Change the Way You Bake

The Totally Hands-Off Pie Dough Method You Haven’t Tried Yet

No, it's not with a food processor.

January 17, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

Want to Change the Way You Bake? We do. And no, we’re not talking about adopting eight sourdough starters or making cakes with a sous vide machine. We’re talking about smart, savvy, and totally simple tricks that change everything. Or, you know, at least your next batch of baked goods.


There are endless methods to making American-style pie dough, but they’re all after the same result: a flaky, golden-brown crust. It should be crispy (but tender) and shattering (but sturdy). And all with such a short ingredient list: flour, sugar, salt, and some kind of fat (butter, shortening, lard, or some combo). Compared to something like puff pastry, making pie dough is as easy as—oh, you get it.

But that’s what makes it interesting, right? Every ingredient and every step matters.

Shop the Story

The biggest difference between pie dough recipes is how to incorporate the fat into the dry ingredients. Today, we’re focusing on all-butter pie dough—my favorite. The ultimate goal is just-right-sized pieces, still distinct in the rolled-out dough; once it reaches the oven, the butter will dramatically melt, produce steam, puff up the crust, and create those signature flaky layers.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Shortening (i.e. whatever fat you use- butter, lard, Crisco etc.)in a pie crust should serve two functions- to 'shorten" (i.e. make crumbly) the dough and to form pockets of air/moisture that will expand and separate layers. The first requires the flour to be coated individually by the fat- preventing long gluten strands from forming and toughening the crust. The second merely requires larger pieces to be present in the dough; you also need the dough to form strong enough membranes to support expansion in the oven, so you can't go too crazy with the shortening function. For this reason I always rub in at least part of the shortening; the all-hands method works very well, but it can be a bit tough if you have arthritis or other hand/wrist problems.”
— Smaug
Comment

What size is just right, though? Depends on who you ask. “Pea-sized” held a monopoly on pie dough recipes for a long time—but today, more and more bakers are preaching that bigger is better. In The Fearless Baker, our own Baker-at-Large Erin McDowell writes: “If you want a flaky crust, as for most fruit pies, you want the butter in large pieces, the size of walnut halves. I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Overworking butter—that is, cutting it into the flour too much, making the pieces too small, and letting them get too soft—leads to a dense, tough crust. Not what we want. So how do you avoid that?

It’s all in the method.


For the record—I don’t believe there’s a best or worst way to make pie dough. There are just different approaches and each has its own benefits and drawbacks. Here’s the breakdown on butter-cutting methods:

By hand, literally.

Incorporate with your fingertips. This is what puts the "no stress" in Stella Parks’ No-Stress Super-Flaky Pie Crust (one of my favorite recipes in our newest cookbook, Genius Desserts). She instructs: “Toss the butter cubes in the flour, separating any stuck-together cubes with your fingers, then pinch each cube flat with your fingers”—then stop right there. Other sources tell you to take it further, such as Nancy Silverton in Desserts: “Crumble the butter into the flour…until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.”

Pros: No special equipment needed. Plus, as Lisa Ludwinski writes in Sister Pie: Hands are “your best tools and you will never lose them.” And “dough just tastes better because it’s made by humans with lots of love.”

Cons: Hands are also warm. Butter starts to soften around 50°F and melts around 100°F. Which is to say, if you handle it long enough, it’s not going to stay cold enough.

By hand, with a pastry blender.

Don’t know it? It’s this funky-looking gadget. In The Joy of Cooking, the authors refer to it as the pie dough tool of choice, instructing to cut the fat into the dry ingredients, "usually with a pastry blender.” The Sister Pie pie dough recipe notably uses a combination of a bench scraper, pastry blender, and hands.

Pros: A pastry blender’s unique shape—with a handle and half-moon chopper thingy—means you’re in control. It moves only when you do. And because your hands aren’t coming in direct contact with the dough, the butter is less likely to warm.

Cons: A pastry blender is large, especially next to a single-crust amount of dough. While it’s great for breaking up butter, I’ve personally found it difficult to get consistent butter sizes.

With a food processor.

