From just flour, fat, sugar, salt and water, we can create ethereal pie crusts that are flaky, tender and delicious. It's a skill, an art truly, worth mastering. Good pastry takes practice but tried-and-true pie crust tips can help and those that follow here have made the most difference in my own quest to make not just good, but great, pie crust.
Along with the recipes for Flaky Tender Pie Crust and American Apple Pie, the tips below are the guidance of Anne Cori of Kitchen Conservatory, St. Louis' kitchen store and cooking school. Anne's own pastry sets a high bar, indeed. She shares her insight and skills so generously, I call her the 'Pastry Whisperer'.
(updated in 2010
with large photos!)
HAPPY COOKS: Reader Testimonials
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I'm 54 years old and have been baking most of my life but I never could bake a pie that I felt worthy of serving...until now! I made this apple pie and it is perfect." ~ Janice from Ontario
"It was the most wonderful pie I have ever made. And I thank you from the bottom of my heart." ~ Julia from Utah
"I absolutely loved this recipe. I made it the other day, and it was the best pie crust I had ever made, hands down! Thank you for helping me out of my pie crust rut!!" ~ Chris
"I made the apple pie with your recipes and it was absolutely scrumptious!" ~ Anonymous
"I also had problems with pie crust. Then I did this recipe for my "tortierre" pie for Xmas and they were the most amazing crusts ever." ~ BJ from Montreal
"This is THE best pie crust I have ever made! ... The reminder of a hot oven and cold dough stuck with me all throughout, and because of that, the crust turned out perfectly!" ~ Jennifer
"I've been making pies since I was 13 and with your recipe and instructions, I finally made a tasty, flaky crust. I'm so excited to make pies for guests now!" ~ Mary
"I've tried to make crust before but because of no success, had given up and settled for store bought crusts...not today. I made your recipe and it was fantastic, absolutely the best pie crust I've ever made. THanks SO MUCH for the step by step instructions. ... I especially appreciate the comment about not worrying about what it looks like when it goes in the oven...mine looked not so nice going in but great coming out." ~ Louise
Anne's Four Pie Principles
Pie is ‘American’.
A perfect French tart is a thing of beauty. An American pie is homely, and rustic-looking. But done well, pie is so delicious that we’re happy to eat pie without ice cream; so comforting that a double crust is worth the calories; so tempting, we break off ‘mouse bites’ of crust from the edges to eat on the spot.
The perfect pie crust is flavorful, flaky and tender. If a slice of pie can be held without bending, it’s probably tough and thus not worth eating.
Flavor comes easily. Just use butter, preferably good butter. Use a higher-fat butter such as the 82% butterfat Plugra (Anne's favorite) or the 82% Land O’ Lakes Ultra Creamy. But don’t let butter availability stop you from making pastry. Good butter is readily available, including Land O’ Lakes with 80% butterfat, and makes delicious pastry too.
Flakiness comes easily too. Just add an equal measure of shortening (Crisco) to butter. Then, when cutting first the butter and later the shortening into the flour, leave dime-sized pebbles of the fat. "Pea-size pebbles" are too small! [Alanna: The flour will feel 'unmixed', it's hard to leave such big pieces of fat, but make yourself, it makes a big difference.] This way, when the dough hits the oven, the fat pockets pop, creating lightness between the layers of flour during baking.
Tenderness does come harder, from a magic balance of the right amounts of flour and water plus a light touch when blending the water into the flour and fat. This is the step where even experienced pie-makers can go astray. [Alanna: If you pay close attention to just one step, this is the one.]
Pie is easy to make but takes practice to perfect.
Supermarket pie crusts and how-many-takes food television have warped our expectations. Think how supermarket tomatoes look beautiful but aren’t worth eating, how industrial pie crusts look so perfect but have exactly the same dull taste every single time.
Don't just accept imperfections in appearance, revel in them for these are pies that taste delicious! American pies are supposed to be rustic-looking. The beauty of a home-baked pie comes from within. Warm from the oven, our pies will be applauded by our families.
Pastry patches beautifully. In the oven, many imperfections will magically disappear. So don’t feel like a failure if the pastry tears or needs patching. But whatever you do, don’t ball up the dough to roll it out again. It would be better to throw out the dough and start over entirely. [Alanna: Trust Anne and me on this count, I've made pies with more patches than a crazy quilt. Out of the oven? Gorgeous.]
“Cold Dough + Hot Oven = Pastry.”
