Baking Basics

Everything You Need to Know About Pie Crust

By • July 4, 2014 • 13 Comments

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We should all have a solid command of the ABCs of baking. Thankfully, Food52's Test Kitchen Manager Erin McDowell -- alongside photographer Sarah Stone, who both blog at The Shutter Oven -- is here, with tips and tricks to help you master the most essential desserts and the simplest breads.

Today: You don't need to fear pie crust any longer. Erin -- Food52's resident pie expert -- is here to help. 

Pie Crust on Food52

I’ve managed to get myself a little bit of a reputation when it comes to pie -- so much so that I've baked 34 pies in the last 14 days. This reputation started with one simple fact: I love pie, and I am not afraid to sing it from the rooftops. 

While there are plenty of details to consider when making a pie, it is, at its core, one of the simplest desserts ever. My crust has only four ingredients: all-purpose flour, a pinch of salt, butter, and ice water. I like to keep things simple because I often find myself making pies at the last minute. This ratio is easy to remember, and easy to pull off.

The trick is learning to manipulate these four ingredients properly to achieve the perfect (or even just pretty darn good) result. That’s the thing about pie -- even an imperfect one is still amazing.

More: Once you have a handle on your crust, fill it with fresh blueberries.

Of course, you can always experiment with different fats or added flavors (it’s great with rosemary, vanilla sugar, or even flaky salt for a savory pie). But today we’re just talking about the basics, so let’s dig in. 

  • Start with cold ingredients. I don’t usually chill my flour, but in the heat of the summer, it can only help. Definitely start with ice water and well-chilled butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes. I like to chill all of my ingredients in the freezer for 5 to 10 minutes before I get started -- you can even throw in the mixing bowl, too. 

Pie Crust

  • Mixing by hand gives you the most control, which makes you less likely to overmix your dough. To do this, toss the cubed butter into the flour to coat each piece. After it’s well coated, begin to “cut in” or “rub in” the flour: Shingle the butter between the heels of your hands, pressing them against the butter in opposite directions. (This melts it less quickly than using your fingers does.) The idea is to flatten the butter into big shards. Continue to toss the butter in with the flour as you work to re-coat the shingled pieces.  

Pie Crust on Food52

  • If you have hot hands (or just a hot kitchen), a food processor works, too. Start by cutting the butter into slightly larger cubes (roughly 3/4-inch). Toss the butter in flour to coat before adding it to the food processor, then pulse in 3-second bursts; I find that 10 to 15 pulses usually do the trick. Once that's done, it’s best to add the water by hand; the food processor blade tends to over-mix pie dough.
  • The kind of crust you want will depend on the kind of pie you’re making. If you're looking for a flaky crust (best for fruit pies), you want large pieces of butter, the size of walnut halves. If you're looking for a mealy crust with a shorter crumb (best for custard pies), you want small, pea-sized pieces. Here, you can see the mixture that will create a flaky crust (left), and the mixture that will create mealy crust (right). 

Pie Crust

  • When you’re ready to finish your dough, make a well in the center of the flour mixture, and add ice water. I start with 3 tablespoons for a single-crust pie, and then continue adding 1 tablespoon at a time just until the dough comes together. Your dough should never be sticky -- it should hold together easily but still feel almost dry to the touch.
  • When you are done mixing, wrap the dough and chill it well in the refrigerator. If you’re short on time, you can chill it in the freezer for 10 to 20 minutes. If it gets too cold, just let it soften for a moment at room temperature, or beat it with your rolling pin until it becomes malleable.

Pie Crust on Food52

  • Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface. The key is to work quickly (so the dough doesn’t heat up), using as little flour as possible; using too much can make the dough tough or overly dry. Start rolling in the center of the round and push upward with even pressure. Return to the center and repeat, this time moving downward. Continue to do this while you roll, rotating the dough occasionally and re-flouring as needed to keep it from sticking to the work surface. This technique takes a little getting used to, but it’s the best way to get an even crust. Aim for 1/4-inch thickness.