The darling machine of pie dough recipes—or, as Dorie Greenspan calls it, “a dough genie.” J. Kenji López-Alt swears by this approach in his Foolproof Pie Dough in Cook's Illustrated: “Of all the methods I tried (food processor, stand mixer, pastry blender, and by hand),” he wrote, “the food processor was the fastest and most consistent.” You just combine the dry ingredients in the machine’s bowl, pulse a few times to incorporate, sprinkle butter cubes on top, then pulse more to cut in the butter. Some recipes then tell you to stream in cold water, with the machine still running, until just combined. But this makes it easy to add too much water and/or overwork the dough. For that reason, other recipes tell you to transfer the flour-butter mixture to a bowl, then incorporate the water with a fork, spoon, or your hands.

Pros: Like the pastry blender, the food processor method takes your hands out of the equation. It’s also quicker than either method listed above—especially if you add the water directly to the machine.

Cons: The food processor lid is clear, sure, but have you ever tried to look through it while pulsing a bunch of flour and butter together? Pretty hard to tell what’s going on. Which means in between cautiously pulsing, you have to remove the lid and check on the butter’s progress.

So which method is my favorite right now? None of these.


I worked as a baker in a pie shop—Scratch in Durham, North Carolina—for almost three years. Smack dab in the middle of my tenure, we changed our pie dough method and realized: Holy cow, it works!

The original method had two steps: First, we incorporated the butter into the dry ingredients with a food processor. We stored these “dry kits” in the freezer, pulled one whenever we needed to make pie dough, dumped it in a big bowl, added water bit by bit, and tossed by hand. I don’t need to tell you that this took a lot of time.

Then, one day, my boss, Phoebe Lawless, came up with a “Why not try it?” idea. Instead of stirring in the water by hand, we used a stand mixer (a giant Hobart model that could double as a kiddie pool) fitted with the paddle attachment. Because the paddle is doing all the work, the butter is less likely to melt. And because the mixer has no lid, all you have to do is watch over the dough as it becomes its best self.

With one easy swap, our pie dough production became loads more efficient—and our crust stayed just as flaky.


If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking: Why isn’t anyone else doing this?

Well, some are. While most pie dough recipes use one of the popular methods described above, turns out there are stand-mixer rebels out there, starting again with The Joy of Cooking: In its "Pies and Pastries" chapter introduction, there’s a paragraph about "mixing pastry dough using an electric mixer.” After combining the dry ingredients and butter, you “beat at medium speed until the mixture is the consistency of coarse crumbs.”

One flaky bite converted our recipe developer Ella Quittner into a stand mixer pie dough convert. Photo by Ella Quittner

In BakeWise—highly recommended for anyone who loves the hows and whys of baking—Shirley Corriher has a recipe for Flakey Butter Crust in a Mixer. Using the paddle attachment, you “cut the butter into the flour using the lowest speed, mixing until the butter resembles flakes of oatmeal.” She adapted the recipe for this “wonderfully flakey crust” from Jim Stacy, founder of Tarts Bakery in San Francisco, explaining that this method is “prized by caterers and those who have to produce numerous crusts.”

Which turned out to be quite the pattern—stand mixer pie dough recipes developed in professional kitchens.

When I asked our resident Genius—and Genius Desserts author—Kristen Miglore if she’s ever heard of the stand-mixer pastry method, she answered without pause: “Thomas Keller.” Or, one of the most famous chefs in the world.

Keller’s pâte brisée—think of this like the French answer to American-pie dough, but for tarts—calls for a stand mixer:

With the mixer running on low speed, add the butter a small handful at a time. When all the butter has been added, increase the speed to medium-low and mix for about 1 minute, until the butter is thoroughly blended.

In 2007, Russ Parsons raved about Keller’s recipe in the Los Angeles Times, writing: “Keller's recipe calls for a stand mixer—and I do think that slow motion does yield the most tender crust.”

And writer, stylist, and recipe developer Sarah Jampel pointed me toward these crostatas from Che Fico in San Francisco. The recipe, published in Bon Appétit's 2018 restaurant issue, uses a stand mixer, paddle attachment, and low speed "until butter is in flat pieces the size of a nickel or smaller (mixture should look slightly sandy)."

