Mastering the Art of Perfect Pie Crust at Home

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Mastering the Art of Perfect Pie Crust at Home

Making your own pie crust isn't difficult, but it does require patience and just a little bit of baking know-how, because gluten can be a real bitch.
November 23, 2015, 3:00pm

I'm not a professional baker, but I've been a food blogger and photographer for over seven years.

And last week, I learned more than my share by making seven pies in one day flat. I've baked a lot of pies, so I thought it'd be easy enough: whip up some crust, mix some fillings together, and spend an entire day baking. But I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

This was the day that I was reminded how hard it would be to work in a real kitchen. By the end, I was a little stressed, covered in flour and butter, and nauseated from tasting a bit of this here and having a spoonful of that there. So I guess it wasn't all that different from any other day, except that I had a bunch of pie in my apartment. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and I came through the other side of my pie-making marathon with a brain full of pie crust knowledge.

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Traditionally, what you're looking for in a pie crust are three basic things: you want it to be fully cooked through, without any doughiness between the filling and the bottom crust, you want the crust to be light and flaky with discernible layers, and, of course, you want there to be a rich, buttery flavor. My goal was to find the crust that best exemplified these three qualities. Armed with my own experience, and the advice from experts like Sarah Sannah of Pies and Thighs, butcher and food writer Cara Nicoletti, and pastry chef Callie Speer, I was able to push through and get it all done.

Let me crack an egg of pie wisdom over your heads and help you get ready for all of those Thanksgiving pies you're going to be making and eating next week.

First things first: What kind of pie crust do you want to make?

For our purposes, I decided to test out three different kinds. The first was an all-butter crust, which I think most people would deem to be the most "traditional" of all crusts. It has the fewest ingredients, but it takes the most amount of skill. As with most things, the more simple it is, the less there is to hide behind.

I decided to go with Pies and Thighs' Bourbon Pecan Pie recipe, which uses this type of crust. Then there was the all-butter crust with apple cider vinegar and ice water, which supposedly stop the formation of gluten, which can inhibit your dough from forming nice, flaky layers. To test this one out, I went with a Brown Butter Pumpkin Pie, courtesy of Four and Twenty Blackbirds.

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Lastly, there's the butter and shortening/lard combo. Shortening and lard work pretty interchangeably (as far as I'm concerned), with lard being a fraction better but probably not as readily available as shortening. ("Lard is the original form of shortening, which literally means that it shortens the gluten strands in a pastry," says Cara Nicoletti. "this The shorter the gluten strands, the less structure there is, which in the case of pie crust is a good thing.") I used leaf lard, which is pure pork fat that's clean and tastes nothing like bacon; but again, if you're just baking at home, go ahead and use shortening if that's your preference. This recipe came from apple guru Tom Burford and was a classic apple pie, which made for the perfect test subject since it's almost everyone's favorite pie.

I kicked things off with the all-butter crust. "I love our recipe because to me, it has the classic, flaky, buttery snap I look for," said Sarah Sannah of Pies 'N' Thighs. I couldn't agree more, but wondered, Is it possible for a home baker with no "real" experience to create this same delicious pie in a regular kitchen? I know that I was asking the tough questions, but you're welcome.

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All photos by Sydney Kramer

Weighing your ingredients for pie is incredibly helpful because it allows you to be 100-percent certain that you are making the recipe with the intended measurements. I guarantee you that my one cup measurement will be heavier or lighter than your one cup measurement, and while, admittedly, it may not make a huge difference in the long run, this is Thanksgiving, after all. The stakes are high, so measure your ingredients.

One of the biggest mistakes people make with a pie crust is trying to get the butter chopped up so finely that you can't tell the difference between the glorious hunks of butter and lumps of flour in the dough. By using your thumbs to press the butter into the flour, it will help to leave you with a few nice chunks of butter still in the crust, which also helps with the flakiness and the texture. So don't go nuts. Let your butter shine.

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I know some people may say otherwise, but this is what I've found works best for me as a home baker.

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Once you've cut in all of your butter, add a bit of cold water to bring it all together. Form it into a ball. The dough should be sticky enough to stay together, but not too wet. There will be a few dry crumbles left at the bottom of your bowl.

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Wrap your dough in plastic wrap and form it into a three- to four-inch disk and then refrigerate for at least three hours. As I let my dough chill in the fridge, I moved onto the next crust.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds' Brown Butter Pumpkin Pie, which uses an all-butter crust with the addition of apple cider vinegar, was the next test subject. The theory (though contested) is that the vinegar inhibits gluten formation and helps the end result to be flakier.

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So does adding apple cider vinegar, distilled white vinegar, or vodka actually make a big difference when making pie crust?

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Once I formed the dough, I noticed that it was a bit springier and lighter than the plain all-butter one from Pies 'N' Thighs, but I could definitely smell the vinegar. If I were to look at them side by side, though, I'm not sure I could tell the difference.

And then I moved onto the third and final pie dough—made with butter and shortening or lard, depending on how you feel about pure animal fat.

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Pie crusts don't typically have leavening in them, but this recipe suggested to use baking powder, which helps the dough to expand.

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The lard crust felt and looked more similar to the vinegar crust than the plain all-butter version, but was a bit drier than either, which I attributed to the baking powder. I wrapped it in plastic wrap, smushed it into a disk, and set it in the fridge to chill.

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Yes, I made a lot of crust. But it was all for you. And science.

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So after I made all seven pies from the MUNCHIES Thanksgiving Recipe Collection, I used some scraps to do a little test. What do these suckers look like baked all alone?

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The all-butter crust was flatter, a bit greasier, and heavier than the other crusts, but developed the best looking golden brown color out of all of them. It also smelled amazing and was still nice and flaky. I know that it may be the least appealing visually, but flavor-wise, it won.

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The all-butter plus vinegar crust was noticeably lighter than the all-butter kind, but the top two circles were misshapen. I am going to go ahead and blame myself for that. I probably just stretched and rolled the flour too much after a day's work, but not even vinegar can help you if you're working the hell out of your dough. It's proof that you should gently handle your dough, because gluten can be a real bitch. Either way, the crust was nice and flaky and still smelled and tasted very buttery. But most importantly, it was much fluffier than the plain all-butter, so it was a bit more visually appealing.

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And last, but certainly not least, the lard/shortening crust was noticeably less greasy, and held its shape the best. It still tasted buttery and delicious, was still very flaky, and much lighter and airier than the other two. This can be attributed to lard's higher melting point. The only downside to this crust was that it didn't develop as much lovely color, and, of course, it was not as buttery tasting as the other two. But who really cares when you're eating a bourbon pecan, pumpkin, or apple pie?

At the end of the day, the most important thing when making a pie crust—to me, at least—is ease. I want to be able to easily roll the dough out, I want it to be predictable, and I want it to hold its shape. All three crusts were flaky and delicious, so it's really a matter of what you're comfortable with. If Grandma always made all-butter crusts and doing anything other than that is a slight upon her honor, go forth and make that crust like you were born to do.

Whichever way you go, just remember to use cold water, cold hands, and let your dough rest overnight. If you do all of these things, you'll be golden. Any pie is a perfect pie, as far as I'm concerned.

Now where's the whipped cream?