This might ruffle some feathers, but I have a bone to pick with whoever coined the expression “as easy as pie.” As a pie instructor, the author of four pie cookbooks, and the dean of The Pie Academy, an online community of passionate pie makers, I can assure you that a majority of home cooks believe there’s almost nothing easy about pie, especially the crust; confusion and disappointment can reign.
Boiling water is easy. Making a grilled-cheese sandwich is easy. Making a reliably good piecrust, not so much.
Accurate measurements can solve a lot of the problems that plague a piecrust, but I think the big culprit is how we interpret the language of pie-dough preparation. One cook’s pea-size pie dough mixture might look like lentils, another’s the size of giant butter beans. If I tell you to pulse the food processor to incorporate the fat and flour, will your pulses be 1/2 second or 3 seconds long? How firm is your cold butter? Almost rock hard, or coolish and yielding to medium thumb pressure? The sum of these seemingly small details can have a real impact on your crust.
My aim here is to nudge us toward a common pie language and understanding so that we shrink the margin of error and achieve a more predictable outcome.
I mentioned the food processor because it’s the tool I use almost exclusively in my day-to-day pie-dough making. I’m an old-school pie maker—I learned how to do everything by hand—so I resisted the processor at first. Over time, however, I had to admit that it’s just plain easier and faster than the hand method, and the result is every bit as good. Easier and faster means I make more pies.
Think of the food processor as a high-speed pastry blender. What typically takes five or more minutes to do by hand takes a matter of seconds in the food processor. Because the machine is so efficient, a light touch is required. My rule of thumb is to use only short 1-second pulses when I’m preparing dough in the processor. Pulsing is key because the pulsing action keeps tossing particles up from the bottom of the bowl, which promotes even mixing. When you run the machine nonstop, the blade tends to compact the particles in the bowl, resulting in an unevenly mixed dough.
How to Make Perfect Food-Processor Piecrust
I’ve experimented with different combinations of fats and have decided that a blend of mostly unsalted butter with a small amount of vegetable shortening, such as Crisco, makes the best possible crust. The viscous shortening quickly coats the flour and helps prevent the formation of gluten, which can make a crust too chewy. The shortening also acts like a muscle relaxer, so the dough is easier to roll and less prone to shrinkage. The butter, for its part, contributes to the crust’s flakiness and yields a flavor that everyone adores.
I also add a teaspoon of vinegar and a bit of cornstarch to my dough. Both tenderize the crust. I leave out sugar, because I’ve see too many instances of sugar causing the crust to overbrown.
Incidentally, size matters when it comes to the food processor and pie dough. If your machine has a capacity of 12 cups or more, it will accommodate a double-crust dough recipe. Less than 12 cups, and I suggest making two separate single-crust recipes for best results.
My recipe instructs you to empty the pie-dough mixture from the processor while it is still somewhat crumbly and before it looks like a cohesive dough, a hedge against overmixing. At that point, you can start packing the buttery crumbs together with your bare hands and shape them into a disk (or disks, if you’re making a double crust). But hands are warm, and warm hands will soften the butter, make the dough sticky, and result in a less flaky crust. I prefer the “gather and compress” method illustrated below, which keeps your hands off the dough altogether.
I always refrigerate dough before rolling it. This gives me ample time to work on the filling and, more important, allows the butter to rm back up so that the dough isn’t sticky when I roll it. One hour in the fridge is usually sufficient, but I sometimes keep it there overnight. I take it out of the refrigerator for about 10 minutes before rolling. Otherwise, the dough will be too firm.
So, as easy as pie? I often tell home cooks that you can be 90 percent piecrust proficient after just a month or two of regular weekend pie-making, but that last 10 percent is all nuance perfected over a lifetime. You’ll find very few friends and family members who’ll complain about your mastery process.