If your dough is not cold and your oven is not hot, you will never, ever have pastry no matter how long the dough bakes. Pastry is created by the cold fat popping in the hot oven, creating an air pocket.
At every point, keep the dough and filling as cold as possible. Start with cold butter, cold shortening and ice water. Refrigerate the dough while preparing the filling. Let fillings cool completely. While rolling the bottom crust, refrigerate the dough for the top crust. While rolling the top crust, refrigerate the already-rolled (but not filled) bottom crust. See? At every step, keep thinking, "Cold dough."
Preheat the oven completely. [Alanna: I've learned to start the oven just when starting the filling, giving the oven a good 20 - 30 minutes to preheat. Longer can't hurt.]
To perfect your crust-making technique, study the basics, then just move into the kitchen to make a crust.
Let the basics, along with instinct and judgment, guide your hands. Later, as time goes on, let experience be your guide.
Take notes. What worked for you? What is important to remember for the next time?
Get a hands-on lesson or two from someone who makes good pastry or take a class from a professional.
Keep it simple. Recipes that employ food processors and odd techniques and ingredients distract us from our goal, flaky tender pie crust mixed in minutes, anywhere, by anyone.
Tips & Tools for Flaky Tender Pie Crust
[Alanna: Please know, these products are recommended because they are making a big difference in my own pie crusts. Be assured, I'm not being paid to recommend them, nor do I receive any compensation if you choose to buy them.]
Pictured are a nine-inch Pyrex pie pan; inside it is a metal benchknife; leaning on it is a flour duster; a silicone brush; a hand-held pastry blender; a rolling pin; and a Rollpat.
Two pie-crust tools are essential, a Rollpat and a pastry blender. [Alanna: Agreed.]
#1 Essential - Rollpat Like the Silpat used for baking, a Rollpat is a silicone mat made by a company called Fiberlux. It is a dough mat (it is also called a pastry mat) too large for the oven but large enough for rolling both pie crust and puff pastry. It's like an updated pastry cloth that's easier to use since it doesn't slip on the counter top, larger with ample space for flipping the dough, and more sanitary and dishwasher safe. [Alanna: I love-love-love the Rollpat.]
#2 Essential - Hand-held Pastry Blender Use one with blades, not wires, for cutting in the butter and shortening.
Other pie-baking tools are useful but not essential, call them "nice to have".
Benchknife A benchknife is used for turning the pastry during rolling. [Alanna: I love the benchknife and now keep it handy not only for pastry but also for scooping up chopped vegetables.}
Flour Duster The flour duster lightly sprinkles flour onto the counter but also works for dusting a Bundt cake with icing sugar, etc. The Kitchen Conservatory staff calls it a 'fairy duster'!) [Alanna: The flour duster works really well, too, it's a really handy kitchen tool.]
Nine-inch Shallow Glass or Ceramic Pan For a double-crust pie, this size and depth pie pan is the perfect proportion of filling and crust.
[Alanna: Kitchen Conservatory offers a great selection of pie and pie-crust tools, including the items listed here plus many more.]
Reminded by the adage "Cold dough, hot oven", use ice water to wet the flour mixture. A gravy strainer isn’t required but is useful because it both strains out the ice cubes and controls the water flow. When making pie crusts, make the ice water first-off so it can be as cold as possible.
With a knife, cut the butter and shortening into smaller pieces before adding to the flour.
The recipe for Flaky Tender Pie Crust is very 'short', this means it has a high proportion of fat to flour. The recipe uses butter for flavor and shortening for flakiness.
For butter, if it's available, use a butter with a higher-fat content (and thus lower-water ratio) such as Plugra or Land O' Lakes Ultra Creamy Butter. If a higher-fat butter isn't available however, just use a good-quality butter such as Land O' Lakes. Do cut the butter into smaller pieces before distributing over the flour to cut in.
Use a high-quality shortening such as Crisco. [Alanna: Be aware that Crisco may look like it keeps indefinitely but it really doesn't so choose just-purchased Crisco for the best freshness.]
In a large bowl, stir together 2 cups all-purpose flour, 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon table salt. Cut 4 ounces (that's one whole stick or 8 tablespoons) of butter into 16 pieces, spread the butter pieces across the flour. Cut in the butter first by itself because it's harder and needs more cutting than the shortening.
[Alanna: I find it easier to gauge the size of the butter and shortening by cutting them into half the flour. After they're the right size, then I stir in the remaining flour.]
