Technique Breakdown: Pie Dough

Nov 01, 2020

If you know me, you know that I LOVE PIE.

Cream pie, fruit pie, ice box pie, custard pie, warm pie, streusel pie, double crusted, pie a la mode, hand pies….I love it all.  I love to eat it. I LOVE to make it.

Put on some Bonnie Raitt, fill my cup with coffee, and I’m one happy mama.

But what if I told you that making pie used to feel like a nightmare to me?

It’s true. I L-O-V-E-D the idea of homemade pie... but the crust….THE CRUST! Somehow, my crust wasn’t flaky, it leached out butter, OR it was kiiiiiinda flaky, but it shrunk like a wool sweater in the dryer.

Ya’ll.  I  cannot tell you how many people over the years have confessed their pie dough woes to me… and I’m here to tell you- I have had my fair share of them. YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

“But HOW did you figure it out?! What’s the secret?"

I’m so glad you asked.

My experience as a pastry chef helped me up my pie game FOR SURE, but at the end of the day it all boiled down to practice and few simple rules to follow.

Two things I’ve learned over the years is that the simplest things to make are the easiest to screw up and thus require practice, and ya gotta respect the ingredients.

It doesn’t have to be as hard as it seems.  There are some really basic rules to follow when making pie dough (any recipe!) and I’m here to share what REALLY matters, vs. what people “swear by.”  I’ve put together 4 SUPER EASY steps to follow.

Step 1: Cold Ingredients

Remember when I mentioned respecting your ingredients?  It’s crucial for your ingredients- most importantly your butter and water- to be COLD. You can certainly go the extra mile of chilling your flour as well- not totally necessary, but it’s a good insurance policy if it’s warmer in your kitchen, you have hot hands, or you’re just feeling stressed about the whole process. 

Butter:

The goal is to keep the butter chilled throughout each step. The water that’s trapped in butter turns to steam in the oven and gives the pie crust it’s flaky layers.  Cold butter = flaky layers.

Water:

To keep the water cold, I like to measure more water than I need and pop a couple ice cubes into it.  Then I measure how much I need before I add it to the flour. Make sure to keep the remaining ice water handy just in case there are dry bits hanging out at the bottom of your bowl.  Add a little sprinkle until those bits come together.  Pie dough should be smooth, not dry or sticky.  

Step 2: Cutting in the Butter Juuuust Right

I prefer to cut my butter into thinner pieces right off the stick instead of cubes- doing this makes the cutting in portion SO EASY.

I like to mix my pie dough by hand, but If mixing in your stand mixer is your thing, you do you! Prefer to use a pastry cutter? Go for it! Can’t do it without your food processor? Let your freak flag fly. The same rules apply.

I slice my butter into pieces that are ~ ⅛-¼  inch thick.  I shingle those pieces onto a small tray or plate and pop them in the freezer while I’m measuring out my water and flour. Remember: keep it COLD

When my flour and water are measured, I plop the butter in the flour, toss to coat and then begin smashing the butter into even thinner sheets between my thumb and fingers. 

Once your butter is in thinner sheet-like pieces (some big ones are OK, don’t panic) you are good to go. This helps to create thin flaky layers that mimic puff pastry.

Step 3: Chill after mixing

Once you add your cold water and the dough just comes together, form it into a circle and roll it out just a little bit - this helps make the post-chill roll-out a little easier and cools the dough more efficiently. Wrap it up and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. This step is CRUCIAL to letting the gluten in the dough relax/chill to keep everything nice and cold.  If you are a super planner (A.K.A. my kinda person) mix the dough a day ahead and let it chill overnight.

Step 4: Chill after rolling

Once the dough has chilled and rested, it’s time to roll it out. When the dough reaches the correct thickness ⅛ - ¼ inch, feel it.  Is it cold? Is it getting too soft to comfortably handle?  If you are unsure, pop it back in the fridge for 5-10 minutes to chill out. Better safe than sorry on this one.

Form the chilled dough to the pie tin, crimp as desired, and then…..
YOU GUESSED IT---  pop it back in the fridge to chill ~ 1 hour or the freezer for ~30.  Gluten relaxes, everything gets cold, everyone is happy.

I know, I know, that’s a lot of repetitive chilling, but I swear, it’s the REAL secret to the best crust.  Every time I try to rush my crust and cut corners, I pay big time, either in shrinkage, leached butter, or tough crust.

RECAP:

Chilling keeps your butter cold. Cold butter = flaky layers.

Chilling/resting helps the gluten relax. Relaxed gluten = minimal shrinkage and tender dough.

Remember, If at ANY point the dough starts to feel soft, shrinks back or is hard to work with, take a breath, pop it in the fridge and make yourself a cup of coffee or tea (or a margarita) and proceed as usual.

One Size Fits All

I’ve made A LOT of recipes, some with vinegar, some with vodka, but the one I go back to time and time again is 3 simple ingredients: flour, butter, and water (oh-and a pinch o’ salt, always).  I’ve found that following these steps yields highly effective results, with or without any extra ingredients.  Got vodka in your favorite recipe? These steps work.  Vinegar? They work.  Sourcream? Cream Cheese? Sounds sacreligious to me, but THE STEPS STILL WORK. They are literally one size fits all, no matter what recipe you use.

SO, now that you know, try implementing these steps next time you make a pie and take the time to notice any changes or improvements you might experience. 

If you don’t have a go-to recipe, check out my recipe below!

 

Pie Dough

Yield: 1- 9 inch, single crust pie 

230g All Purpose flour

1 tsp salt

148g Unsalted butter, cold

75g water, ice cold

 

For the pie dough:

-Measure flour, salt and butter into a mixing bowl and set aside.

-Measure arbitrary amount of water, add a couple ice cubes and set aside.  Using your hands, or tool of your choice (pastry cutter, stand mixer, food processor) cut the butter into the flour mixture until the butter is roughly pea-sized (it’s better to err on the side of larger than smaller.)

-Re-measure the water and mix into the flour mixture until the dough just comes together. If the dough is still very dry, sprinkle more water as needed to bring it together.

On a lightly floured work surface, gently bring the dough together with your hands and pat the dough into a circle and roll out slightly until ~¾ to 1 inch thick.

-Wrap in plastic wrap and let relax in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, up to 3 days.

-On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to ⅛- ¼ inch thick, ~ 14 inches in diameter.  I like to roll away from myself and towards myself using gentle, even pressure, rotating the dough a ¼ turn to ensure it gets worked evenly.  Use flour as needed, but don’t go crazy with it.

-Roll up onto your rolling pin, unroll onto the pie pan, crimp the edges, and pat yourself on the back.

I recommend par baking pie crusts for single crust pies with baked fillings and baking it all the way for pies with no bake fillings.

For one of my favorite resources on par baking, check out Erin McDowell's guide on Food 52's website. She's the pie queen.



 
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