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How to Roll and Shape Pie Crust

Roll “around the clock” for a circle of even thickness

Fine Cooking Issue 38
Photos: Judi Rutz
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If you ask my pastry students what’s the most daunting aspect of making pie crust, I believe the answer would be rolling out the crust. I give them many little suggestions and hints, but the major piece of advice I offer is this: buy a pastry cloth and a cover for your rolling pin and then “roll around the clock.”

Start with rested dough

Before you begin rolling, you obviously need to make your dough. Whatever recipe you are using (you might try my recipe for Flaky Pie Pastry), the pastry should be shaped into a disk and refrigerated for at least 30 minutes before rolling. This rest allows the fat to firm up, the liquid to permeate the dough, and the gluten to relax, all of which makes the rolling go more smoothly.

Choose your tools

A flat surface and a rolling pin are the obvious tools for rolling out pie crust. For your surface, your main goal is a lot of space. A marble counter is not essential. In fact, my choice for a rolling surface is a large wooden pastry board. Secure it to the counter by placing a damp towel or a nonskid mat underneath.

For my rolling pin, I like a heavy, wooden ball-bearing pin with a 12-inch barrel and handles. The weight helps do some of the work for you, while the ball bearings facilitate longer, smoother strokes. A straight pin offers a more controlled roll, but it takes more experience to evenly flatten the dough with one.

Cloth makes the dough a cinch to roll. Rolling out  your pastry on a wellfloured heavy pastry cloth (a crease-free linen dishtowel would also work) keeps the dough from sticking and makes it easier to handle. For the same reason, I also fit a floured knit stocking or cover over my rolling pin.

A pastry cloth won’t skid on wood or plastic, but if you’re rolling on a slippery surface, such as granite or Formica, you’ll need to bring the cloth forward so that you can lean against it and hold it in place as you roll.

The key to a perfect circle

Truth be told, a perfect circle isn’t really necessary, since you almost always trim the circle. But I’ve seen some people roll out dough that in no way resembles a circle, and this becomes a problem when you try to fit the dough in the pie pan.

Roll “around the clock” to flatten the dough evenly. When I roll, I think of the circle of dough as the face of a clock. My first four rolls, all starting from the center, go first to 12 o’clock, then to 6 o’clock, over to 3 o’clock, and finally to 9 o’clock. After those initial strokes, I roll around the clock at “hourly” intervals until my circle has stretched to the size I want. This way, I can keep track of where I’m rolling and won’t favor one area over another.

Some other rolling tips:

  • Test the firmness of the rested dough before you roll. Press the disk with your fingers; you should leave a slight imprint. Pastry dough that is too cold will crack when rolled, while dough that’s too soft will stick to your rolling surface.
  • Roll the dough in one direction, not back and forth, which will toughen the dough, as will flipping it over and sprinkling it with flour.
  • If the dough isn’t spreading, stop rolling. The dough has likely stuck to the surface; use a pastry scraper to carefully pick it up and then reflour the surface underneath.
  • Lighten up on the rolling pin as you reach the edges of the circle. Otherwise, your edges will become too thin.
  • Give the pastry a quarter turn frequently. Most people apply pressure on their dominant side; rotating the dough avoids this favoritism.
  • To even out irregularities, angle the end of the rolling pin toward the area that needs filling. This should ease the dough to where it needs to be.

Lining the pie pan

Moving the pie crust from the work surface to the pie plate can be a breath-holding experience. Some people fold the crust in quarters and unfold it over the pie plate. I roll mine around the pin and then carefully unroll it over the plate.

I generally bake my pies in an ovenproof glass pie plate. Glass is an excellent conductor of heat, and the bottom of the pie can easily be checked for browning.

Always butter the pie plate and rim before lining it with pastry. Greasing the dish holds the pastry in place, decreases shrinkage, and encourages browning.

Drape the pastry over the plate, fitting it loosely at first and then pressing the dough into the crease of the pie pan. For the best shape, don’t stretch the dough to fit; bring in some of the overhang if necessary to give you enough slack to reach the crease of the plate.

Use scissors to trim the dough. For double-crust pies, in which the top crust is turned under the bottom pastry, the bottom crust needs to hang over the edge of the plate by 1/4 to 1/2 inch, while the top needs 1/2 to 1 inch.

Single-crust pies always need the most overhang—also known as selvage—to give you enough pastry to fold over to form a double thickness of dough for height and extra support at the lip. This is especially important when the crust is to be filled before baking: the weight of the filling can draw the crust in.

Seal the edge simply by crimping or fluting. My biggest concern when making a pie crust is that it be tender and flaky. Pies with highly sculpted edges are pretty, but to make a dough strong enough to withstand braiding and whatnot, tenderness and flavor often get sacrificed. I think of pies as a casual dessert, and I like to keep their “homemade” look using a method like the one shown at left. For a double-crust pie, create an edge that will keep the filling in, such as pressing the two crusts together with a fork at regular intervals.

Chill your pie before baking. All pie crusts, whether they’re to be filled first or blind-baked, hold their shape best in the oven if they’re chilled for half an hour before baking. When the pastry begins to get firm, you can redefine any decorative edging to give the crust a more pronounced design.


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