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Episode 3: All About Pie Dough

Sarah Breckenridge. Videography by Bruce Becker, Dariusz Kanarek, and John Ross. Edited by Cari Delahanty. Food styling by Safaya Tork.
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All About Pie DoughA good pie is all about the crust: you want a crust that’s both flaky and tender, with good buttery flavor. That’s not asking too much, is it? In this episode, you’ll learn about the different types of fat in pie crust dough, as well as three different ways of mixing the dough to get our ultimate flaky crust.

The three essential ingredients for Classic Pie Dough are flour, water and some kind of fat. You’ll see sugar and salt, and maybe some additional flavorings play smaller roles, but good pie crust is all about getting the balance right between flour, fat and water.

Choosing Your Fat
So that leads us right to our first question: what type of fat? There are two main types of fat you’ll see in pie dough recipes–butter and shortening. Well, three if you count lard.

Shortening, and lard for that matter, are pure fats. They cut easily into flour and make flaky pie crusts. Butter, on the other hand, is only about 80 percent fat–the rest is milk solids and water. Abby likes a mix of both, for flavor and flakiness. But all butter is good too, especially if you use the European high-fat butters.

No matter what type of fat you use, the same process happens in baking to create flakiness: layers and large pockets of fat distributed throughout the dough melt away, leaving air pockets that then puff up from the steam trapped inside them (that’s where the water comes in). So when we go to mix our dough, the most important thing to remember is to leave fairly large chunks of fat in the dough.

Three Mixing Methods
There are three different methods for mixing while leaving these large chunks: The most old fashioned is simply smearing the dough with your fingertips.

Start with flour and your other dry ingredients in a mixing bowl–it’s important to weigh your flour so you get an accurate measurement. Into your bowl of flour, salt and sugar, add your chilled butter and shortening, cut into small bits. Use your fingertips to smear the fat into the flour, until the fat is flaked into 1/4-inch pieces. This method takes a little longer than food processor or stand mixer, but there’s no danger of overmixing, because you can actually feel when it’s at the right stage. It’s worth doing it this way a few times, so you can recognize when to stop using a machine.

If you want to go electric-powered, there are two options: a stand mixer or food processor. With the stand mixer, use a paddle attachment at low speed–this is the best imitation of doing it with your hands. It will take a little while to cut in all the fat, but it’s hands-off.

The food processor, on the other hand, is super quick, so much so that you risk over processing, which will make your dough tough. To avoid that, use short bursts of power with the pulse button, and stop when you have pieces of butter a little bit larger than peas.

No matter what your method, add your water sparingly–most recipes give you a range and you want to start off at the low end, using only as much as you need. Cold water helps keep gluten from developing, which will toughen your crust. At this point, stop and try to press some of the crumbs together–if they adhere into a dough, you’ve got enough water. If not, add a bit more, and stir it in with a fork.

Shape and Chill
Once your dough is mixed, dump the crumbs out onto a large piece of plastic wrap and use the wrap to mold the crumbs into a piece of dough. Divide it in half (if it’s a double batch), shape each half into a round disk, and wrap it in plastic wrap. No matter what fat you use or how you mix, you always want to let your dough relax in the refrigerator for at least an hour before you start rolling it out–this helps relax any gluten that forms, and firms the pockets of fat back up so that they stay distinct as you roll out the dough.

More Pie Dough Recipes
All-Butter Piecrust
Flaky Pie Pastry
Three-Fat Pie Pastry
Tender Pie Crust
Basic Pie Pastry
Butter Pie Dough

Related Articles
How to Mix Fat, Flour and Water for a Flaky Crust
How to Make the Perfect Pie Crust
What Makes Pie Crust Tender or Flaky?
Pie Troubleshooting Guide
How to Roll Out Pie Crust
Baking Classic American Pies

Abigail Johnson Dodge is a contributing editor at Fine Cooking, and teaches cooking classes around the country. She studied at La Varenne in Paris, and worked with Michel Guerard and Guy Savoy, specializing in pastry. She has written six cookbooks, four of them about baking, including The Weekend Baker, winner of the IACP award. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two children.

Other episodes in this series
Press-in Cookie Crust Tarts Equipment Essentials for Pies All About Pie Dough
Episode 1: Press-in Cookie Crust Tarts
  Episode 2: Equipment Essentials for Pies   Episode 3: All About Pie Dough
Rustic Fruit Galettes Double-Crust Apple Pie Single-Crust Pecan and Pumpkin Pies
Episode 4: Rustic Fruit Galettes   Episode 5: Double-Crust Apple Pie   Episode 6: Single-Crust Pecan and Pumpkin Pies
Pâte Sucrée and Lemon Tart Lattice-Topped Mixed Berry Pie Rough Puff Pastry Tarts
Episode 7: Pâte Sucrée and Lemon Tart   Episode 8: Lattice-Topped Mixed Berry Pie   Episode 9: Rough Puff Pastry Tarts
Classic Fresh Fruit Tart    
Episode 10: Classic Fresh Fruit Tart        


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