Most bakers — or frankly, anyone who’s ever had a piece of pie — will tell you that a pie is made or broken by the quality of its crust. So now that’s it’s high pie season, we’ve compiled our best tried-and-tested advice to help you say so long to soggy, tough crusts forever. But first, a word about ingredients …
What Makes a Really Great Crust
When it comes to crust, flour’s two key traits are protein content and water absorption. When combined with a liquid like water and then kneaded or stirred, the protein in flour forms gluten strands. The tastiest pie dough has just enough gluten strands for structure without becoming tough. We like unbleached, all-purpose flour for the best results.
Fat does a lot for pie crust, giving it flavor, a golden-brown color and flakiness. Some bakers swear that all-butter crusts taste best; others say that shortening, with its high melting point, makes the flakiest crust possible. Many recipes even call for a combination of the two to get the best of both worlds. You’ll need to experiment here to see what you like best. Tough job, right?
Used in very small amounts, sugar helps create a subtly sweet flavor and a golden-brown color in crusts. There’s no need to use more than 1½ teaspoons, and leave it out completely if you’re making a savory pie. (If you forget, that’s a mistake you’ll only make once!)
Without salt, a natural flavor enhancer, your crust will taste dull. But that doesn’t mean it should taste salty. Ideally, the correct amount of salt means you’re not thinking about it at all while eating the pie. A pinch or two should be plenty.
Water reacts with the protein in flour to create the gluten strands a pie crust needs for structure, and most recipes call for about 4-5 tablespoons of it. The altitude and temperature of where you’re baking also contribute to the amount of water you’ll need for your dough. You’ll learn through experience how much water is necessary and when the dough feels “right.”
The key is to add the least amount of water to your dough as possible — you can always add more in tiny increments, but if you add too much, you’ll need to start over. Also, the colder the water, the better. Use ice water for best results.
Pie Crust in 10 Steps
First, keep these things in mind before you start:
- Don’t panic. You’re making pie—not performing surgery. Even a less-than-perfect pie crust is going to taste incredible.
- Keep everything cold. Really cold. If you can, put your ingredients in the freezer for 30 minutes before you start assembling, or leave them all in the refrigerator until just before you add them.
Also, note that what follows isn’t a recipe — these are guidelines that will help you with nearly any pie crust recipe you’re using.
Step One: Mix All the Dry Ingredients
Measure out all your dry ingredients and combine them in a bowl.
Step Two: Cut in the Butter
You’ll know the butter has been cut in properly when it’s the size of small peas and the dry ingredients look like crushed crackers.
If you use a pastry cutter or your hands, handle all the ingredients as little as possible and work quickly—this helps keep everything cold. If you’re working with a food processor, use the pulse function. Check after every 3 or 4 pulses to make sure the consistency is correct. It’s easy to go too far.
Step Three: Add the Water
If you were using a food processor to cut in the butter, transfer the mixture to a bowl now before you begin to add water. Otherwise, you’ll just keep cutting down the butter and it will get too small.
Begin by sprinkling a tablespoon of water over the mixture and loosely incorporate it with your fingers or a fork. Continue adding water until you’ve added the minimum amount your recipe calls for.
Step Four: Test
Grab a loose handful of the shaggy, crumbly dough and squeeze it quickly. It should form a cohesive, moist lump and release from your hand without leaving residue.
If clumps of dough or dry patches of flour fall away, then it’s still too dry. And a bit more water and retry. But! If it’s wet and sticky, you’ll need to start over. If you add more flour and try to re-knead, you’ll likely wind up with a tough dough.
Step Five: Knead
Turn the dough out onto a cold, floured surface and knead it about 3-6 times, until it forms a cohesive mass. If it’s crumbly or won’t come together, it needs more water. Return to your bowl and repeat steps 3 and 4.
Step Six: Chill
Wrap the dough in plastic, flatten it into a round disc about ¾ of an inch thick, and chill the dough in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. (If you’re making a pie with a top crust, be sure to divide your dough into two discs at this point.)
Step Seven: Roll
Let your dough sit on the counter for a few minutes to warm up a tiny bit before you begin. Lightly dust your work surface and the top of the dough.
Roll from the center away from yourself a few times, then turn your dough a quarter circle and roll a few more times. Complete this process, turning after every few rolls, until your dough is the desired size.
If your dough sticks at any point, just dust with a little flour and keep going. If it cracks, just wet your finger with a tiny bit of ice water, rub it over the crack to smooth it back together, and keep rolling.
Step Eight: Transfer
Fold the dough onto itself in quarters. Carefully place it in your baking dish, so the pointy tip is in the center, and unfold.
If you’re making a double-crust pie, roll out the other crust and then put it in the refrigerator on a baking sheet until you’re ready to use it.
Step Nine: Trim
Using kitchen scissors, trim the dough so you have one inch of overhang. Fold the overhanging dough on top of itself along the pan’s edge, crimping as you go.
If making a double-crust pie, fill the shell with the pie filling, and then repeat the process above, folding the overhang around the bottom crust’s edge, crimping as you go.
Step Ten: Chill Again
Set the uncooked pie in the fridge for no more than 30 minutes to cool the butter again, then bake according to your recipe.
Step Eleven (optional): Blind Bake
Some single-crust pie or tart recipes will call for blind baking the pie crust, which means pre-baking it before you fill it. To do this, line your crust with foil, and then fill it with pie weights, dried beans or uncooked rice to simulate a filling and keep the crust from rising up. Remove the weights after about 20 minutes of baking and continue baking the pie crust until it’s golden brown. Continue following your recipe.
So that’s it! With a little practice, you’ll be baking blue-ribbon-worthy (or thereabouts) pies in no time. Try your hand at a few of our favorite pie & tart recipes, and let us know how they turn out!