question about pastry doughs

After reaching middle age completely unable to produce an edible pie crust, I had an ephiphany, realized what I had been doing wrong and was finally able to bake really good pies. In the process I learned that there are essentially two types of pie crust doughs: flaky (from classic American through to puff pastry) and crumbly (pate sucre?). I developed my own way to do each and prefer to use my own methods/recipes rather than what might come in a pie or tart recipe. My problem? Recognizing which is which, in a recipe, so I can substitute my own. It would be great if the recipe itself specified, but typically they don't. Can anyone help me know one from the other? is this even a thing?

Rosalind Paaswell


Nancy March 1, 2019
Here are two useful references to types of pastry and (even more important) the ratios of flour to water in them, especially for puff pastry and regular (aka short) pastry.
One is from New Zealand, and its directions are applicable to those using Imperial measures (except for a couple easily translatable Metric oven temps); the other from the American chef & author Michael Ruhlman.
If these are not enough for you to identify which type of pastry a recipe is calling for, why not just decide yourself?
* Base your decision on what other recipes you know and are similar.
* Go with one type of pastry or the other, make the pie.
* If good, repeat with that type of crust.
* If not great, try another type of crust the next time you make that recipe.
Smaug February 28, 2019
Well- if the recipe calls for a tart pan it's probably a European type, pate brisee or some relative. They are a short pastry; there is generally a higher proportion of butter than in American style crusts (though the pros with their eternal quest to feed us more fat have been upping the ante), it is (in my experience anyway) always butter, and it is rubbed into the flour evenly. They are usually low moisture- some use an egg to set them. If your pie recipe gives it's own crust recipe, the American style crust will traditionally be three parts flour to one of shortening (butter, Crisco, lard, maybe coconut oil nowadays) by volume (though as I say, that's been changing in published recipes) and the instructions will be to cut the butter in leaving some larger (usually described as pea sized or something of the sort) pieces, which make the layers. Either can have additional ingredients- sugar, small amounts of spices, maybe sour cream or lemon juice or vinegar in American types. And individual recipe writers have their own ideas about things, but of the two broad categories you mention, it's usually going to be pretty easy to tell which is wanted.
Rosalind P. March 1, 2019
Stephanie B. February 28, 2019
Good question! I should note right off the bat I'm hardly an expert, just someone who loves pies (making and eating). I tend to use recipes that give instructions for the whole process, from the crust to the filling, and if you use those recipes they will definitely specify which type of crust. I also read somewhere (I think it was Erin McDowell who has written for food52) that the puffy kinds of crusts work better for fruit fillings and the crumblier kinds work better for custardy fillings - though I'm not entirely sure why. And I think she was referring to all-butter crust recipes, and how fine to work the butter in, so that's not a pate sucre. So, in my experience, almost every fruit filling pie I've made has the American style crust; some custardy pies like pumpkin pies will use an American style crust with the butter worked into small pieces so the crust doesn't puff up as much, and other things like fruit tarts (filled with pastry cream) I've always made with pate sucre. That's not a definitive answer to your question, but at least I'm contributing some data and others can fill in more!
Rosalind P. March 1, 2019
Thanks for your expert and thoughtful advice. It's very helpful, but one small point. The reason I asked my question is because most recipes don't characterize the crust as one type or another; they just give the recipe. I can often recognize which type it is, but not always. Maybe it's oversimple to use just the two categories, flaky or crumbly (with a range of flaky all the way from American-style pie to puff pastry)
Smaug March 1, 2019
Puff pastry is a different animal, though it's used increasingly for pies- possibly because it looks fancy and can be bought frozen. Lately, I've been seeing pie crust recipes that are moving into the territory of faux puff pastries; these are generally very high in fat, using combos of butter and sour cream or cream cheese in ratios in the area of 1/1 (by volume) fat to flour.
Stephanie G. February 28, 2019
Rosalind, I have struggled with pie crust myself. Would you share your techniques?
Rosalind P. February 28, 2019
I'd be happy to. It will take a few minutes which I don't have right now, but will do it in the next week or so.
marianne February 28, 2019
Ooooh, as another pie crust challenged baker I shall wait patiently for your post!
Rosalind P. March 1, 2019
so here's what I've learned. For classic, flaky American-style pie dough, I thought mistakenly that when you mix the butter, flour and liquid, you should up with a cohesive dough almost like play-doh. And since that really didn't happen with the specified amount of liquid, I just kept adding water until it did. SO WRONG! Too much water makes a tough, inedible pastr. By reading and watching (especially but not exclusively Rose Levy Berenbaum) I learned that you use as little water as possible -- follow the recipe -- and you use your hands to work the ingredients into a cohesive dough. You start with a shaggy mess but work it into a smooth dough with your hands. Now a few years ago, I also came across a little magic that helps. .The food scientists at Cook's Illustrated realized that alcoholic liquids are wet but not 100% water (and it's water that's the problem) They developed a technique that uses some vodka along with some water -- you get the dough a little wetter and therefore easier to work without adding extra water. if you're a teetotaler, no problem. The alcohol evaporates in baking. Search for pie dough-vodka. Cook's Illustrated is the genius behind it. Next how to make the crumbly, tart dough, foolproof and even easier
Rosalind P. March 1, 2019
Crumbly or tart dough, really foolproof. Again, a Cook's Illustrated : They concluded that using melted butter for a tart dough was a lot easier than the classic method of butter and egg. It is unbelievably easy: for a 9 inch tart pan, melt 10 tablespoons of butter, mix it with 6 and 2/3 ounces of flour (1-1/3 cups), 1/2 teaspoon salt and 5 tablespoons sugar. Place 2/3 of the dough into the tart pan, press it on to the bottom of the tart pan; press the rest into the fluted sides of the pan, all with your hands. This is incredibly easy and delicious. Credit the great Cook's Illustrated chefs, bakers and food scientists
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