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Need a pie dough expert's opinion...flour to water..

Howdy Hounds,

Pie dough remains my nemesis, and yesterday was no exception.

I've tried a few times over the years, but not enough to develop any sense about "right and wrong"....if there is such a thing.

The recipe I used, yesterday, called for:
- 5.25C of AP flour
- .5t salt
- One pound of butter (I used salted)
- .5C of ice water

I froze the butter and then put it through my grating blade on the food processor. Thought being that I would get the smaller chunks, faster.

Cut the grated butter in and proceeded to fork in the half-cup of cold water, as per the recipe.

From my perspective, that was nowhere near enough water for 5.25C of flour. I tried desperately to knead the mealy mess, thinking that the warming butter would give up some moisture and the flour would begin getting hydrated.

In the end, I just started pouring more ice water in and the four balls of dough are in the fridge, for tonight....all this was yesterday, prior to the Superb Owl, and I was over-scheduled.

Two main questions:
- Given that amount of flour, was a half cup of water EVER going to get it done?
- Was the freezing/grating of the butter a bad choice?


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  1. Monch,

    I can't really comment on your recipe or questions but can say that piecrust was also my nemesis until I started using the CI "vodka" pie crust recipe. That, combined with a Tupperware plastic pie guide (a plastic mat that shows you how big your roll out needs to be) has essentially rendered my pie crusts perfect. Some find the CI recipe results in a sticky dough but I've had no problems adding in flour during the roll out process - enough to make it roll out just fine.

    2 Replies
    1. re: owen_meany

      Many thanks,

      I just googled it. The CI recipe uses the same amount of liquid, .5C, but the amount of flour they're using is less than HALF of what I was using.

      If what's in the fridge won't roll out, I'll be re-starting with the vodka recipe.

      1. re: Monch

        While the proportions in the CI recipe are good, it's really the technique that sets this pie crust apart from most other recipes. By fully incorporating the fat with some of the flour in the first step, you protect the dough from forming too much gluten when the water is added (vodka helps here too, but it's actually unnecessary if you do the first step correctly). The CI recipe calls for much more water than most recipes do, which makes the dough very pliable and easy to work with, IMO.

        If you stick to this technique, you can actually play with the proportion of fat:flour:water a bit - I've cut the amount of fat down several times (when I didn't have enough butter in the house) and added just a little additional liquid to compensate - it works fine. JungMann's suggested ratio of 3:2:1 is definitely a good rule of thumb, especially for a standard-technique crust, but you have a lot more flexibility if you use the CI technique.

    2. Grated butter is supposed to incorporate more quickly into flour. I find it actually takes more work AND dirties up another dish, so it's not my preferred technique. And no matter how much you tried, 1/2 cup water cannot hydrate 5 cups of flour.

      Pie crust can be thought of as a ratio of 3 parts flour : 2 parts fat : 1 part water. The recipe's suggestion of 4 oz. of water for 42 oz. of flour is, as you found, significantly off.

      1 Reply
      1. re: JungMann


        Thank you for the reply and for ratifying the idea that the proportions were WAY out of whack.

        It also explains why it took about another .5C of water for the dough to even begin to come together.

      2. I think your problem is that you were baking using volume measurements (e.g. cups) and not weight measurements (ounces, grams, etc.)

        5.25 cups of flour, depending on how it's packed, what elevation you are at, and what kind of flour used, will all affect how much that 5.25 cups of flour actually turns out to be.

        In many instances your 5.25 cups of flour will not be the same as the recipe's author's 5.25 cups because of all the variables noted above.

        You're best bet is to look around for a basic recipe with weights, not volume, measurements and go from there.

        And also get yourself a simple scale -- doesn't have to be digital or anything. BB&B usually has them on sale for less than $20 (even more with their $5 coupons they send out in the (junk)mail).

        Your technique generally seems fine. Just remember, cold cold cold.

