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Are you the type who breaks into hives the minute you think about rolling out pie dough? Or the one who stays calm and cool, your pin gliding across the dough like a Ferrari down the Italian coast?
(Or are you the type who's really in it for the eating, not the making? You're welcome here, too. Come one, come all! We've got a slice for you.)
For me, there's no "common" dessert (as in, let's take croquembouche and Baked Alaska out of the running here) that makes me so frantic: The fear is deep-seated; I suspect I was born that way. I will freeze every utensil, every ingredient, that might possibly come in contact with the cantankerous butter; I will stick my hands in an ice bath if I need to! All for the sake of an easy-to-roll, hard-to-flub, guaranteed-flakey-and-buttery crust.
But some doughs—and my anxiety is primarily dough-related (will it sog? will it shrink? will it altogether implode?)—promise to be more forgiving than others: quick to come together, with minimal guesswork; easy to roll and transfer; and, of course, guaranteed to yield flakey, shattering, crisp results. They call themselves "foolproof," "go-to," "be-all, end-all." Are they?
I've come to favor Rose Levy Beranbaum's cream cheese pie crust (and I crooned its praises last summer), but I was curious about how doughs bolstered with other ingredients—like vodka, shortening, vinegar, or sour cream—would compare to the 100%-butter classic.
So to compare them altogether, I made five different pie doughs—all-butter, all-butter with the addition of vinegar, butter plus shortening, vodka-spiked, and sour cream-boosted—to see how they'd stack up.
I wanted to determine...
- The ease of assembly (how quickly and seamlessly did the dough come together?) and of rolling
- The flakiness and the flavor: Was this a crust I'd like to munch on sans peach or rhubarb filling?
I cut 4 small rounds of each type of dough, brushed two of every batch with egg wash (those are bottom two rows of the baking sheet—which are across-the-board more appetizing), and baked at 425° F for about 15 minutes, until the dough circles were golden-brown and completely cooked-through. Then, we tasted.
Disclaimer: For my test, I baked the doughs as freestanding rounds, but obviously this doesn't take into account how they would have interacted with various fillings—juicy fruits, creamy custards—or, as our resident baking expert Erin McDowell has pointed out, that you might be looking for a mealier, more crumbly crust for a custard pie (pumpkin, lemon cream) but flakier, laminated-esque quality for a juicy one. For me, I wanted flakey. It is fruit pie season, after all!
Let's go dough to dough, listing the merits and detractions of each:
1. Shortening + Butter:
- The recipe: King Arthur Flour's Classic Double Pie Crust
- What makes it different: A quarter-cup of vegetable shortening is mixed into the flour before you work in the butter using your fingers, a pastry cutter, or a stand mixer. Why shortening? As Erin explains in her pie fats briefing, shortening has a high melting point, which means it's not going to turn to liquid as you work it into the flour—and this should translate into reliably flakey layers. But as Kenji López-Alt writes on Serious Eats, it's actually easy to inadvertently overwork shortening, and end up with a crumbly crust, precisely because shortening remains soft at so many temperatures. (An all-butter crust, on the other hand, will be more blatantly too-far-gone—the butter starts to melt and you have a gooey mess.)
- How easy was it to make and work with?: I had difficulty forming the dough into cohesive discs when I used my hands to mix it, but when Allison Buford used a stand mixer (and a bit more water), she had more success. (This guessing game with the amount of necessary liquid? I'd rather skip it.) Once the dough was chilled, it was noticeably firmer than the others—I had to bang it more aggressively before rolling it out, but once I got going, I didn't have a hard time rolling it into a large, thin circle.
- Texture and taste: This was the flattest, toughest dough of the bunch (neither flakey nor particularly tender), and it scored lowest in the flavor category, as well. I was surprised by just how big of an impact only 1/4 cup of shortening could have on the overall taste. I thought the crust had a vaguely artificial flavor—a fake butteriness that might be distracting when paired with a pie's fillings.
