101: How to Make the Perfect Pie Crust



Rolling Pins. Photo by Jeff Kubina, via Wikimedia Commons


Many of my baking students have a stigma about pie making. (Before my teaching, of course.) Specifically they are stumped by inconsistent results that they achieve when they make the pie crust; the crusts are dense and tough and, therefore, not complementary to the pie filling which is often delicious in spite of the inferior crust.

A successful pie has to have its filling and crust in sync, with the crust being the ultimate in flakiness, tenderness, and flavor. A great pie crust does not have to be perfectly crimped around the edge, especially by beginner, to be wonderful; and you do not have to be a pastry chef to create successful pie crust!

I have an answer to your pie crust dilemmas. Over the decades of teaching hundreds of baking students, I have developed a method of making pie dough by hand that, if followed according to my directions, results in a flakey, tender delectable baked pie crust. I emphasize baked because flour-based crusts must be exposed to the dry air of the oven in order for the flavors to reach their full potential. This article concerns the making of the dough itself with some information on rolling and shaping the pie crust using the recipe included at the end of the article.

Knowledge is power so I want to inform you about some of the “science” of the crust’s ingredients. Wheat four (which is what I am using for the purpose of this article), when combined with water, forms gluten. Gluten is the protein responsible for structure and form of your wheat-based baked goods. (As a kindergartener you may remember mixing flour and water to form edible glue for craft projects and remember the stickiness which is due to the gluten formation).

Your goal in crust-making is not to overdevelop the gluten. This overdevelopment results in a dense, tough crust. It is with these facts in mind that I share with you my remedy for flour selection. The dough recipe here uses fifty percent all-purpose flour and 50 percent cake flour (a low protein, soft flour). These flours are readily available in the supermarkets. The combination of flours approximate the protein count in pastry flour which, here in Los Angeles, is available commercially in 50 pound sacks, or whole grain in specialty markets. Whole grain pastry flour is worth researching, but it is not a part of my recipe.

Ingredients for crust at proper temperatures. Photo by Susan Holtz.

Fat, such as unsalted butter and shortening (I always use Crisco), is partly responsible for the flavor and flakiness. It also helps keep the crust tender if the gluten is not given a chance to overpower these ingredients. Each fat must be at certain temperatures before using them so that they perform properly. The unsalted butter should be cut into scant one-fourth inch cubes and thoroughly chilled in the refrigerator. The shortening (Crisco) is scooped out into a “slab” about one forth inch thick, covered with parchment paper, and put into the freezer. Vegetable fat really never achieves a cold, hard consistency in a refrigerator like butter, so I chill the shortening in a freezer for at least two hours until firm!

The water used needs to be ice-cold and measured without including the ice. Icy cold temperature keeps the fats solid and cold while you work them as you combine them with the flour. It is the layering of the flour and fat, and water, coupled with the dry heat from the oven,  that creates the internal steam within the dough mixture that creates the flaky layers that are inherent in a traditional pie crust.

I use table salt and prefer a baked crust that hints of salt. The saltiness balances the filling’s sweetness and contributes to the balance of flavors and textures that you want in a fabulous pie. Choosing other salts is an option though you may have to increase or decrease the amounts depending on which you choose. A little more perhaps for kosher and sea salts.

Fats about to be added to flour mixture. Photo by Susan Holtz.

Now for technique: Gather all of the ingredients and equipment used to measure and mix the flour, salt, butter, shortening and icy cold water. In the professional cooking world, we call this mise en place, a French term for “putting in place.” I use a scale for flour, water, and fats and fractional measuring spoons for the salt. Avoiding volume measures such as “cups” and using the scale contributes to measuring accuracy and consistency. A standardized set of measuring spoons (the tablespoon holds one-half ounce of water when filled to its rim) is the chosen fractional measuring utensil.

The bowl you use – glass or stainless – should not be overly small or large. For the recipe here, my bowl is 10 inches wide from inside rim to inside rim. I use a pastry blender to combine the fat and dry ingredients (flour and salt), and I prefer the pastry blender with longer wires. I also use a stainless steel dinner fork with long tines.

Using pastry blender to cut in the fat. Photo by Susan Holtz.

When rolling the chilled dough, I use a wooden rolling pin with ball bearings that is approximately fifteen inches long, rolling pin cover, and pastry cloth. The rolling pin cover and pastry cloth replicates the canvas on commercial dough sheeters that have a coarse texture and therefore need less flour to prevent sticking as you continue the rolling process. Smooth surfaces such as marble and granite may require the incorporation of more quantities of flour to prevent sticking and may, therefore, change the finished dough texture.

Pie pan selection can depend upon the type of pie being created. Heat safe glass pie pans such as Pyrex are chosen for their ability to hold the heat and bake those thickly sliced fruits to perfection in a timely manner so as not to attain a soggy bottom crust and overly brown crumb or top crust. All said and done I have used aluminum pans for all types of pie baking successfully.

Sift the flours and salt two times and place into the mixing bowl. Place the cubes of butter and add the frozen shortening, breaking up the slab of shortening into several smaller pieces into the bowl. You are about to use a pastry blender to obtain a coarse mealy texture. Caution: this is a critical step to be understood. You can overly blend the fats with the flour and create a paste. This will prevent the water that will later be added to the mix from being absorbed by the flour; the paste consistency means that the fat is surrounding the flour, rather than the flour surrounding the fat. The finished mixture should be mealy and dry.

