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
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
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
The Pie Baker’s Tip Sheet
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.