold? Some of the fat / water needs to get incorporated into the flour. Also.... How much water is dependent on humidity. If you live someplace like Phoenix, you will need more water than if you live someplace like San Diego.

                                1. re: Quinnish

                                  My recipe is also for 2 9" pie crusts, and I use a couple of tablespoons of water.

                                  "Easy as pie" is IMHO the biggest lie in cliche-dom. It took me decades to get up the nerve to even try a pie crust, and I end up relying on the "this is what my grandmother's felt like" to tell when it's right.

                              2. Hi Quinnish--

                                I have crumbly dough all the time. I make my pie crust with half butter, half lard--butter frozen and then cut into pieces, lard chilled and cut into small pieces, put everything into the food processor until I get the coarse cornmeal look with discrete bits of pea-sized fat in the flour mix. Dump everything into a bowl, add my ice water, starting with three tbsp for a single crust recipe, then adding another tbsp ot two. It generally holds "kind of" together--not a solid mass, but rather a ball that crumbles or cracks, with bits of dough falling off. I, too, am leery of overworking dough or adding too much water, but I typically add an extra tbsp or two, beyond what is called for. Then I wrap it up in plastic wrap, crumbles and all, and chill for a few hours or over night. So, I still have a crumbly-esque dough, but it rolls out okay, I do roll it out between two sheets of parchment paper, lifting off the parchment periodically to ensure that my dough won't stick. Sometimes I do need to add a little flour. When I roll it out, I do see visible, discrete bits of butter in the dough. My crust turns out wonderfully flaky and I am regularly complimented on that. So, maybe your crumbly dough isn't that big of an issue.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: nofunlatte

                                  Hi Nofunlatte-

                                  Your dough does sound more like mine texturally. But mine is very hard to hold together. There will be a ball but about 1/3 of it is in the bottom of the ball and/or falling back into the bowl.

                                2. How are you measuring your flour? Don't "scoop and swipe". Aerate the flour with a spoon first, then spoon into the cup. Then level off. When you scoop and level without fluffing the flour first, you will not get an accurate measure. If you can, weigh the flour instead of using a measuring cup. You would be surprised how much more flour you get when you scoop.

                                  If you are using cake flour -- stop! Not enough protein the the flour to form enough gluten to give the crust structure. Use AP flour of pastry flour.

                                  You should not have to knead the dough for very long -- just enough to get it into a ball, then flatten into a disc.

                                  Too much kneading will overwork your dough.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: pastrychica

                                    I DID mean to aerate the flour this time but I forgot. I heard somewhere that the flour becomes packed from sitting and it does greatly affect the measurements. I don't have a kitchen scale - just measuring cups - but maybe I'll get one.
                                    I sift all the dry ingredients into the bowl before whisking it quickly together.

                                    I use Cake & Pastry flour because that was called for in the first recipe I tried (Anna Olson's). Maybe I should switch to all purpose but the only other flour I had in the house was unbleached flour and I wasn't sure if that made a difference. I know whole wheat flour is much denser and has to be combined wiith AP. Unbleached isn't whole wheat but....sigh!

                                    What gets me is my grandmother made awesome pie crust and she didn't have refrigeration for half of her adult life! She sure didn't have C & P flour or a food processor or a scale. She used a wood burning stove for years.

                                    My mother (not the same side of the family as my grandmother) is also an excellent pie baker. She doesn't even fuss with measuring very much and goes by instinct and experience. I watched her making pie crust once but I didn't know enough then to learn from her. I might ask her for another tutorial.

                                    Grandmother uses lard, my mom uses Crisco, I use butter. They used kitchen utensils and their hands to mix the dough - my hands are too warm so I use a pastry blender at first, then a silicone spatula and then my hands (which are chilled with ice cold water first). No food processor for any of us.

                                    My grandmother didn't worry about cold ingredients - she only had a pantry and root cellar. My mother doesn't blind bake any crusts but her lemon meringue pie crust turns out perfectly. She didn't even know what blind baking was when I asked her.

                                    I think cooking is an art and baking is a science but at some level they are both intuitive and take lots of practice to get it right. I just wish baking was an inherited gene!

                                    1. re: Quinnish

                                      Agree that switching to AP would help, I always use unbleached. Crisco is more forgiving than butter, but I like butter for both taste and health reasons..

                                  2. The key to making good pie crust, in my opinion, is all in adding the water.

                                    It sounds as if the butter is well-cut into the flour. However, as someone else mentioned here, I feel the easiest way to accomplish this step is to use a coarse grater, which I first dust with flour to keep the butter from sticking. Toss repeatedly as you grate to keep the pieces separate.