Then use the pastry blender in an up-and-down motion to cut the butter into the flour mixture until the pieces are dime-sized. Yes, that's right – aim for pieces that are dime-sized, not pea-sized. Pea-sized pieces are too small to yield the flakiness we lust for in a good pie crust. If needed, use your left hand to break butter chunks off the blades of the pastry blender but with a consistent up-and-down motion, it shouldn't be necessary.
Once the butter is the right size, cut in 4 ounces (1/2 cup) of shortening until it, too, is dime-sized. Larger pieces of fat are better than smaller pieces!
Plan to use no more than 2 - 4 tablespoons of water, total. Sprinkle the flour mixture with half the water. With a full and open palm, squeeze the flour mixture against the side of the bowl, pressing it to form a dough. Do this two or three times. Check the dough, if it needs more water to hold together, add some, but only a few drops at a time for the less water the better. Squeeze against the side again.
[Alanna: This is the step where I've learned to pay the most careful attention. The goal is to add just enough water to barely hold the flour together. If you add so much water that the dough easily forms a wet pack, the pastry will be tough instead of tender. This means using far less water than you're likely accustomed to. It's hard to get used to because we've been trained to think of pastry dough as soft and supple. The trouble is, when it's soft and supple, it turns out tough. If my pastry ever turns out less than tender, I think back and sure enough, the dough was wetter than it should have been.]
Midway through, brush your hands together, loosening the damp buttery pieces to fall back into the mixture.
The finished dough holds together but is not wet. Dry crumbs on the bottom of the bowl are good!
[Alanna: I'm always tempted to add more water here, to make the dough hold together better and roll more easily. But I'm learning to trust my judgment. Less water is better.]
Just as is, place the bowl in the fridge while you make your pie filling. If it's going to be in the fridge any longer, cut into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other, then form flat discs, pressing the sides to smooth the edges. Wrap the two pieces separately with plastic wrap.
For a double-crust apple pie, see Anne's recipe for American Apple Pie in a standard recipe format or use another filling of your choice.
To gauge how many apples are needed, just fill the pie plate with apples. If the apples are large and rise above the side of the pan, remove one. That's enough! Anne likes to use Jonathan apples, Alanna favors Galas or a blend of apples.
[Alanna: Yes, that's Anne, showing us how to estimate how many apples are needed for our apple pie!]
Peel the apples. Top to bottom, slice off the fruit in four swaths, missing the core. Slice thin, then in half. As the apples are sliced, toss them with the juice of half a lemon in a big bowl. For really quick work peeling apples, consider an Apple Master, which peels apples in record time.
[Alanna: I've always peeled, quartered, cored and then sliced apples. When Anne showed me her 'four swaths' technique, I didn't want to like it because apple is wasted. But it sure is quick and I've not gone back.]
Stir in 1/2 to 1 cup of sugar, a teaspoon of cinnamon and 3 tablespoons of cornstarch or potato starch. Don't ever use flour for thickener, it creates an unappealing gumminess that doesn't occur with cornstarch or potato starch.
Dust the Rollpat with flour, over the entire area where the pastry will roll out. You can be generous with the flour, it will help the pastry lift from the Rollpat.
Remember, "cold dough", so work quickly from here. Cut the dough almost in half, the bottom crust needs just a bit more than the top crust. Return what's left to the fridge. Then shape the dough into a disc and place in the center of the Rollpat, dust it with a little flour, too. If the dough has been in the fridge longer than the time to make the filling, it may need to warm a bit before rolling. If so, cover with plastic wrap so it doesn't dry out.
[Alanna: You can see in this shot how the pastry dough is "so not" a roll of a Pillsbury pie crust.]
Dust the rolling pin with flour too. With quick, light but assertive strokes, roll the dough in just one direction to form an oblong, not a circle. Use your fingers to draw together big cracks along the edges.
[Alanna: Before rolling out the dough, often even before refrigerating it, I've learned that it pays to shape and smooth the edges of the disc. This mostly prevents those big cracks from forming in the first place.]
Use the pie pan to gauge when to stop rolling. Allow for the diameter plus the sides.
[Alanna: Take note how there are visible smears of butter in the pastry dough as it's rolled out. This is good! It's the result of aiming for dime-size, not pea-size, pieces of butter when cutting the fat into the flour. Once those buttery spots hit the hot oven, they will create an airy spot that is the essence of light pastry. ]
With the benchknife, loosen the dough from the Rollpat on all sides, then lift and turn 90 degrees.
