This week I’m deviating from my standard literary fare. With Thanksgiving fast approaching, it seemed high-time to fulfill the oft-repeated request for a crust tutorial.
One of the most frequent pie-related questions I get in casual conversation is, “do you make your own crust?” The answer is, resoundingly, “of course!” When I insist how easy it is to make pie crust from scratch, people grow sheepish, wave an embarrassed hand, and say something about store bought crust.
But it’s true! Pie crust is actually incredibly easy to make from scratch. At its core it is only three simple ingredients: flour, butter, and water.
However, to achieve great homemade crust you need a fourth ingredient: CONFIDENCE.
Did you like that? I liked that, that was good.
With a little extra gumption and some practice, you too can leave your holiday eatership marveling at your effortless extra mile.
Variation on a Theme:
Like I said, flour, water, and butter are the pillars of pie crust. However, varying the measurements and additives can change the chemistry. Personally, after seven years of pie-baking, I’m only just now beginning to grasp the subtlety of this in practice. I have a few mainstay recipes that I rely on and have tweaked over the years to suit my needs, but I would love to spend more time extrapolating them into different textures.
A lot of my crust-related chemistry knowledge comes from this New York Times article, which I highly recommend.
Some people substitute a small measure of the water with cider vinegar or vodka as well. According to the Times, this inhibits the formation of a gluten protein network, which is created by combining flour and water and can make your crust a tougher.
Varying the flour to butter ratio can also affect the texture, everyone has their own preferred ratio. Flakiness occurs when the butter melts and releases moisture, creating steam pockets in the crust. (This is also why you have to keep your butter cold, so that it will melt in the oven and not before!) More butter will release more moisture and make a flakier crust!
Finally, I haven’t experimented extensively with alternate fats, but it is possible to substitute butter with crisco, shortening, suet, and lard in pie crust. I tend to rely on the “all butter crust” because I think it is the most accessible.
All Butter Crust, or pate brisee if you’re French. Makes a double crust (bottom and top), adapted from an old cookbook of my father’s from the 1970s.
-2 cups flour
-2/3 cups unsalted butter
-4-5 tbs cold water
-1 tbs apple cider vinegar
-a pinch of salt
This is the first of my two crusts and the one I use most often. As you can see, there is more flour to butter in this pie crust. This makes it much more durable. You can roll it out a few times without worrying about it becoming tough or the butter melting in your hands. It also holds liquid well, so it’s particularly good as a bottom crust.
It comes together flaky and crisp, I sometimes think of the texture more like shortbread than that typical of most pastries.
Makes a double crust, adapted from the Pieminister’s cookbook.
-1 cup flour
-1 cup butter
-2/3 cup water
-splash of cider vinegar
Because the amount of flour is equal to the amount of butter in this crust, it’s much flakier and softer. The Pieministers, Jon Simon and Tristan Hogg, invented this type of crust as something in between the durable pate brisee I’ve outlined above and a high-maintenance puff pastry. Thus the term “rough puff;” it’s not as finicky (and does not take as long) as full-fledged puff pastry.
This can be used as both a top and bottom crust, but because there is more butter, it can melt if the filling is warm (as with meat pies) and become a bit gooey before it has a chance to bake. I usually use it as a top crust only. With that in mind, this dough should be left in a ball in the refrigerator for about a half an hour minimum before rolling out.
When making and rolling dough, I recommend doing it on a surface away from the preheating oven. The vents in the oven will warm your counter space and turn your dough soft, melty, and unwieldy.
Use a knife or pastry scraper to cube your cold butter. Add flour, water, and cider vinegar. If you have a pastry cutter or scraper you can use that to cut the butter into the other ingredients and combine it into a coarse meal. If you’re cheap (like me) I recommend using clean hands washed in cool water (again, anything you can do to prevent the butter melting prematurely). Some people also use crossed butter knives; snicker-snack.
At a certain point you will need to abandon your tool in favor of hand-kneading anyways in order to bring that shaggy mess of butter and flour together into a cohesive ball.