Because of their larger-than-life size, professional stand mixers are a dream for making great pie dough while streamlining production. But if a big mixer works so well for the chef—yielding flaky crusts with way less effort—why can't little mixers do the same for the home cook? They can. It's just that most home cook–minded books haven't been talking about it.


Stand mixer pie dough tests: hanging out in the test kitchen, showing off all their flaky layers. Photo by Emma Laperruque

Of course I couldn’t resist developing my own version.

Unlike my alma-mater bakery's method, I wanted it to be one-appliance and one-bowl, which the examples above are. But their visual cues gave me pause—“coarse crumbs,” “flakes of oatmeal,” and "size of a nickel or smaller." My own experiences have led me to believe all of these are too small. And the same holds true for Keller’s “thoroughly blended” version, which checks out for a crumbly pâte brisée, but goes against our ultra-flaky pie goals.

Like Stella Parks’ and Erin McDowell’s recipes, my own stand-mixer recipe is Team Big Butter. Less effort, more flake. The obvious con of this method is, well, you need a stand mixer. But from there, the benefits are huge:

These days, the stand mixer is a familiar appliance to many bakers (a friend!). Like the food processor, you don’t have to worry about the butter melting. But unlike the food processor, there’s no lid hiding your pie dough. Using the lowest speed possible means you can observe every little change. You might not be turning the paddle yourself, but you are in control.


When it comes to pie dough, visual cues are everything. So I snapped some shots for reference:

Hello, butter! Chopped up, added to the dry ingredients, and ready to become something amazing. Photo by Emma Laperruque
This is the "cut in" butter. If you’re thinking it looks pretty unchanged, you’re right. The goals here are: coating the butter in flour and not overworking it. After a few turns of the paddle, most of the pieces should be slightly deformed, but still quite large. Photo by Emma Laperruque
After about 1/4 cup water has been mixed in. It's close, but not quite there. See the floury sides of the bowl and all those dry patches in the dough? Photo by Emma Laperruque
Another 1 to 2 tablespoons of water did the trick. The dough still looks super shaggy, but it’s starting to grab onto the paddle attachment. The dryness is gone and, once squeezed, the dough easily holds together. Photo by Emma Laperruque

I baked some of the dough into crispy rounds (egg-washed and raw sugar–coated, of course) and brought them to the toughest taste testers I know: my coworkers.

To my delight, they were almost all gone by the end of the day, and the main feedback was: So flaky! Oh, and: How did you do it?

A stand mixer, I told them. It’s easy—you should try it.

How do you make the flakiest pie dough? Tell us about the method in the comments!

16 Comments

Zozo January 20, 2019
Damnnn, this is making me want a stand mixer! I paid $14 for ONE SHEET of puff pastry the other day, so at this rate I could make back the cost of a stand mixer with 42 pies haha
 
Rory A. January 20, 2019
I live the article a d I will be playing with this technique, but I'll have to dissagree with with thefood processer con, part of the article. In order to no see whats going on without having any flour fly into your face, all you jave to do it remove the pusher and keep and eye out on the consistency. If not that, remove the feed tube pusher and cover the feeder with a towel. <br /><br />Thats just in my opinion.
 
Pam H. January 19, 2019
I am more of a Team Cake person, but I do venture out into the pie world from time to time. I have made pie crusts using Erin McDowell's and Stella Parks's techniques, and they're both great. I have also used a food processor and stand mixer with good results. My findings are that to whomever you serve the pie, they're always delighted and grateful that someone took the time to make a homemade pie! <br />That being said, this method is pretty straight forward, so anyone with pie crust phobia should just try it!<br />
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 20, 2019
Love this, Pam: "My findings are that to whomever you serve the pie, they're always delighted and grateful that someone took the time to make a homemade pie!"
 
CeeJay January 19, 2019
Ever since I watched Jim Dodge show Julia Child his technique for making all-butter pastry (by simply dumping the flour with roughly cut butter barely coated with flour onto the board and then using the rolling pin to turn the butter into large long ribbons) I've never looked back. It's a beautiful sight to see, and even better to taste. Wouldn't it be great if Food52 revived this method and compared it with the other contenders? <br />See: http://www.chefjimdodge.com/recipes-1/2015/3/29/harvest-apple-pie<br />
 
Eric B. January 19, 2019
Try this same technique to make biscuit dough. The ratios are different, along with the addition of a leavening agent (e.g., baking powder), but the principles are nearly the same.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 20, 2019
So interesting! Have you tried this before?
 
