Serving pie for dessert at Thanksgiving is as much of a tradition as roasting a turkey. During this time of year, many people who rarely make pies from scratch take the time to do just that. If I have one piece of advice for holiday pie bakers—novice and otherwise—it’s this: relax.
My second bit of advice is to make pies more often. That way, you’ll learn through visual and tactile experience exactly what a good dough should look and feel like.
Although rolling and shaping pie dough are important aspects of pie-making, a great pie begins with ingredients combined in such a way that the dough is easy to roll and shape and will produce a flaky pie crust that’s tender, not tough.
Mix lightly for flaky pastry
Most pie doughs are basically made of flour, fat, and water. The fat is cut into the flour to form crumbs, varying from a meal-like consistency to pea-size pieces. When these crumbs are moistened with liquid, they form a malleable dough. When heated, the pieces of fat melt, and the liquid in the dough steams apart the pockets left by the melted fat. As the dough bakes, the moisture evaporates, and the dough dries in layered flakes to form a crust.
Begin with cold ingredients. Keep your measured and diced butter and shortening well chilled until ready to use, and use ice water for the liquid. If the fats melt before they’re in the oven, they are absorbed into the flour, and any chance of producing a flaky pie crust is lost.
A food processor works great—to a point. Many bakers only make pie crust by hand, swearing that this is the only way to control the dough. Others use the food processor exclusively, exulting in the ease and convenience. I use a processor for the first step—cutting the fats into the flour, which works really well (see my Flaky Pie Pastry recipe for details). The trick is to keep an eye on the consistency of the fat and flour.
When it comes to adding the liquid, however, the food processor has a few drawbacks. If you add the liquid with the processor running, it’s difficult to distribute evenly—something that’s crucial to a tender pastry—and the dough can form a wet mass around the steel blade before a sufficient amount of liquid has been added. To avoid these pitfalls, I dump the flour-fat mixture into a large bowl and add the liquid by hand.
Add the liquid slowly; stop sooner than you think
The amount of liquid needed in your pie crust will vary from batch to batch. Have a bowl of ice water ready so that you can measure out a tablespoon at a time. As you add the water, use a kitchen fork, tines down, to push the mixture toward the center of the bowl with each addition. To ensure a flaky pastry, use a light hand. Stirring or mashing blends the flour and fat together, eliminating the potential for flaky layers. When pastry dough is overworked in this manner, the resulting mass can’t absorb enough water. And without enough water, little or no steam can form in the oven to expand the layers.
Step-by-Step: Preparing the dough
Too crumbly vs. just right
If your dough crumbles as you try to gather it into a ball, add water a drop at a teaspoon at a time, until water. it forms a more cohesive ball like the dough on the right; you might not need all the water. Too much water makes a sticky dough, which results in a tough and chewy crust.
Shape the dough into disks
I find that indenting the top of the disk helps eliminate a domed surface and also ensures a more even thickness as the dough is rolled.
Dust the disks generously with flour and seal them in plastic. The dough needs to be refrigerated for the gluten to relax, for the fat to firm, and for the moisture to permeate the dough. After the dough chills at least half an hour, it’s ready to roll.