        You can try the vodka version, and different types of fat as well (e.g. butter, lard, etc.) but until you get a good handle on the volume of each ingredient you need, pie crust will be like playing the roulette table in Vegas. Sometimes you hit, sometimes you walk home.

        Hope that helps. Good luck.

        2 Replies
        1. re: ipsedixit

          Many thanks....the scale is in the cupboard and will be used for all future pie dough efforts!

          The only things that were not cold, cold, cold were the flour and the salt.

          I thought that the grated, frozen, butter was a good idea....I was willing to dirty another implement for results...and the water was iced.

          In the end, I probably should not have relied on the in-book recipe for the dough...should have turned to my King Arthur, or even a River Roads book for advice.

          The end product is Donald Link's Natchitoches Meat Pies....and the filling is damn delicious....just can't wait for the end product.

          1. re: Monch

            Using a food processor to grate the butter is going to warm it up more than grating frozen butter by hand, on a box grater. It goes pretty fast, and if you use the wrapper the butter comes in to hold it as you grate, the stump doesn't warm up too much.

            If you use vodka or any other alcohol, you have to calculate volume based on proof. 100 proof means 50% alcohol, so half will evaporate during baking. If you wanted 2 oz. of water, you'd add 4 oz. of 100 proof alcohol, so the dough would be wetter and easier to handle.

            The amount of liquid absorbed by the flour also depends on the type of flour. You should always refrigerate the dough for 30 min or more, to give the dough time to fully hydrate, and for the gluten to relax, which will make rolling it out much easier. If the dough's too sticky to roll, mix in more flour and rest again. If it cracks along the circumference, it's too dry. Spritz it with a mister bottle, form it back into a thick round, and re-rest it.

        2. I have not had success with the CI vodka recipe, but it seems like everyone else in the world has. I have had good success with the pie dough from Baking with Julia, and I've probably taught ten friends to make crust that way. I prefer to make it by hand than in a processor, because I feel more in touch with it. Recently, I've made a bunch of pies with the french-style pie crust off of the blog For Love of the Table. Under "basic techniques" Paige has several really detailed posts on short crust pastry (pie dough / pate brisee). The crust is great, and I highly recommend the posts for their beautiful descriptions of technique. Here is one: http://www.forloveofthetable.com/2011...

          1. Hard to be sure what factors are principal here. Some thoughts.

            1. Any pie crust that was kneaded "desperately" is likely to suffer from excessive gluten formation. The idea is to gather together the wet and dry ingredients with as little manual mashing as possible.

            2. A food processor is actually a great tool for pie crust, because the blade works fast and doesn't heat up the dough like hands, but be sure not to make the butter or other fat too fine. It helps flakiness to have random chunks of fat in the dough. I would say that fat chunks between the size of a pea and a bb (like in a bb-gun) should be visible in every square inch of dough.

            3. I am not sure, but I suspect that pie dough should not be made far in advance of cooking. Water and flour together develop gluten with time. That's what people count on in the no-knead crusty bread camp (autolyse effect). But you don't want gluten in pie dough, of course.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Bada Bing

              Sorry, BB, but you are giving incorrect advice here. 1. google fraisage and you'll see that a certain amount of mashing helps create a flaky crust. 2. Processors do heat up the dough, though you are right about visible bits of fat (ideally the streaks created by fraisage). 3. Pie dough very much needs to rest before rolling and baking.
              It is much better to leave a wrapped ball/round of dough chilling in the fridge for days than to roll it right after mixing. Gluten forms by mixing, not by time. Time is needed to allow the gluten to relax. Yeasted bread dough does not follow the same rules as pate brisee.

              1. re: greygarious

                Thanks, very interesting, that distinction of yeasted dough and pate brisee!

                I wonder if it's the presence of fat or the paucity of hydration in pie dough that keeps the gluten-forming effect of autolyse at bay?

                I'll just add that I'm all on board with a "certain amount of mashing," provided the effect of streaks and pockets of fat remains in place.

