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How to Make the Perfect Pie Crust

A good pie is all about the crust. Learn the secrets to flaky, buttery perfection, then choose from four delicious fillings that are just right for the season.

by Nicole Rees

fromFine Cooking
Issue 101

What makes a great piecrust? In a word: butter—even better, really good butter. Sure, lard or shortening produces a tender, flaky crust, but they can’t compete with butter’s flavor. Creamy, rich European-style butter is especially good. It has a higher fat content (and less water) than most American butters, so it’s tastier and more supple to work with.

The good news is that a butter crust can be just as flaky as one made with lard if you make it the old-fashioned way—by hand, rubbing cold chunks of butter between your fingertips and into the flour. No pastry blender, no mixer, no food processor. This technique allows you to monitor the size of the butter pieces in the flour and creates flakes, rather than lumps, that remain in the dough when you roll it. As the crust bakes, the butter melts, creating steam pockets that leave behind a flaky texture. It’s a classic method and one well worth bringing back.

We take you through this easy technique step by step and then show you how to roll out the dough, transfer it to a pie plate, and blind bake it. From there, it’s a simple matter of choosing the filling. Or maybe not so simple, since the choices range from coffee-toffee pecan, to spiced pumpkin, to pear and dried cherry, and finally cranberry-apple. Delicious indecision.

 

Make the Dough
Put the flour, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl and stir with a rubber spatula or a fork to combine. Add the butter to the bowl. Rub the cold chunks of butter between your fingertips, smearing the butter into the flour to create small (roughly 1/4-inch) flakes of fat. Drizzle 3 Tbs. ice water over the flour mixture. Stir with the spatula or fork, adding 1 Tbs. more water if necessary, until the mixture forms a shaggy dough that’s moist enough to hold together when pressed between your fingers. With well-floured hands, gently gather and press the dough together, and then form it into a disk with smooth edges. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill for at least 1 hour, but preferably 2 to 4 hours, before rolling.

 

Roll the Dough

Let the chilled dough sit at room temperature to soften slightly—it should be cold and firm but not rock hard. Depending on how long the dough was chilled, this could take 5 to 20 minutes. When ready to roll, lightly flour the countertop or other surface (a pastry cloth, silicone rolling mat, or parchment on a counter also works great) and position the rolling pin in the center of the dough disk. Roll away from you toward 12 o’clock, easing the pressure as you near the edge to keep the edge from becoming too thin. Return to the center and roll toward 6 o’clock. Repeat toward 3 and then 9 o’clock, always easing the pressure at the edges and picking up the pin rather than rolling it back to the center.

Continue to “roll around the clock,” aiming for different “times” on each pass until the dough is 13 to 14 inches in diameter and about 1/8 inch thick. Try to use as few passes of the rolling pin as possible. After every few passes, check that the dough isn’t sticking by lifting it with a bench knife (dough scraper). Reflour only as needed—excess flour makes a drier, tougher crust. Each time you lift the dough, give it a quarter turn to help even out the thickness.

 

Line the Plate
Gently transfer the dough to a 9-inch pie plate, preferably metal, by folding it in half and unfolding it into the plate. Do not stretch the dough as you line the pan, or it will spring back when baked. Gently lift the outer edges of the dough to give you enough slack to line the sides of the pan without stretching the dough. Trim the overhanging dough to 1 inch from the edge of the pan. Roll the dough under itself into a cylinder that rests on the edge of the pan.

To crimp the edge, have one hand on the inside of the edge, and one hand on the outside, and use the index finger of the inside hand to push the dough between the thumb and index finger of the outside hand to form a U or V shape. Repeat around the edge of the pie plate, creating a crimped edge whose individual flutes are about an inch apart. If you notice that the edge is not perfectly symmetrical and that the amount of dough you’ll have to crimp seems sparse in places, take a bit of trimmed scrap, wet it with a drop or two of water, and attach it to the sparse area by pressing it firmly into place. Prick the sides and bottom of the crust all over with a fork. Refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour or overnight. This will relax the dough and help prevent the edges from caving in.

 

 

 

Blind-Baking Basics

Blind baking means baking an empty piecrust before adding a filling. Here’s what you need to know:

Why blind bake? Blind baking gives the crust a head start, allowing it to firm up before the filling is added. This prevents the crust from getting soggy. Dried beans or pie weights help it keep its shape. Without them, the crust will rise and puff on the bottom or slide down the sides under the weight of the crimped edge.

How long? In recipes where the filling doesn’t need further cooking or cooks for a short period of time, such as cream pies or fruit tarts, the crust is usually blind baked until cooked through and golden-brown. But in recipes where the pie cooks for a while after adding the filling, it’s best to blind bake the crust just part way so it won’t overcook as it continues to bake with the filling.

Remember to chill. Don’t be tempted to skip chilling a crust before blind baking it. Piecrusts baked right after shaping are warm enough for the butter to melt quickly in the oven, causing the edge to sink or even slump over the edge of the pie pan.

Blind Bake the Crust
Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 425°F. Line the chilled piecrust with foil and fill it with dried beans or pie weights. Bake for 15 minutes; remove the foil and the beans or weights. Reduce the oven temperature to 375°F. Bake until the bottom looks dry but is not quite done and the edges are light golden, 5 to 7 minutes more 10 . Let cool on a rack while you prepare the filling.

1. Cold butter. For flaky piecrust, it’s important to start with very cold butter, so that it doesn’t melt while you work it into the flour. When this happens, butter becomes too thoroughly mixed with the flour, resulting in a mealy, crumbly crust rather than a flaky one. Freeze butter briefly if you have warm hands, live in a warm climate, or are making a very large batch of pie dough. It’s also a good idea to chill the bowl and even the flour when making pie in warm weather.

2. Just enough water. For a tender piecrust, don’t add too much water. Water contributes to the development of gluten proteins. If you add more than necessary, the resulting crust may still be flaky, but it will be tough rather than tender. For these reasons, trust your fingertips over your eyes: The dough should hold together when pressed between your fingers, although it will still look pretty shaggy.

3. Easy rolling. Take the time before chilling the dough to form an even, circular disk with clean, smooth edges. This will make rolling out the dough much easier because the edges are less likely to crack.

4. Crisp crust. Bake filled pies on a preheated, rimmed baking sheet and use a lightweight metal pie dish. Both will help set the crust quickly, preventing it from getting soggy. Baking on a sheet is also handy for catching bubbling juices.

Photos: Scott  Phillips

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