Every year around this time, I get many calls from home bakers struggling to figure out what went wrong with their cakes, pie crusts, cookies, or chocolate desserts. The answer isn’t always obvious since one symptom can have several possible causes. Here are six common baking problems, along with their most likely remedies.
Why is my pie crust so tough?
If your pie crust is tough like cardboard and shrinks drastically during baking, it means that too much gluten formed during mixing and rolling.
When you stir water into flour, proteins in the flour grab water and one another and form strong, elastic, bubble-gum-like sheets of gluten. Gluten is essential in baked goods—it’s a big part of what holds them together. Sometimes you need a lot of gluten (for example, when making bread), but for a pie crust, you want just a little, only enough to bind the crust.
For a more tender pie crust, try working the fat (butter, lard, or shortening) into the flour more thoroughly. This greases the proteins, preventing them from forming gluten. The goal is to coat a lot of the flour with the fat for tenderness but leave some of the flour uncoated, allowing enough gluten to form to-hold the crust together. You might also try using more fat and letting it come to room temperature so that it’s softer and coats the proteins better. When you add water to the butter-flour mixture, be gentle with the dough to minimize the formation of gluten.
Another way to get more tender crusts is by adding sugar. Flour proteins combine with the sugar instead of the water and other proteins, and very little gluten forms. The high sugar content of cakes and cookies contributes to their tenderness.
Finally, an acidic ingredient such as vinegar can cut tough gluten strands and tenderize crusts, which is why some old-fashioned pie crust recipes call for a small amount of vinegar.
Why isn't my pie crust flaky?
A big key to making flaky crusts is to have large, flat pieces of cold, firm butter, shortening, or lard in the rolled-out dough. When the dough goes into a hot oven, these pieces of fat remain solid just long enough for the dough above and below them to begin to set. Eventually, the fat melts and steam comes out of the dough, puffing it into flaky layers.
The more of these large pieces of fat you can get into your dough, the flakier your pastry will be. The fat pieces must be large (the size of a big lima bean) so they don’t melt instantly in the oven, and they must be flat so they don’t melt a hole right through the crust.
Pastry chefs can work cold fat into dry flour with their fingertips, but Jim Dodge, an author and baker, suggests rolling the flour and fat together dry on the counter until the mixture resembles flaking paint. This helps ensure lots of flat pieces. Always start with large, cold chunks of fat.
Butter can make very flaky crusts, but shortening and lard are even better because they’ll hold their shape over a wider temperature range.