            2. We use non hydrogenated lard from a local butcher. It is refrigerated or it melts. We make the dough QUICKLY using a pastry blender(Mom used to just use 2 butter knives) and refrigerate overnight before rolling out.
              I miss her crusts....
              My pastry chef swears the lard is the best, as is working outside in the winter to keep everything cold! (I made up the working outside part, but cold is good!)

              1. I looked at your profile to see where you live; I am in Minneapolis and the flour here is very dry, as it probably also is in Madison. I have NEVER encountered a pie crust recipe with enough water in it for my area.

                That said, your recipe doesn't even have enough water for anywhere, much less the great white north!

                I used to struggle with mixing and then adding more water repeatedly until I had tough crust. Eventually I realized I had to be brave enough to add a good bit of water right off the bat, and now my crusts are amazing. I made some Saturday for chicken pot pie and it was almost as flaky as puff.

                I don't think the vodka thing is necessary, but their mixing method is great.

                Here's what I do:

                Weigh out 320 grams of unbleached flour. Stir 1 T. sugar and 1/2 t. salt into it, then remove half of this mixture for later.

                Cut 2 sticks of cold (no need to freeze) unsalted butter into cubes and work them into the flour. I prefer to do this in the Kitchenaid stand mixer - the end result is great when I do this (a long-ago recipe in Bon Appetit said that this was the best machine for the job, and it was right!).

                You can use a pastry blender or your fingers, if you prefer. Leave some of the bits the size of large peas and the rest smaller.

                Stop the mixer, if using, and dump in the rest of the flour. Mix briefly.

                With the motor running on low pour in 110 ml (about a shy 1/2 cup) of cool water fairly quickly (no ice necessary). Mix until the dough clumps together.

                Or, dump water over the flour/butter mixture and stir with a fork until it clumps.

                Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes.

                EDIT: For many years piecrust recipe writers all admonished bakers about adding too much water - if we weren't stingy with the water, our crust would be tough! So people got scared and didn't add ENOUGH water....

                1. From Professional Baking by Wayne Gisslen - 4th edition
                  Flaky Pie Dough (paraphrased)
                  Ingredients U.S. - Metric
                  Pastry flour 10 oz - 250 g
                  Shortening, regular 7 oz - 175 g
                  Water, cold 3 oz - 75 g
                  Salt 0.2 oz (1 tsp) - 5 g
                  Sugar (optional) 0.5 oz - 12 g
                  Total weight: 1 lb 4.7 oz - 517 g
                  Scale the dough.
                  For 9-in. pie crusts
                  8 oz (225 g) for 9-in. (23 cm) bottom pie crusts
                  6 oz (170 g) for 9-in. (23 cm) top pie crusts

                  For 8-in. pie crusts
                  6 oz (170 g) for 8-in. (20 cm) bottom pie crusts
                  5 oz (140 g) for 8-in. (20 cm) top pie crusts
                  1. Sift the flour into a bowl. Add in the shortening.
                  2. Rub or cut the shortening into the flour for the proper consistency:
                  For a flaky dough, until the fat particles are the size of peas or hazelnuts.
                  For a mealy dough, until the mixture resembles cornmeal.
                  3. Dissolve the salt and the sugar (if used) in water.
                  4. Add the water to the flour mixture. Mix in very gently, just until the water is absorbed. Don't overwork the dough.
                  5. Place the dough in pans, cover it with plastic film, and place the dough in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.
                  6. Scale portions of dough to pan sizes above as needed.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Antilope

                    I am appreciative of all the replies.

                    I came home to the four balls of dough, from two days ago, about as hard as rocks in the refrigerator.

                    I did not have the courage nor inclination to see if my earlier effort was salvageable.

                    Tomorrow night, we try again!

                    I will use the advice here and forge ahead...hopefully by this time tomorrow, I will have to update my "I wish" section of my profile.

                  2. Hard to be an expert without the proper tools.
                    Here you need a hygrometer.
                    Ya can't get flour to water right if you don't know what the humidity is.

                    (I have four hygrometers around, but I can't be bothered to take notes. Just don't fear the pie dough, and you won't go wrong. You really can add more flour, or more water, and that fixes most anything. Ya can't tell the difference, either).