                                    Add your first amount of water to the flour/butter mixture, and toss. Dump the mixture out onto a board or a silicone mat, if you have one. Once you dump it out, it will be easy to see the dry parts of the dough. Push the amalgamated part of the dough off to one side, and add water, drop by drop, to the dry bits. The easiest way to do this is to use an old-fashioned bottle that people used to use to sprinkle water on laundry. Failing that, just sprinkle drop by drop. I'd use a teaspoon here rather than a tablespoon.

                                    Once everything is holding together, gather all the dough together, and starting from one end of the ball of dough, push it away from you with the heel of your hand bit by bit. After doing this, divide the dough in two (if you're making a double crust), form it into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour, which allows the dough to fully absorb the water.

                                    5 Replies
                                    1. re: roxlet

                                      Thanks! I haven't tried pushing the amalgamated part off and only adding water to the dry part.

                                      I suspected that the amount of water was a big part of the issue but it's the only way to get the dough to hold in a ball.

                                      1. re: Quinnish

                                        Yes, but from your description, you seem to be adding too much. It's a delicate balance, and as I said, the most difficult part of making pie dough. You certainly don't want it to get "sticky," but if you haven't added enough water, it will be impossible to roll out since the pastry will crack.

                                        It takes patience -- and a little experience-- to make a good pie crust, but with practice, you'll certainly master it.

                                        1. re: roxlet

                                          Thanks for your encouragement! :)

                                          Patience is not my strong point. I add the water teensy bits at a time at first and then when I feel like the dough will never come together and it still looks so dry, I probably add too much.

                                          1. re: Quinnish

                                            I do very little mixing and minimal water (though I've mostly switched to Kenji method and 1/2 vodka), and the key is not to worry if it's not a tight ball. Not like bread dough at all. It will stick together better after it rests, and again after the fridge if you let it warm up a bit before rolling.

                                            1. re: Quinnish

                                              Pie crust will teach you patience! I add 4 tablespoons to mine initially, stir it in with a wooden spoon, then add additional tablespoons of water, one by one, until it comes together. Then use your hands to bring it together in the bowl, doing a little kneading.

                                              I find using half butter and half shortening/lard makes a better crust, and it's much easier to work. I've never frozen the butter. I stick an ice cube in the cup of water. That works out fine for chilling. I've never chilled my hands!

                                      2. Do you have a food processor? If you do use it on the steel knife blade. Make's 2 crusts, top and bottom. To make a single crust. 2 C. soft flour (cake/pastry) 2 sticks unsalted butter, salt, about 1/8th tsp. baking powder. Have a glass with ice water at hand.

                                        Cut your butter into 1 Tbs. portions. Stick it in the freezer for about 20 mins. Put flour into the work bowl of the processor. Add the baking powder and salt. Cover and pulse a tiny bit, just to combine the flour, salt and baking powder. Remove the cover and drop in the cold butter (scatter it over the flour). Lid back on and pulse 'til it looks crumbly. Stop and add 4 TBS. of ice water, lid back on, pulse again. Check to see if your dough will need any more water, it generally does but if it is a very humid day you may not need it. Add 2 more TBS ice water, pulse briefly, the turn the processor and let it work until the cough forms a ball on the blade. Stop the machine. Turn the dough ball out onto a floured board. divide the dough in half. Flatten the dough into discs. Wrap the dough discs tightly in Saran or what ever wrap you use. Refrigerate about 30 mins.

                                        Take one disc and put on a mat to roll out the crust. ( I have a zippered dough bag from King Arthur's, that encloses the dough) roll out. When you are rolling the dough, roll from
                                        the center out. Do not roll back and forth. That is it. Fit into your pie plate (hint, spray the plate with Baker's Joy) and then roll out the other disc.

                                        Don't knead. That builds up too much gluten and will give you a tough crust. When I make a crust for savory pies like chicken pot pie, I use lard instead of butter.

                                        1. Kneading pie crust?? Hell no! You probably need to use your hands to gather the dough together in a ball before you roll it out, but actual kneading is for things where you want to really develop the gluten. Pie crust is not one of those things!!

                                          And you WANT those larger pieces of butter after you flatten out the dough. That's what is going to help create the flakiness in the finished crust. Pea-sized pieces of butter flattened out will look wider--and I usually try to leave some more like kidney-bean sized in mine.

                                          I agree with the suggestions of using some vodka in place of some of the water, though. You can use more liquid that way--makes it easier to get the dough to hold together and roll out properly. I use a variation on the Cooks Illustrated vodka recipe, and it works really well for me.

                                          I was using pastry flour in mine, but it was making my finished crust just too crumbly. I went back to all-purpose flour (thanks to some good advice I got here), and it has worked much better for me.

                                          And I have to give props to anybody who has been successful making their pie crust with a food processor. Mine just turned into a gooey paste when I tried it. I went back to an old-fashioned pastry cutter--that works best for me. And a stand mixer? Maybe we just have a different vision of what pie crust is supposed to be like--that would NOT produce the kind I'm aiming for!

