I don’t know what kind of pie dough introduction I can write that hasn’t already been written. All the clichés are there for you….an American tradition, grandma, comfort food, etc. Feel free to choose one, recite it in your head, get amped for pie, and let’s get started.
I really like pie, as I think most people do. I also really like making pie and to me when I think of pie, I think of dessert. Let me preemptively calm down any foodie/pie snobs by saying that yes, there’s a huge world beyond pastry to explore when you think of pies in the culinary sense of the word. But right now we’re talking about pie for dessert (or breakfast, or lunch, or a snack, or to eat your feelings).
In the land of pie for dessert, for the most part you can divide pie fillings into two categories: custard based fillings and fruit based fillings. Either way you go, you still have a crust to hold that filling in, and for me the crust is hands down what can make or break your pie (unless your filling is total sh*t. Then that’s probably what broke it). With that in mind, I can’t believe how many pie makers out there, including the pros, commit some cardinal sins with their pie dough. Let’s endeavor to rid the world of the soggy bottom pie crust epidemic.
once you go scratch, you never go back
Most of America has been brainwashed by the Pillsbury Doughboy and Sara Lee. They’d like us to believe that compared to buying one of their pre-made crusts, making a pie dough from scratch is the equivalent of giving birth while climbing Everest. It always surprises me how many people think a homemade piecrust is this huge undertaking or somehow incredibly difficult. The truth is, making piecrust is one of the easiest pastry recipes out there. Once you understand the how’s and why’s, you’ll never buy a pre-made crust again and you’ll gain the self-satisfaction of quietly judging those that do.
Pie dough is a close cousin to the family of laminated doughs. Lamination meaning that the fat (usually butter) and dough are thinly layered over one another. Croissants, Danish and puff pastry are all laminated products. And what those products all have in common is what we happen to be looking for in a great pie dough…
…Flakiness: the universal benchmark for a killer crust. To achieve a flaky crust, it’s all about how the fat in the dough is distributed. In pie dough, you actually want lots of chunks of unincorporated butter. The size of the chunk will help determine the flakiness, with larger pieces making bigger flakes. But how??
The dough is made with lots of intact pieces of butter incorporated into the dough (1). The dough is rolled out, and the butter flattens and further layers over each other and between the dough (2). When those chunks hit the oven during baking, they begin to melt leaving an empty air pocket in its place. The air pocket is surrounded by dough that is baking and setting, preserving the little air pocket at the same time it is being formed. Aw. Those air pockets serve to separate the layers of baked dough (this is the relation to laminated dough), and that is what creates flakiness. Want lighter, flakier crust? Leave bigger chunks of butter in the dough, and vice versa for a tighter crust. See? Simple!
to lard or not to lard
The type of fat used in a pie dough recipe is a hotly debated topic. I have my opinions, and others have theirs. But they don’t write this blog.
The heavyweight contenders in this not so epic battle are butter and lard. Personally I’m not a fan of an all lard crust. Lard, which is rendered pig fat (the best type to use is called “leaf lard” from fat found around the pig’s kidneys which has basically no porky flavor) is a pure fat. As in, it doesn’t contain any water. Same thing with shortening. Butter, on the other hand, does contain water, and that is the greatest difference maker of all. A high quality butter will contain as much as 18% water by weight. Remember the butter chunks that make flakes? When those chunks melt away and leave an air pocket, they also leave water (3). That water turns to steam which expands and helps the air pocket live a glorious life (4). Butter also has the best flavor, and the added benefits of milk sugars and proteins that help the crust brown.
So why do some people use lard? Honestly I think a lot of it is tradition, as in you use what your mama used. Lard does have a higher melt point than butter, with leaf lard melting around 115 F and butter melting around 90 F, which means that the dough structure around a chunk of lard has a little extra time to set and stabilize before an empty air pocket is created. For this reason some people swear lard makes a flakier crust. I’ve done empirical testing and sorry folks, it isn’t true.
While I’ve always preferred all-butter pie dough, I have used and like combo crusts to get the best of both worlds. Somewhere between 60-70% butter and 40-30% lard seems like a good ratio.
Again, that’s my opinion only, and what matters most is you cook and bake things the way you like ‘em. If you’re a larder, lard it up.
As with all of my recipes, I like to use unsalted butter, simply because I like to determine how much salt goes into my recipes and that can be harder to manage with salted butter. And it should go without saying to use a high quality butter with a minimum of 80% fat.
The key to a great piecrust no matter the recipe, is in keeping the fat cold and being consistent when you dice it up. If you cut your butter like a half-blind squirrel, with big and little pieces all jumbled together, they won’t incorporate into the dough evenly and you’ll lose some precious flakiness, God help you. I happen to like ½” cubes. If your butter is at all warmed up when it comes times to use it, throw it in the freezer or cooler to thoroughly chill it once again. Using ice water will also help keep the butter cold and intact while the dough is being formed.
250g pastry flour
225g butter unsalted
60g ice water
Cut your butter into 1/2” pieces and keep it in the cooler until you need it. If it’s especially hot in your kitchen, keep the butter in the freezer.
Get some ice water prepped, and keep that in the cooler too.
Combine the pastry flour, sugar and salt in a stand mixer mixing bowl with a paddle attachment. If you don’t have a stand mixer then a regular mixing bowl is fine.
Start mixing the dry ingredients together on low speed. Add your cold butter chunks to the dry ingredients while mixing. Again, if you don’t have a mixer you can “cut” the butter in with a pastry cutter or even a fork.
Once the butter starts to break down and flatten into chunks the size of pecans or large beans, add the ice water and mix until the dough comes together.
Don’t over mix the dough! If needed finish bringing it together by hand, then wrap it up in plastic wrap and chill it or at least 30min. Even better, let it sit in the fridge overnight. This will allow the starch in the flour to absorb water.