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How to make perfect pie crust

August 10, 2011

I have a deep and abiding fondness for pie of all flavors and stripes. It speaks of home and seasons and holidays and all good things. And for many years, I struggled to come up with a crust a truly love. But now I have it.  In my mind, it has just the right proportions of butter, water, flour and salt. And that’s all you need. Some cooks add vinegar to their crust to limit gluten development and thus produce a more tender crust. But with this method, I find that I don’t need it. For sweet fruit and other dessert pies, I usually also add a little bit of sugar.

As for technique, I think hand-mixed crusts are the best. I’ve tried making dough in my food processor, but I really believe that making it by hand is easier, both in terms of being able to know when the crust is done and in not having to clean up the equipment. And the result is wonderful: flaky and tender. They key is to keep your ingredients as cold as possible so that the butter doesn’t melt into the flour. When those little solid pieces of butter go into the oven, they melt, creating steam, which in turn creates thin, flaky layers.

It really does just take a little bit of practice to build your confidence. This dough has plenty of butter, so you’re unlikely to end up with a tough crust, even if you’re just a beginner.  The extra butter also prevents the crust from getting dry when you roll it out on a floured counter.

I photographed each step to try to help you along. When I photographed this process, I happened to be making the crust for a savory pie and therefore didn’t add sugar. However the recipe does list the correct amount of sugar and tells you when to add it.

Also, this is a recipe for a double-crust pie. To make a single-crust pie, simply cut the recipe in half and do not divide the resulting dough—just press it into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate.

 

Pastry for a Double-Crust Pie

Pie crust ingredients (minus the sugar)

 

Ingredients:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar (optional, but recommended)
1 teaspoon kosher salt

18 tablespoons (2 1/4 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
6 to 8 tablespoons ice water

Method:

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, sugar (if using), and salt until well combined.

Whisking dry ingredients

Sprinkle butter over flour mixture.

Butter goes in

 

Use a pastry cutter, 2 knives, or a fork to break the butter into smaller pieces. This is an optional step, but I always do it because using utensils instead of your fingers keeps the butter cooler.

Breaking down the butter

Once the butter pieces are small, use your fingers to work the butter into the flour mixture: Rub your thumb against your fingertips as if you’re making the universal sign for “money,” smearing the butter as you do.

Working the butter in with your fingers

When you first start out, the flour will be white and the butter will be yellow. As you continue to work the butter in, the flour will begin to look moist and slowly turn pale yellow, too.

Early stage mixing

 

Stop when the mixture looks like cornmeal with lumps and bean-sized bits of butter remaining.

 

Done

Sprinkle 6 tablespoons ice water on top and stir with a fork until the dough begins to come together. If needed, add more ice water, a tablespoon at a time, but proceed cautiously.

Stirring in the cold water

Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead three times, or just enough to make a cohesive dough—do not overmix!

Briefly kneading the dough

Here’s a close-up look at the crust. See how mottled it is? That’s what you want.

A well-mixed dough
A well-mixed dough

Gather the dough into a ball and divide into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. The larger piece will be the bottom crust.

Crust, divided

Press each piece into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Wrapped and ready to go into the refrigerator
Wrapped and ready to go into the refrigerator

Next week, I’ll talk about rolling the dough out and getting it into the pan, as well as crimping. Until then, happy baking!

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