                    6 Replies
                    1. re: Chowrin

                      My grandmother made perfectly good pies without a hygrometer. I make pretty decent ones myself without one.

                      I don't measure the amount of water I use, because it can vary depending on the humidity. What I do is cut the fat into the flour (I use a 3:1 ratio) with a pastry cutter until the mixture is crumbly, then add ice water a tablespoon at a time until it looks and feels "right" (this is when having the right grandmother is useful) - that is, it can be easily formed into a ball. Then the ball is wrapped and refrigerated for at least an hour.

                      I'm starting to think, though, that there are as many correct ways of making pie crusts as there are grandmothers.

                      1. re: Chowrin

                        Honestly, not sure if you're joking.

                        You can make two batches of pie dough side by side in the same kitchen (same humidity level) and wind up needing significantly different amounts of water based on tiny variations in how the two doughs were mixed. The issue with pie dough is that you need only enough water to hydrate the flour that isn't well incorporated with the fat in the recipe. How much flour is well incorporated into the fat can vary wildly based on mixing. This dwarfs humidity as a factor. The only real way to know how much is needed is experience and feel. (Incidentally, the CI method is notably consistent in how much liquid is needed because of its method of mixing flour and fat, which is one reason why it's a good recipe for people who don't have a feel for pie dough)

                        1. re: cowboyardee

                          The CI method always works if you use the amount of liquid called for, but it also works if you use less, or reduce the amount of fat and use a little more liquid. There will be small differences in texture, of course, but the method makes the dough extremely forgiving - you can do just about anything to it and end up with a pretty decent result.

                          1. re: biondanonima

                            This is true, though there are certainly limits to how far I'd push the recipe, especially in terms of how much or little fat you use. The vodka trick generally gets a lot of credit, but it's really the method of mixing the flour and fat that makes the recipe so consistent.

                            1. re: cowboyardee

                              Yes, I've reduced the fat by as much as 20% (8 T. instead of 10 T. for a single-crust recipe) but I wouldn't go any lower than that. The crust was still good but lacked a bit of richness, and wasn't quite as flaky as usual. As for the vodka, I usually only use a tablespoon or so now as a little bit of insurance, and make up the rest with ice water with NO loss of quality. I'm thinking of switching to Everclear, actually - it's much cheaper, and I could use even less.

                          2. re: cowboyardee

                            Thanks for thinking about this a bit more than I did. ;-)
                            Your thoughtfulness has taught me something!

                        2. FWIW, my mom's hand-written Never Fail Pie Crust recipe calls for 1 cup of water, 1 egg and 1 tbsp white vinegar for the 5.5 c. flour and 1 lb "less 1/2 inch" of lard.
                          So, double the amount of liquid for the same flour you used.
                          Freezing/grating the butter was a great move, and a technique which I often use.
                          Half a cup of water was not enough.
                          The gluten will have relaxed some, with the overnight refrigeration.

                          How did it go?

                          1. I find that the amount of water varies quite a bit even using the same flour. Flour will hold more or less moisture depending on it's surroundings, ambient humidity, type etc.

                            I usually use a food processor for the flour/fat and I also use the egg & vinegar as described by Karen. The vinegar gives the crust a slightly sweet flavor.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: JoeBabbitt

                              Vinegar is there to prevent gluten formation.

                            2. I use a spray bottle of ice water to add water to my crust. It disperses the water very well. I read recently that Alton Brown does that too.

                              1. All,

                                Many thanks for all the advice. I will archive all this information for future endeavors.

                                What I actually was making were hand pies.

                                I remembered a Good Eats on that subject and found that I had recorded the episode.

                                The recipe called for 9.5oz of flour, to 2.5oz of shortening, to .75C milk.

                                The small pies were then deep-fried according to the original recipe.

                                The crust turned out to hold the filing admirably while delivering a crispy, flaky, perimeter crust.

                                Again, thanks,