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Pie crust 101: Tips and tricks for taking your crust to the next level

Updated: 
November 13, 2017 - 9:58pm

When I tell people I grew up in a family of pie bakers, it’s easy to imagine I’m bragging. My mother’s pies are legendary — rich, velvety custard fillings or mounded fruit pies, each cradled in an ornately decorated crust, golden and with the most delicate layers. And don’t get me started on my grandmother; in her day, she was known as the “Pie Baker of Villa Park,” a small suburb west of Chicago.

When I went to start baking my own pies, I didn’t think much about it. Pie-making was something my family took for granted. But then I sliced into that first homemade pie — it was pumpkin, brought to a work potluck — and found to my horror not a perfect take-for-granted pie, but a bubble of raw dough beneath the layer of filling. There are some mistakes not even a truckload of whipped cream can cover.

A dozen or so years later, a career change, several restaurant and catering jobs and a few hundred pies later, my skills have improved — though they still don’t quite match those of my mother or grandmother. But I’ve learned a lot and continue to pick up tips.

Recently, I spoke with some experts and tested more than a dozen combinations of fats, flours, ingredients and tricks. Here are my results.

Choosing the right fat

Passionate pie bakers tend to have a religious zeal about what type of fat goes into their crusts, and not without good reason.

“Fats and shortenings are absolutely critical to pies,” says Ernest Miller, research and development chef at Coast Packing Co., a major supplier of animal fats and shortenings for cooking, baking and frying based in Vernon. The type of fat determines flavor and can influence the final texture and color of the crust. Bakers tend to use one of three kinds — butter, shortening or lard — or a combination. But which, and why?

Lard is among the most traditional of kitchen fats, once made from heritage pigs specifically bred for their fat.

Miller notes that shortening, with the introduction of Crisco in 1911, was created to mimic the effects of lard, but at a fraction of the price.

“An all-Crisco crust will give you the best border,” notes Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Pie and Pastry Bible,” “but I don’t use shortening, because there’s no flavor.”

As people began shunning shortening for health reasons, bakers looked for alternatives such as butter, even oil. Over the years, I’ve taken to making my crust using a ratio of two-thirds butter to one-third shortening. I’ve found, particularly when I keep the fats cold until the crust goes in the oven, I get some of the benefits of shortening in my detailed borders, along with the flavor of butter. (For savory pies, I’ll usually substitute shortening for lard, or even bacon, goose or duck fat, which lends great savory flavor and rich coloring to the crust.)

Although my grandmother and mother preferred shortening, they would often brush the formed crust with butter, and occasionally dust with sugar, before baking, for added flavor and color.

Flour, other ingredients

Fat and its ratio to other ingredients, particularly flour, is integral to a great pie.

“I think too little fat is not a pie crust,” says Los Angeles baker and pie specialist Nicole Rucker, a past winner of KCRW-FM’s Good Food Pie Contest. “Once you remove a certain amount of fat, you’re forming more of a bread or biscuit dough.”

When it comes to flour, some experts swear by all-purpose, others by lower-protein pastry flour and still others by a host of custom blends, all in the name of making a tender but flaky crust.

If she’s using all-purpose flour Beranbaum finds that adding a touch of sugar works to tenderize the dough, mimicking the results she normally gets using pastry flour.

Another trick is adding apple cider vinegar, which also helps to tenderize or “shorten” the crust. (You might smell it as you make and roll out the dough, but the vinegar will evaporate as the pie bakes and shouldn’t affect the taste of the crust.)

Mixing the dough

When combining the ingredients, it’s important to keep them cold — particularly your fat. If the fat, especially butter, softens and begins to melt, the flour will absorb it, creating a tough dough. I actually take the extra step of chilling everything — fat, flour, water, vinegar — even the bowl and food processor blades.

And though some purists may argue, making pie dough in a food processor is wonderfully simple and easy. Just be sure not to over-process it; use the pulse feature and your dough will be tender as if mixed by hand.

Rolling out the dough

After you’ve made the dough, flatten it into a disk, cover and chill it before you roll it out.

To keep the dough even, work the rolling pin in the center of the dough and don’t roll all the way to the edges. You’ll have greater control over the thickness of the dough if you keep the pin toward the center — the closer you get to the rim, the more likely you are to roll the pin off the edges, flattening them and making the dough uneven. Rotate the dough a quarter-turn each time you roll.

To keep the dough from sticking and absorbing too much flour, roll it between lightly floured sheets of plastic wrap or parchment or wax paper.

After you’ve formed the crust, chill it. I freeze my formed crusts for 20-30 minutes, which allows the crust to hold its shape and any designs while it bakes.

Blind-baking, par-baking and finishing the pie

Blind-baking, or par-baking, a crust is common when you’re using a filling that doesn’t need to be baked or when the crust needs to bake longer than the filling, such as with pumpkin and other custard pies.

To blind-bake a crust, line the chilled dough with parchment or a large coffee filter, then fill it with weights. If you don’t have store-bought ceramic or metal weights, use dried rice or beans.

Finally, watch the pie as it bakes. Most ovens heat from the bottom, so adjust the pie if necessary, moving up or down in the oven as needed. And cover the top or edges of the crust with foil if they’re browning too much.

Flaky pie dough

20 minutes, plus chilling times. Makes enough for 1 (9-inch) single crust pie with extra dough for a decorative or lattice top

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup water

2 1/4 teaspoons cider vinegar

2 1/4 cups (9.6 ounces) bleached all-purpose flour, chilled

Generous 1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons cold shortening or lard

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Ice water, if needed

Egg white, for brushing a par- or blind-baked shell

In a small bowl, combine sugar with water, stirring until the sugar is dissolved to form a simple syrup. Stir cider vinegar in with the syrup. Cover and refrigerate until chilled.