                                          Other than that...it just takes practice. My mother made the best pie crust I have ever had--light, flaky, perfectly-formed, and exquisite--but she had about 70 years to practice her technique! Mine is getting there, though!

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: MsMaryMc

                                            Pie crust needs gluten development as well. Obviously not as much as a bread dough, but if you have no gluten development you get short dough. If you take a look at the article I linked you'll see the effect of no gluten development.
                                            And "kneading" pie dough is basically fraisage, which is a classic technique.

                                            1. re: saria

                                              Your pie dough might need kneading. Mine seems to do just fine with the handling it gets while cutting in the fats, stirring in the liquid, gathering the dough into a ball, and rolling it out--the gluten is quite well-developed enough for my tastes. Like I said--my vision of what pie crust is supposed to be like may not be like yours. Neither one is better, they're just different--but I won't be kneading mine, classic technique or not.

                                          2. Okay, after reading all the replies and suggestions, I took the pie dough out of the fridge, worked it a bit more, rewrapped it and put it back.

                                            When I went to make my pies the next day, it rolled out beautifully. It even LOOKED like pie crust! And it felt like pie crust. I was really excited and went on to make two pies -a lemon meringue and an apple raisin with a lattice top.

                                            I've never had an issue with meringue before but this time it wouldn't work so I tossed that out and started over. This meringue was better but still not what it should be. Don't know what went wrong - maybe there was a speck of yolk in there that I couldn't see? Maybe it was too warm in the kitchen? Anyway, the result was the filling wasn't piping hot when the meringue went on and of course it weeped. I shouldn't have tempted the pie gods by saying I never had trouble with fillings!

                                            I've never latticed a pie crust before and next time I would weave it rather than just place the second round of pastry strips across and on top of the first as the recipe instructed. The top layer browned far too quickly. The recipe called for a sprinkling of sugar on top which I would skip next time, too. It made the lattice work so dark on top that it almost burned. Also, I had to cover the rim with foil partway through to avoid the same thing. Hard to do when the pie is hot! Next time, I'll put the foil in place BEFORE the pie goes in the oven for the first part of the baking and take it off later.

                                            I tried the lemon meringue pie and the crust tasted the best I've ever made. The filling was tasty, too, even if the meringue was flat and weepy. All I'm really focused on right now is getting the crust right. I haven't tried the other pie but the lattice and crust looks so dark brown that I'm afraid it will need a saw to cut through it. LOL. (In my defence I was distracted by the hockey playoff game in progess.)

                                            I'm taking the pies to work today for some second opinions on the crust. I've warned them that I'm just learning and that the pies probably won't look too good but I'm hoping the crust is good. If not, I'll bake again.

                                            I asked people at work to help as taste testers because I don't want to just throw the pies away and I sure don't want to eat all of them! Well, I do, but....I won't.

                                            They assure me that they're just happy to get pies but I really hope they don't laugh when they see them. Or pretend that they're good to spare my feelings. Or sprain a wrist trying to cut into that apple pie.

                                            I'll let everyone know how the pies turned out.

                                            Thanks for all the help and incredible support!!!

                                            5 Replies
                                            1. re: Quinnish

                                              Nice to hear that you had success with your pie crusts. You might also want to try a crust with half butter and half Crisco, which is how I generally make mine...

                                              1. re: Quinnish

                                                I'm sure your co-workers will be very appreciative. :)
                                                If your meringue had issues it could have been due to over-beating. The thing about how even a speck of fat will ruin meringue is a myth.

                                                1. re: saria

                                                  I didn't know the fat thing was a myth - interesting! I don't think it was overbeating b/c it never formed the medium peaks. It was limp and quite runny which is why I started over. That one wasn't much better and you know the rest.

                                                  Maybe the kitchen was too hot from all the baking? I chilled the bowls and beaters.

                                                  1. re: Quinnish

                                                    That might be your problem. Chilling is good for whipped cream, not for making meringue. Egg whites whip better and faster at room temperature. A hot kitchen doesn't negatively affect beating meringue. A humid kitchen can negatively affect already made meringue-based items, but not the actual process of making them.
                                                    So if your meringue didn't reach stiff peaks it's likely everything was too cold and you needed to beat longer than you would under normal conditions.

                                                    1. re: saria

                                                      Great advice - thanks! The egg whites were at room temperature - I guess I was thinking whipped cream when I chilled the bowl (although that was on the second try - the first one the bowl and mixing blades were room temp).

                                                      The kitchen was humid from all the baking so maybe that's why the meringue didn't hold up.

                                                      Roughly how long does meringue take to stiffen under normal conditions?

                                              2. I haven't found a better or easier recipe then Kenji Alt's easy pie crust on serious eats.


                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: Becca Porter

                                                  I do this, but use half vodka. I figure it provides even more of a cushion. And that way I give him credit for 2 discoveries....