The Basic Four
There are just four basic ingredients in a pie crust: flour, fat, water, and salt.
From there, you can come up with all kinds of tasty variations just by altering your basic ingredients, as long as you stick to the ratio of three parts flour, two parts fat, and one part liquid.
Flour: For a tender crust, choose a low-protein flour. Pastry flour, with a protein content of about 8-10%, ranks between all-purpose flour and cake flour. All-purpose flour works just fine for pie crusts, while cake flour might lack enough protein to form a workable, elastic dough.
- Depending upon your tastes and the recipe, you can substitute nut flours (almond flour or hazelnut flour) or whole wheat pastry flour for part of the mixture.
- If you're a novice crust-maker, start with a plain all-purpose or pastry flour dough.
Fat: Flaky crusts can be made from a variety of fats: butter, lard, shortening, duck fat, vegetable oil, or nut oils.
- Crusts made with all butter are very flavorful, though they are generally not quite as flaky as crusts made with shortening or lard.
- Vegetable shortening pie doughs are easier to work with and hold their shape better than all-butter crusts, but the flavor won't be as rich.
- Lard produces the flakiest crust, but processed lard can have a chemical aftertaste. Some butchers or farmers' market stands might sell fresh rendered lard.
- Some of the best pie crusts are made with a combination of fats: half butter, for flavor, and half shortening or lard, for flakiness.
- Fans of crispier crusts use melted butter or oil for the fat, resulting in a mealier dough that bakes up as a fine-textured, crisp crust.
Liquid: Ice water, fruit juices, egg yolks, sour cream, milk or cream add different flavors and textures to your pie crust.
- When adding liquid to the flour and fat mixture, it should be ice-cold in order to keep the pieces of fat cool and separate.
- Always add liquid a tablespoon at a time, tossing with the flour mixture.
- Humidity can affect dough performance, so you might need less liquid than the recipe calls for.
- If your dough becomes too wet, you'll need to add more flour to roll out the crust, throwing off your ratio and resulting in a tough crust.
- A little bit of acid--vinegar or lemon juice--helps tenderize the dough and prevents it from oxidizing.
Salt: don't forget to add a pinch of salt to enhance the flavor of your crust.
- For a sweeter crust, add a tablespoon or two of confectioners' sugar. Granulated sugar can make the dough sticky and harder to work with.
- Other additions: Wheat germ, a pinch of spice, a dash of flavorful liqueur or cold brewed coffee are all good additions to pie crusts.
Butter and lard crust recipes:
More Pie Crust Recipes
Cream cheese, shortening, and oil-based crusts.
Whether you prefer flaky crusts or crispy ones, pie-making is all about technique.
- All ingredients should be very cold before mixing. Shortening can be kept in the freezer without becoming rock-solid.
- When you "cut in" the fat, you want discrete pieces (pea-sized) that don't blend in to the dough as you work it. These flakes of butter will expand and the liquid evaporate during baking, separating the layers of dough into a flaky crust.
- Do not overwork the dough. Mix quickly and handle the dough as little as possible. Overworking the dough will cause it to be tough.
- Chill the dough in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before rolling it out. This lets the flour absorb the liquid and helps to prevent stickiness when rolling out the dough. It also allows the gluten (the protein structure) to relax, making it more elastic and less likely to shrink back as you roll it.
- Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface, a pastry cloth, or between two sheets of waxed paper. Roll the dough from the center outward using even, firm strokes. Turning the dough as you work, about an eighth of turn per roll, will help to keep it round.
- Use a dry pastry brush or a clean dishtowel to brush off excess flour from the dough.
- Once the dough is rolled to the proper thickness, fold it in half or roll it around your rolling pin to lift it into the pie pan. Gently press the dough down into the bottom edges of the pan. You can use kitchen shears or a paring knife to trim the crust to about a ¾ inch overhang.
- After the rolled-out dough has been transferred to the pie pan, let it relax in the refrigerator for another 20-30 minutes before filling. This will prevent the dough from shrinking during baking.
- Before pouring the filling into the unbaked pie crust, you can brush the bottom and sides of the unbaked pie crust with lightly beaten egg white or melted jelly. This will help create a seal to keep the crust crisp.
- To ensure that the crust stays even crisper, par-bake the pie crust before adding the filling. (This is, of course, only an option for crumb-topped pies, not latticed or double-crust pies, in which the top and bottom crusts need to be sealed.)
- When pre-baking ("blind baking") a pie crust, line it with foil or parchment paper and fill it with pie weights, dried beans or rice, or a jar's worth of loose change. Bake until the rim just begins to color. Remove the weights and carefully prick the bottom and sides with a fork to prevent air bubbles. Return it to the oven and continue baking until pale golden. Brush with egg wash, if desired, and bake a few more minutes to create a seal.