With the above in mind, begin cutting the fat into the dry ingredients using the pastry blender, with one hand moving in an up and down chopping motion while turning the bowl in a clock wise direction with the other hand. So the bowl is turning while you are cutting in the fats constantly to obtain an even mealy consistency. I am right handed so I cut the fat in using the pastry blender with my right hand and turn the bowl with the left hand. I guess if left handed, you can do the opposite. There are no left handed pastry blenders needed!

Now you must stop before mixture has a pasty consistency! The fat is coarse – mealy, not fine –  and the texture of the mixture is decidedly dry. If you overblend the fats, which can happen at this time, you will obtain “short’ crust which might be tender but may have a greasy mouth feel and be difficult to roll and more apt to break in transfer from pastry cloth to pan.

Divided mixture just before adding water to sections. Photo by Susan Holtz.

The next critical step in the making of the perfect pie crust, and my student-tested contribution, is to divide the mealy mixture into eight sections. Starting at the 6 o’clock position, using your measuring tablespoon, indent the 6 o’clock section. Next, place two measuring tablespoons of ice-cold water in the indentation. Let the water sink in a bit (this takes a few seconds) and, with the back of the stainless fork, proceed to mash and gather the flour mixture with the water in that section only! (A few strokes up and down – mash, mash – will bring the ingredients together. Immediately stop! This bit of dough should not be touched again, so bring it outside the bowl or put to one side of the bowl.

Move to the 7 o’clock position to the left, or the 5 o’clock position to the right, and proceed to do the same process until you have created dough from each of the eight sections. As you progress doing the mashing-gathering procedure with the fork, the sections will have more room for combining the ingredients. You may not have to use all of the water as the ingredients do not stay exactly in place; or you may have some dry mix left that might need to be gathered in one spot to moisten as done previously but with less water. Use your good judgment here without stressing, while handling the mixed dough as little as possible.

Gather all the dough together with minimum handling. Loosely wrap it in plastic film. Press the dough down to about one-inch thick and tap off the edges of the dough mass creating a square-four sided “package,” and again if necessary, press down slightly on top of the package to a uniform thickness of about one inch. Again, always keep in mind that handling of the dough at any time is developing that gluten protein and, therefore, contributing to a tough crust. Do not squeeze the dough because it will melt the fat.

Chill the dough in the refrigerator for two hours or overnight (optimal use). You can freeze the dough for later use after wrapping in several layers of plastic wrap. I use thawed frozen dough for bottom crusts only. Dough will begin fermenting after two days in the refrigerator; therefore, use it or freeze for longer storage.

The finished and crimped crust ready for filling and baking. Photo by Susan Holtz.

The rolling of the dough is next and you must use chilled, not frozen, dough. Place the chilled dough onto a floured pastry cloth using all-purpose flour to season the cloth. (Refer to section above for explanation of pastry cloth and rolling pin covers.) Using wooden dowels (I use 3/16- inch) to help determine thickness, begin rolling dough from the center out and turn the dough, checking for stickiness (adding a bit more flour if necessary), creating a round shape as you lift and turn the dough to help you and guarding against the dough from sticking. (Remember that the fat is warming up no matter what surface that you use.) Keep rolling and lifting as necessary without turning the dough over. Before cutting the dough approximately two inches larger than the pan, lift the dough so it can relax and not shrink during baking.

We are getting to the finish line and please read the following several times before proceeding: After cutting dough as above, fold in half and lift and center in the pie pan. Open to fit and gently ease the dough to fit the bottom and sides so as to not have any stretched dough. At the edges of the pan, turn the over-hanging dough under and onto the rim as it rests on the pans extended rim and crimp. Important note here: crimping the dough is another technique that could affect the tenderness if too much handling occurs. Remember that excess handling develops the gluten. When crimping the edges, handle the dough as little as possible. Also remember that you do not have to have a perfectly crimped design for an artisan look!

Refrigerate the crimped dough in the pan for 30 minutes to one hour uncovered before use or freeze, wrapped, for later use. (Defrost before using in the refrigerator for a few hours.)  Use your favorite single crust pie recipe. For a two crust pie, do not fold the excess dough but follow the procedure for your two crust pie, which usually cuts the bottom crust along the rim of the pan.

Chef Susan’s Perfect Pie Crust Dough Ingredients

  • 6.5 ounces all-purpose flour
  • 6.5 ounces cake flour
  • 4 ounces unsalted butter (cold, small cubes, in refrigerator)
  • 4 ounces Crisco shortening (place on parchment, flattened, frozen)
  • 1-1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 8 ounces iced water

This marks the end of where I am taking you in this article. If you have any questions about this article or your pie baking, please contact me at www.bakingandcakeart.com.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Keep your baking rolling and your cake art icing!

Chef Susan

Baking and Cake Art Academy

Los Angeles, CA



One thought on “101: How to Make the Perfect Pie Crust

  1. Pingback: From the Back of the Drawer: A Pie Marker/Trimmer | OKRA Magazine

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