Eric B. January 20, 2019
Yes ma’am. Picked it up from my chef kid. On weekends for brunch service they’ll do 100-150 lbs in ~10 lb batches for brunch service.<br />Here’s the deal - if you want flaky you need the fat cut in as chunks so it will sheet into layers as the dough is flattened or sheeted. If you want cake/crumb texture you cut in to a finer texture to coat flour particles with fat. The range is quite wide. Vary the flour composition with AP & cake flours for tenderness. Same principles apply for pie dough.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 20, 2019
Cool! Can't wait to try that.
 
Mary D. January 18, 2019
Can I make a pit crust with no mixer
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 20, 2019
Hi Mary, you can definitely make pie dough by hand! Here are a couple recipes using that method:<br />https://food52.com/recipes/72570-stella-parks-no-stress-super-flaky-pie-crust<br />https://food52.com/recipes/24928-all-buttah-pie-dough
 
Mary D. January 18, 2019
How would you make like with your hands
 
M January 17, 2019
It's not so much cook-minded books, but the rise of blogs and WHO was considered a knowledgeable source. People started talking about pie dough in terms of avoiding a certain problem rather than understanding the basic methodology. Hence, ice water, vodka, blahblahblah. It made a simple process sound like a minefield, rather than a cook-friendly recipe.<br /><br />Start looking at chef's recipes, and everything changes. In fact, though Keller suggests cold butter, Jacquy Pfeiffer's dough recipes (in the essential The Art of French Pastry*) use soft butter for even incorporation. The concern is not so much the temperature of the fat, but minimizing gluten development. <br /><br />*The book is a great resource for understanding the methods and techniques, and removed a lot of confusion I'd gotten from popular recipes online.
 
Gray F. January 17, 2019
The explanation that it is the flash vaporization of water in the fat that makes pie crust flaky is not very satisfying.<br /><br />Certainly, if you're making a butter crust this is a consideration - it is, after all, what makes puff pastry do its thing. Emphasizing that the butter chunks must be large to accomplish this in spades makes me wonder if pie crust and puff pastry are being conflated here. If what you want is puff pastry for pie crust, then this makes good sense.<br /><br /><br />However, both Crisco and lard (and for that matter, bear grease, which I have used on occasion) don't contain any water to turn into steam and make perfectly wonderful pie crusts and, in the case of lard and bear grease, have been doing so for centuries.<br /><br />Personally, I prefer a lard crust over a butter crust for the majority of pies, though sometimes a butter crust is just what you want. A mixed lard and butter crust can be quite nice for when you want the wonderful taste of butter (think apple pie) without the over-airiness of an all butter crust.<br /><br />To my taste, pie crust is (and should be) denser than puff pastry, though absolutely tender and flaky and, unlike puff pastry, should not crush when cut.<br /><br /><br />Gray Haertig
 
boulangere January 17, 2019
The mixer method is the one I learned in culinary school nearly 20 years ago. I've been using it, teaching it, and writing about it (https://thesolitarycook.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/perfect-flaky-pastry/, https://thesolitarycook.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/rustic-mushroom-tart-with-braised-vegetables/, https://thesolitarycook.wordpress.com/2014/07/14/bastille-day-quiche/, https://thesolitarycook.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/tomato-goat-cheese-tart/, https://thesolitarycook.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/meatless-monday-rustic-savory-turnovers/) ever since. There isn't a whole lot new under the sun.
 
Smaug January 17, 2019
Shortening (i.e. whatever fat you use- butter, lard, Crisco etc.)in a pie crust should serve two functions- to 'shorten" (i.e. make crumbly) the dough and to form pockets of air/moisture that will expand and separate layers. The first requires the flour to be coated individually by the fat- preventing long gluten strands from forming and toughening the crust. The second merely requires larger pieces to be present in the dough; you also need the dough to form strong enough membranes to support expansion in the oven, so you can't go too crazy with the shortening function. For this reason I always rub in at least part of the shortening; the all-hands method works very well, but it can be a bit tough if you have arthritis or other hand/wrist problems.