Pie Crust

  • To transfer the dough to your pie plate, roll it onto the rolling pin and then gently unfurl it into the plate. Press firmly to make sure the crust reaches all the way to the bottom of the plate, but don’t poke any holes in the dough. Trim the dough so you have a 1/2-inch overhang all the way around, and chill it for 15 to 30 minutes (or freeze it for 5).
  • Tuck the excess dough under at the edges, working all the way around and pressing lightly to help the dough “seal” to the outer edge of the pie plate. Return the dough to the refrigerator for 15 to 30 minutes, or to the freezer for 5 to 10 minutes before proceeding with baking or par-baking. 

Strawberries and Cream Pie on Food52

This pie plate was a gift from Rose Levy Barenbaum -- she designed it, and it's called “Rose’s Perfect Pie Plate”. It’s pretty, bakes evenly (hello, crisp bottom crust!), and makes a gorgeous edge without any effort at all. I highly recommend it for pie beginners -- anything you bake in it looks professional! 

Strawberries and Cream Pie 

Makes one 9-inch pie

For the crust:

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold butter, cubed
3 tablespoons ice water, or more as needed 

To finish the pie:

3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, halved and scraped
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
3 eggs
2 tablespoons butter
1 quart strawberries, hulled

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Sarah Stone

Jump to Comments (13)

Tags: pie, how-to & DIY, baking, summer, pie crust,

Comments (13)

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about 1 month ago jenny

The step that always gives me trouble is forming the actual ball of dough after all ingredients are mixed. I find it hard to get it to stay together without overmanipulating it or adding too much water. Any tips for that? Thanks!

Stringio

about 1 month ago Tatiana Barkovskiy

Important!!
Dear Erin, I've been looking for a basic pie recipe for years! My favourite kind of pie is double crusted - can I double your ingredients to make it? Will it go well with fruits baked inside? If so, how long and at what temp should I bake it? Cheers!

Sadie_crop

5 months ago Diana B

Diana B is a trusted home cook.

Kama and erin, I was talking about par-baking a pie shell, which I see I wasn't clear about (although it might not make a difference), so would you still bake it at 425 if you're par-baking? Thanks!

3572

5 months ago erinmcdowell

Hi Diana, yes - I still par-bake at 425. Next Friday I'll be doing Pie Basics Part II, which is all about blind baking. Check back for more!

Sadie_crop

5 months ago Diana B

Diana B is a trusted home cook.

I can't wait!

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4 months ago Dave

Yes, that's what you do. 425 for 15 minutes.

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5 months ago bc

Unclear instructions. After you freeze or refrigerate you "Tuck the excess dough under at the edges", when the dough is stiff? I think you would get a crack if you did this. Please advise.

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5 months ago erinmcdowell

Thanks for the comment, BC! The crust should be well chilled, but still malleable. If your crust is too hard to fold under, let it sit at room temperature until still cool to the touch, but soft enough to work with.

Sadie_crop

5 months ago Diana B

Diana B is a trusted home cook.

In the photo, your crust doesn't seem to have shrunk at all. Despite chilling all the ingredients, despite resting it in the fridge for at least two hours before rolling out, and despite putting it in the freezer for an hour before baking, mine always shrinks, sometimes dramatically. I try to sit the edge above the rim of the pie pan, but sometimes it even shrinks so far down in the pan that it can't contain all the filling. Any clues for me? Thanks!

Stringio

5 months ago Kama Kam

Use less butter, I had exactly the same problem. My tarts didn't have edges because of shrinking.

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5 months ago erinmcdowell

Kama is right! Some old fashioned recipes call for a lot more fat than is needed-too much butter will often cause melting rather than steam production through evaporation of the butter. In addition to checking your recipe, it's very important to bake at a high temperature-I start all of my pies at 425! I'll be going into more detail in the next baking basics column (pie part II)!

Emfraiche

5 months ago EmFraiche

What determines whether or not you par-bake your pie crust?

3572

5 months ago erinmcdowell

Great question! I'll be addressing that in the next column (pie part Ii)! Check back on Friday the 18th!