Erin McDowell is one of the best bakers in the country. Lucky for us, she’s been boosting our butter confidence and banishing our sugar fears for years. As Food52’s Baking Consultant at Large (dream job? You bet), she’s taught us everything from fine-tuning glazes to adapting bread recipes with preferments to blueberry-ifying any muffin.
This week, Erin guest-starred in our latest video series, Dear Test Kitchen, and answered all of our questions about how to make the butteriest, flakiest pie crust. (Your Thanksgiving can thank her later.)
What’s the very best way to get better at making pie? Practice. Consider this your excuse to bake a pie (or two or four) between now and Thanksgiving. You’ll learn a lot along the way. And who doesn’t want extra pie?
Beyond practice, though, Erin’s handy hacks and pro tips have you covered. In her lesson, she brought, I don’t know, a million of these. Here I’ve collected my favorites in one place. Consider it your pie crust cheat sheet or survival guide or personal cheerleader. And consider these words from Erin as your mantra:
1. All the butter, all the flavor. Of all the fat possibilities, butter brings the richest flavor. Erin swears by her recipe for All Buttah Pie Dough—and we do, too.
2. But, shortening or lard have their own benefits. These fats have higher melting points than butter, which means you’re even more likely to get that flaky crust. For the best of both worlds, do a combo of butter and shortening or lard.
3. Incorporate the butter by hand for the most control. Erin likes to smush 1/2-inch butter cubes between her fingers, a method that makes it near impossible to cut the butter too small. (Too-tiny butter bits lead to a denser crust.)
4. Or, use a food processor to avoid meltage. Some people have warmer hands (or kitchens!) than others. If you’re worried about the butter melting, blitz the flour and butter in a food processor, using quick pulses and checking frequently.
5. Refrigerate or freeze your supplies beforehand. For even more meltage insurance, stick your mixing bowl or the flour in the fridge or even freezer overnight (or longer!). This will keep everything ultra-cold and melt-free.
6. When in doubt, chill out. If you’re cutting the butter into the flour and it seems like the fat is starting to soften or melt, stick the bowl in the fridge, wait 20 or so minutes, then keep going. Same goes for when you’re rolling out the dough and crimping the crust.
7. Flaky crusts are dreamy for fruit pies. For a flaky crust, the incorporated butter pieces should be the size of walnut halves. (If this sounds big, it is! Just trust.)
8. Mealy crusts are A+ for custardy pies. For what Erin calls a “mealy” (less flaky, more sturdy) pie crust, the incorporated butter pieces should be the size of roughly chopped walnuts.
9. Every brand of flour hydrates differently. That’s why water measurements in a pie ingredient list are always estimates—for instance, “Add more as needed.” Start with a little. Toss. Add a little more. Toss. If you’re unsure if it’s ready, stick it in the fridge and give the flour a chance to soak up that water.
10. Err on the side of under- versus over-mixing. Gluten formation is why you do want to knead bread dough and don’t want to knead pie dough. Bread should be highly structured and chewy. Pie dough should be crispy and tender.
11. What if the dough comes together unevenly? Sometimes, you’ll have a blob of perfectly-held-together dough and a bunch of dry, powdery bits at the bottom of the bowl. Just remove the good stuff (that perfect blob) from the bowl and add a little more water to the rest. Then combine the two before wrapping and chilling.
12. Don't pour water. Flick it. If you want to add the tiniest amount more water, just dip your hands into the measuring cup and flick the water onto the pie dough. This gives you the most control and avoids any risk of oversaturating.
13. Dough cracks are cool. When your dough is good to go, it shouldn’t be totally cohesive; it should hold together, but still have a “shaggy” vibe. Don’t fret if it looks cracked and rough—that just means you didn’t overwork your dough. (Good job!)
14. How to troubleshoot a too-wet dough. Chill it thoroughly, then roll it out with more flour than you’d usually use. This will balance the excess liquid in the dough.
15. Make dough in advance. Just store it in the right place. You can keep well-wrapped dough in the fridge for up to 2 days. (Any longer than that and the butter will start to oxidize and turn gray.) You can also keep it in the freezer for up to 3 months.
16. Rotate while you roll. Erin’s rolling strategy: Roll the pin front, then back, then turn the dough slightly clockwise. Repeat until it’s the right diameter. Not only does this lead you to a circular shape, but it also prevents your dough from sticking to the counter.
17. Wait, what’s the right diameter? Turn your pie pan upside down on top of the dough round. The dough should be at least 1 inch wider than the pie pan.
18. And how about the right thickness? Figure 1/8 inch. This is the standard measurement in most recipes. Erin errs a little thicker, just to make sure the crust isn’t too thin or fragile.
19. If you do roll your dough too thin, there’s a fix. Just fold the dough in half, then in half again. Rewrap in plastic, re-chill, then re-roll. See? It’s like nothing happened.
20. Use scissors to trim the excess. After you set the pie dough into the pie pan, trim the excess dough from the perimeter with a pair of scissors. This is way easier than a knife. You want to end up with about 1/2 inch of overhang.
21. For the easiest crimping, use a fork. While you can crimp several styles with your fingers, if you’re feeling unsure, let a fork take over. This creates a striking pattern—and eliminates any chance of your warm fingers melting the butter in the dough.
22. Always cut vents in double-crusted fruit pies. When fruit cooks down, its water content evaporates. But if it’s inside a double crust, where is all that steam going to go? The upper crust. By cutting vents, you let the steam escape out of the pie, yielding a crispy, not soggy, crust.
23. Just make sure to do this before egg-washing and sugar-sprinkling. Those highly-encouraged final touches can close up your vents. Not what we want.
24. Wait, why use an egg wash and sugar sprinkle? Egg wash encourages browning. In other words: makes pie crust extra pretty. Here’s a go-to formula: 1 egg yolk to 1 tablespoon heavy cream, milk, or water. And think of raw sugar (also called turbinado or demerara) as mandatory sprinkles: They add an extra pop of sweetness, a lil’ shimmer, and a crunchy texture to your crust.
25. To sidestep soggy bottoms, par-bake. This is baker-speak for “partial bake.” In other words, give your crust a head start in the oven before adding your filling—especially liquidy ones, like pumpkin custard. Just dock (fancy word for poke) your crust with a fork, line with parchment, then fill with dried beans (about 2 1/2 to 3 pounds per pie). Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until the crust barely starts to brown.
26. Ceramic vs. glass pie pans. Erin loves ceramic for its heat-conducting powers, but appreciates glass, too, because you can check the coloring on your crust.
What are your best pie crust tips and tricks? Sharing is caring in the comments!