Now, roll the dough again, just one direction but this time forming a circle. If needed, patch cracks along the edges with your fingers.
Brush excess flour off the pastry.
[Alanna: Don't despair if the crust is a messy circle. Some of my most tender pies started off looking a real mess. This is really hard to accept when the pie crusts we see on TV and the ones that come from a box are so very perfect looking. Remember, this is going to be the very pie crust you've ever made! It takes a little trust!]
Position the pie plate to the left of the Rollpat. Place your hand underneath the Rollpat, palm side up, just below the pastry. Now gently flip the Rollpat and pastry over, turning it onto the pie plate. Adjust the crust onto the pie plate.
[Alanna: this is when I'm most grateful for the Rollpat.]
If the crust needs patching , tear off dough hanging off the edge and gently place over empty spots. Don't roll these pieces, just put them into place, they will seal in the oven.
[Alanna: don't worry, I do plenty of patching! It all comes out fine in the end.]
Important - use the pastry brush to wipe off any excess flour. Remember the adage, "Cold Dough + Hot Oven = Pastry"? Refrigerate the bottom crust!
[Alanna: Once the bottom crust is done, I like to put the crust onto a dinner plate with a raised rim to support the crust hanging off the edges so that it doesn't stretch thin. If we were making a single-crust pie, we would form and crimp the edge right now. Either way, refrigerate the bottom crust while rolling the top crust. There's no need to cover it, it'll just be in the fridge for a few minutes.]
Roll the top crust, using the same technique as for the bottom crust.
Turn the apples into the bottom crust. Tuck any stray apples into the rest so the top is smooth. Don't overfill the pie, it will just boil over. The apple can mound, very slightly, but shouldn't be in a big heap.
Use the Rollpat to flip the top crust over onto the filling, adjusting if needed. Patch if need be, don't worry, imperfections will disappear in the oven. With a knife, trim away the excess dough, letting about an inch hand over beyond the rim of the pie plate.
[Alanna: With one pie, I experimented with little cut-outs that you often see in magazine pies. With a pastry this flaky and tender, they simply disappear in the oven, so aren't worth the trouble.]
Working your way around the rim, turn the edge of the dough over itself to form the edge, squeezing just a bit to seal.
[Alanna: I have better luck turning the pastry under itself, rather than over.]
Moving around the pie, crimp the edge of the crust to form a decorative edge. To form a scalloped edge, place your left thumb and forefinger about an inch apart on the inside edge of the crust's edge, then from the outside edge, insert the knuckle of the second finger of your right hand between the two fingers.
[Alanna: Once again, a plate underneath is handy. Here, it makes it easier to turn the pie while working my way around the edge to crimp.]
Brush the top of the pie — but NOT the crimped edges — with an 'egg wash' made from an egg yolk whisked with a tablespoon of water. This gives the top a golden, finished look.
[Alanna: After the egg wash, I like to sprinkle raw sugar on top for a sparkly top.]
If the pastry is strong enough to hold up under the weight of a pie shield, it's simply not as tender as it should be, even if the pastry shield is quite light, as pictured. Really tender pastry will collapse under the weight of a pie shield - so it's not recommended. If you're worried about the edge of the crust browning too much, use foil. Just cut circle of aluminum foil larger than than the pie pan, then cut a circle from its center, leaving the edge just wide enough to cover the edge of the crust.
[Alanna: I haven't found foil necessary.]
Bake the pie for 45 minutes at 375F or until top crust is golden brown and juices inside are bubbling. The bubbling fruit juices mean that the starch has combined with the fruit and the filling is cooked.
[Alanna: If you've ever had a pie crust turn out a little 'raw' on the bottom crust, start the pie off on a rack in the bottom third of the oven, closer to the heat, rather than in the center. Bake it there for 20 minutes, then finish on the center rack. This quick tip has made a huge difference for me in two ovens.]
[Alanna: How to dry silicone mats is always a question. I wash the Rollpat and hang it over the oven handle to dry. Easy!]
[Alanna: Don't throw away the scraps of rolled dough but don't re-roll them either. For a treat, open up the pastry scraps onto a baking sheet. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon or just raw sugar, then bake for 15 - 20 minutes. I put the scraps on the center rack while the pie spends its first 20 minutes on the bottom rack.]
Kitchen Parade's Pie Recipes
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