You can use a food processor for the pate brisee, but I don’t recommend it for the rough puff. For both crusts you want there to be small but visible chunks of butter in the crust when you roll it out. I like the word “striated” to describe this effect; like fat in muscle or some other naturally-occurring biological phenomenon, you want there to be chords of butter running through your dough. When these melt, they will produce that steam necessary for flakiness throughout. If the butter is too liquefied (as it might become in a food processor) it will not do this. However, if it is not incorporated enough the crust will drip all over the bottom of your oven and make a big mess.
Here is where practice makes perfect. I can often tell the quality of a dough and how well it has come together by the feel of it. If it is too dry and there are flakes of flour liberally littering the bottom of the bowl, I will add a splash of water to it until they are incorporated and then flour the surface of the ball to prevent it from becoming sticky.
Dough with too much water feels tacky, like wet clay. When there is too much butter or if the butter begins to melt prematurely, it will feel like the dough is sweating. In those instances I will usually flour it and throw it in the refrigerator as soon as possible. No matter what, if I have to put a crust to the side, I set it in the fridge to keep the butter as chilly as possible.
Ideally your ball of dough should feel powdery-dry; firm if it is the pate brisee,and a bit more soft and pillowy for the rough puff.
My technique for rolling out is pretty simple: just kind of do it.
I’m usually pretty liberal with the flour, while this means that you really only get one or two shots at rolling before the dough gets too tough, it’s less likely to stick to your counter and make your life hell. Why make your life harder than it has to be?
I form the dough into a flat circle and use a pin to push out from the middle, lengthening it in one direction. Then I turn it 90 degrees, flip it over (so I’m sure it’s not sticking to the counter) and do that a few more times until I have something roughly resembling a circle. Most cookbooks and recipes recommend that it be an 1/8 – 1/4 of an inch in thickness.
The Four and Twenty Blackbirds cookbook by Emily and Melissa Elsen has a whole page on rolling out the dough, which I highly recommend. They suggest removing the dough from the fridge and allowing it to sit for 5 to 10 minutes before rolling, to prevent cracks. They also have a lot more to say about different kinds of rolling pins and the use of pressure when rolling.
If cracks start to form in the middle of the dough when you’re rolling, they recommend taking a piece from the edge, placing it over the crack, and rolling over it to press it flush into the problem area, brushing the edges with a bit of water if need be. I would add that if a few holes form when you pull the dough up to fit it into the pan, it’s not the end of the world. You can just as easily take some scraps and patchwork the holes over. If its in the bottom crust no one will ever see, and if it’s the top the seams will blend in during baking.
An egg wash will give your crust a nice golden-brown color. This also makes it easier to distinguish when a pie is done in the oven.
Egg washes are simple: beat an egg in a small bowl with a fork, then use a pastry brush to paint a thin layer over the top crust. Some people will add a splash of milk to their wash, but I don’t usually. If it is a sweet pie I will usually sprinkle sugar liberally over the crust once it has been washed. I like the crisp, sugary shell that forms in the oven, but that’s definitely a personal preference.
A lot of books will tell you that you need lots of fancy, specialized kitchen tools in order to make pie crust, but I don’t believe that’s true. One reason I love pie is because it’s a very accessible dessert, it doesn’t require a lot of pomp and circumstance. Anyone can do it, really. Just go for it! I have faith in you!
This post was initially supposed to be a one-off where I could exorcise all of my crust knowledge, but it’s already gotten rather long and there’s so much I still want to talk about! Hopefully I’ll be able to do a few more technique-based posts in the future, I’ve already got photos for a post on how to weave two different kinds of lattice crusts, I would love to experiment with alternate decorating techniques and different kinds of fat, and I think another post covering alternatives to the all butter crust would be really worthwhile.
Please! I would love to hear what other kinds of baking tutorials you’d like to see in the future!
(Special thanks in this post go to Marnie Zoldessy, who was my third and fourth arms and took all of the in-process photographs you see here!)