To make dough using a food processor, pulse together flour and salt until thoroughly combined. Add shortening and pulse until incorporated (the dough will resemble moist sand). Add butter and pulse just until butter is reduced to pea-size pieces. Sprinkle syrup over mixture and pulse a few times until incorporated. Remove crumbly mixture to a large bowl and very gently press or knead the mixture until it comes together to form a dough, adding additional ice water, a tablespoon at a time, if needed. Mold dough into a disk roughly 6 inches in diameter. Cover disk tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 1 hour.

To make dough by hand, whisk together flour and salt in a large bowl. Add shortening and incorporate using a pastry cutter or fork (the dough will resemble moist sand). Cut in butter just until it is reduced to pea-size pieces. Sprinkle syrup over mixture, and stir together just until incorporated. Gently press or knead mixture until it comes together to form a dough, adding additional ice water, a tablespoon at a time, if needed. Mold the dough into a disk roughly 6 inches in diameter. Cover the disk tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 1 hour.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough into a large round roughly 1/8-inch thick. Place in baking dish or pan, trimming any excess that extends more than 1 inch from sides of dish and crimping edges as desired. (One trick I use is to roll out dough onto floured parchment or wax paper, invert and center pie dish over the dough and then flip dough into the dish.) Use any extra dough to make a decorative border (brush the edges of the unbaked crust with water or egg white before pressing any cutouts or other decorations) or save it for later use: Form dough into a disk, cover tightly and refrigerate until needed. Freeze formed shell for 20-30 minutes before filling and baking.

If par-baking (or blind-baking) crust, line frozen shell with parchment and fill with pie weights. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 15-20 minutes, then remove the weights and parchment, prick the sides and bottom a few times with a fork and bake until the crust bottom is dry and lightly colored, an additional 10-15 minutes (longer if fully baking the shell). To “waterproof” a par-baked crust, cool crust for several minutes, then brush bottom and sides with egg white before filling.

Apple pie

1 1/2 hours, plus cooling times. Makes 1 (9-inch) pie with a decorative or lattice top

8 (or 6 large) tart apples, such as Granny Smith

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

3 tablespoons dark brown sugar

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup raisins, rehydrated in rum, another liquor or juice

2 tablespoons cornstarch

Prepared flaky pie crust dough, chilled

Egg white and sugar for finishing the top crust

Peel and core apples, and cut each into 8 slices. Cut each slice crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt butter. Stir in apple slices, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt, and cook, stirring frequently, just until apples start to soften, 3-4 minutes (the slices should still be crisp). Remove from heat and stir in raisins and cornstarch. Spread apple mixture onto a baking sheet to stop cooking process and allow to cool.

Heat oven to 400 degrees, and fit a rack at the lowest part of the oven.

Remove crust from the refrigerator and roughly divide into two pieces (figure on using about 2/3 for bottom crust). Wrap and refrigerate smaller portion of dough while you roll out and fill bottom crust.

On a well-floured board, roll dough for the bottom crust to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. (It might help to roll the dough on a large sheet of floured parchment or wax paper. The dough then can be more easily lifted and inverted over the pie dish.)

Gently lift and center dough over a 9-inch pie dish; if dough cracks, simply press the crack together to seal, or patch with a little leftover dough. Ease dough into the pie dish, making sure to remove any air bubbles from underneath the dough, and trim edges, saving any scraps.

Fill shell with fruit filling, mounding fruit in the center of the pie.

Roll out top crust, cutting decorative cutouts or lattice strips if desired. Decorate top of the pie, brushing egg white as needed to adhere the decorations or lattice. Sprinkle sugar over the decorations or lattice, avoiding outer edge of the crust where it is more likely to burn.

Bake pie on the lowest rack of the oven until the crust is a rich, golden color and set, and the filling is bubbly throughout, about 60-75 minutes. If any part of the crust browns too quickly, tent with foil, and if the bottom crust browns too quickly, move the pie to a higher rack.

Cool before serving.

Pumpkin pie

About 1 1/2 hours. Makes 1 (9-inch) pie

1 frozen unbaked pie shell

1 egg white

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 3/4 cups, or 1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons maple syrup, preferably dark

3 eggs

1 1/3 cups half-and-half

Par-bake the crust: Heat the oven to 400 degrees, and fit a rack at the lowest part of the oven. Line frozen shell with parchment and fill with pie weights. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes, then remove weights and parchment, prick sides and bottom several times with a fork and bake until crust bottom is dry and lightly colored, 10-15 minutes more. Set crust on a rack to cool for several minutes. Brush sides and bottom with egg white to seal the crust and set aside until the egg white is dried. Meanwhile, reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cloves and salt.

Whisk in pumpkin until sugar and spices are evenly incorporated, then whisk in maple syrup. Whisk in eggs, 1 at a time, until incorporated. Slowly whisk in the half-and-half.

Pour filling into a prepared pie shell, filling it just until it reaches rim of the crust (depending on the depth of the shell, you might have a little leftover), and bake until the custard is set (the filling should barely jiggle when tapped), 40-50 minutes. If the outer rim of the crust darkens too much, tent with a ring of foil, and if the bottom crust browns too quickly, move the pie to a higher rack. Remove to a rack and cool to room temperature before serving.

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