- The verdict: I have no plans to use shortening in future doughs. Since these discs did hold its shape very well, with minimal puffing and spreading, I do wonder if a shortening-butter crust might actually be better for making intricate lattices and decorations, however.
2. All-Butter (& Nearly Nothing Else):
- The recipe: Melissa Clark's All-Butter Pie Crust
- What makes it different: There are no "magic" add-ins in this recipe—you need only flour, salt, butter, and ice water. The distinction comes in the technique, as this dough is made entirely in a food processor. Since you use the food processor first to break the butter into lima bean-size pieces and then to incorporate the flour, the butter is ultimately chopped into very small pieces. Would this counteract flakiness? Many pie bakers say you want to see flour-coated butter pockets when you roll out the dough.
- How easy was it to make and work with?: The dough came together quickly and without issue; since the process happens within a matter of minutes in the food processor, it's easy to keep the temperature of the ingredients cool and to shuttle the finished dough to the refrigerator before the butter has a chance to misbehave. The chilled dough was a bit firmer than some of the other batches pre-roll out but ultimately gave me no trouble at all.
- Texture and taste: If you use good-tasting butter, you're going to have a good-tasting all-butter pie crust—there are no additional ingredients to mute or overshadow its flavor. Still, I ended up preferring the butter-vinegar dough and the sour cream dough, each of which had a nuance of tang that cut a bit of the richness and was even flakier than the all-butter crust.
- The verdict: The flavor was good, though the dough fell a bit flat in comparison to the others—perhaps this was because the butter was pulverized by the machine rather than left in larger chunks. I'd be curious to try an all-butter dough that doesn't rely on the food processor, though in the past, I've found these the most difficult to get right.
3. All Butter + Some Vinegar:
- The recipe: Four & Twenty Blackbirds' All-Butter Pie Crust
- What makes it different: Yes this is called "all-butter pie crust"—but it's the addition of vinegar (2 tablespoons of cider vinegar, to be precise) that I was focused on. Some sources say that acidic vinegar prohibits gluten formation, which makes for an easier-to-roll, more tender crust—and others have cried "myth!"
All-Butter Crust recipe
- 1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 1/4 pound (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup ice
- How easy was it to make and work with?: I loved making this dough, even though the recipe does call for dirtying a bench scraper and a pastry blender. While there is value in using your hands to feel the texture of the dough, I find it easier to keep the temperature under control when I'm not warming up the ingredients with my body heat. The dough rolled out easily, cracking in only a few areas.
- Texture and taste: Again, I was surprised by the impact of a small amount of an ingredient (here, it's vinegar, not shortening)—but this time, pleasantly so! The pie crust had a tang I was not expecting, and was one of the highest-rising doughs in the group: The discs look like biscuits in miniature!
- The verdict: It might very well be myth that vinegar makes pie dough more tender, but based on these results, if I have vinegar in my pantry, I'll surely be adding it to my pie dough, if only for the very subtle zing it added. The success of this recipe is likely a combination of the ratio of ingredients and the technique. I'd definitely rather fish out my bench scraper and pastry cutter than lug out the food processor—it's nearly as fast, and there's less of a chance of obliterating the butter chunks.
- The recipe: Cook's Illustrated's Foolproof Pie Crust (as featured in Genius Recipes)
- What makes it different: Instead of adding 4 tablespoons of water, you'll use 2 tablespoons of water and 2 tablespoons of vodka. The vodka inhibits gluten formation—making for a tender, more malleable dough—and it evaporates in the oven, which means it leaves no boozy taste behind. And the technique, not just the ingredient list, is convention-bucking: In a food procesor, you'll blend the butter completely into a portion of the flour; then, you'll break those curds up with some additional flour and use a spatula to press in the liquid. As our Creative Director Kristen Miglore wrote in 2013, "this means that the dough is more predictably tender and flaky (since it's based on a more homogenous flour-butter paste rather than jagged bits of cold butter) and easier to roll out too."
