I believe the reason so many avoid baking pies is this: pie crust can be a pain in the behind. It’s hard to make it pretty and flaky – and sometimes the two seem mutually exclusive. In fact, if I have to opt for one of the other, I’m always going with flaky over pretty. I’d rather have an ugly pie that tastes good than one that looks gorgeous but has a crust like shoe leather.
The reason these two goals often seem mutually exclusive is this: the more you work with pie crust dough, the tougher it gets. Working the dough binds the glutens, resulting in a tougher pastry. Most pastries are the exact opposite of breads. With bread, you want to work the dough as much as possible to toughen up the gluten and bind it together. That’s why you knead bread dough. With pies, you want to create little bits of fat within loosely bound flour. That way, when the fat melts during the baking process, it leaves air pockets that produce flakes.
You can really use any pie dough recipe – I use Cook’s Illustrated’s recipes. What is important is that you follow a few procedures to make the dough just as flaky as possible.
- Handle the dough minimally. Roll it only once. Don’t re-roll it, or you will toughen it up. Likewise, only stir enough to bring the dough together. To do this, I combine butter and dry ingredients in the food processor, pulsing a few times to create a sandy mixture. Then, I pour that mixture in a small bowl and sprinkle water over the top – just enough to bring the mixture together. I lightly mix it with a rubber spatula until it forms a loose, shaggy ball, adding more water only if I need it. Your dough should not appear homogenous – just together.
- Use very cold butter, and cut it into 1/2″ cubes. The colder the butter, the better because this allows it to stay in small clumps within the dough that will melt away and leave flakes.
- Use ice water. This keeps the butter from melting before you bake the pie.
- Before you roll the dough, wrap it in plastic and refrigerate it for about 30 minutes. If you are making a two crust pie, wrap two balls separately. This facilitates ease of rolling. When you remove it from the refrigerator, let it sit for a few minutes to soften slightly.
- Roll the dough out on a very well-floured surface and use a well-floured rolling pin. I use either a Silpat or my Corian countertops, which I meticulously dry before rolling out the dough. I am also a fan of the French style rolling pin because I feel it gives me more control as I roll out my pie crust.
- If your crust breaks apart, rather than re-rolling it, patch it together. In my opinion, better an ugly pie than a tough one! You can always “fix” your ugliness by cutting decorations out of the remaining crust and putting it over the ugliest spots. I do it all the time.
- Don’t forget to cut slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.
- Re-refrigerate your crust for about 30 min before baking.
Looking for an even more foolproof crust? Try Cook’s Illustrated’s crust that uses vodka for an even flakier pastry!