Cook's Illustrated Foolproof Pie Crust
- 1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon table salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (3/4 stick), cut into 1/4-inch slices
- 1/4 cup chilled solid vegetable shortening, cut into 2 pieces
- 2 tablespoons vodka, cold
- 2 tablespoons cold water
How easy was it to make and work with?: This rolled out like a dream ("supremely easy!" according to my notes—the best of the bunch). The dough is a bit tacky—I'd recommend rolling it between sheets of lightly floured parchment paper, and allowing it to chill for the full 45 minutes before attempting that endeavor.
Texture and taste: While the addition of vodka made for a dough that was flakier than its all-butter, food processor-made counterpart, I didn't notice a big difference between this crust and the butter-vinegar one. I couldn't detect any vodka (obviously), but I did think these discs had a sort of raw, floury taste—I preferred the flavor of the butter-vinegar and the sour cream pie dough circles.
The verdict: I wouldn't rush out to buy a bottle of vodka to make this crust, since I preferred the flavor of the butter-vinegar recipe and found the texture to be nearly the same. But if you are having trouble achieving flakiness, give this a try: Many of our commenters have had great success, even if they had been heartbroken by other pie crust recipes in the past. I think it's likely that this dough will provide flakey results to nervous beginners—it seems less volatile than an all-butter dough, be it made by hand or in a machine. And yet, all-butter doughs still have their advantages.
5. Sour Cream:
- The recipe: Simply Recipes' Sour Cream Pie Crust
What makes it different: You don't have to sprinkle in any water or liquid—at all! Instead, you'll cut the butter into the flour using your hands, then stir in 1/4 cup of sour cream with a fork. There's no machine and no uncertainty, and straight-from-the-fridge sour cream can help keep your other ingredients cold.
How easy was it to make and work with?: I had to add a couple tablespoons of sour cream (two more than the recipe called for) in order to get the dough to come together, and I used the plastic wrap to help maneuver the mixture into a cohesive ball. After the dough chilled, however, it was much easier to work with and presented no issues during the rolling process. I saw that there were streaks of sour cream in the rolled-out round, which I took to be a sign of flakiness to come. (Spoiler alert: I was correct.)
Texture and taste: The sour cream rounds were incredibly flakey—perhaps the highest-rising of the bunch. We also liked their flavor—a distinct, but enjoyable, sourness. The dough rounds, however, were inconsistent. Check out that strangely brown specimen in the third row of the rightmost column: What happened there?
The verdict: I love this pie crust—distinct layers and big flavor for such little effort—, but it's definitely suited for particular circumstances. Elise of Simply Recipes doesn't recommend par-baking it (the sides will slump and shrink) and the flavor is noticeably tangy—which is something to keep in mind depending on your filling. I'll save this crust recipe for particular circumstances where a bit of tang would contribute to the final result, like cider caramel pie in the fall or a brown sugar peach pie in August.
And in the end?
The butter-vinegar crust, for its ingredients and its technique, is my winner. It produced consistently tall, flakey results, and I liked the subtle zip that the vinegar lent to the final crust. It's also easy to turn to this as my go-to: I almost always have apple cider vinegar around. Vodka, sour cream, or my beloved cream cheese? That would probably require a special trip to the store. I'm also inclined to skip the food processor—it's so much harder to control the chunks of butter (and so much easier to take the dough just one pulse too far) when you're involving a powerful machine. My preference is for a combination of tools (they stay cool! they provide more coverage!) and hands.
If I do happen to have sour cream—or I'm baking for a special occasion—I'll make Simply Recipes' version. Shortening, see you never (though commenters, if you'd like to make the case otherwise, my ears are open!). And vodka? I'd suggest that recipe and technique to those who have struggled with all-butter pies in the past. The Genius recipe will enable you to use a food processor without overworking the dough—perfect for those looking for a hands-off, very reliable method.
And now that you've got your pie crust down, is it finally time to talk filling?
Okay, your turn: What's your favorite pie dough recipe? And what part gives you most the trouble? Tell us in the comments below.