Today, we demystify that white whale of baking: the pie crust. Though they seem complicated and impossibly finicky, pie crusts are actually not that hard to master. They just take a bit of patience, a willingness to get a little messy, and a few (mostly inactive) hours of your time.
I’m no pie crust master, but in my years of attempting them, I’ve picked up a few tricks along the way. Let this be inspiring to you: you can be only so-so in your pie skills and still whip out crusts that disappear in a flash, crusts that are crispy and flaky and oh-so-delicious.
Lesson #1: All-Butter All The Time
Look, I’m sure all the people who advocate for lard or shortening or other fats have perfectly lovely pie crusts. HOWEVER. You don’t need those things. Let me tell you: all you need is butter, a full stick of it. Butter, flour, sugar, salt and water — that’s it. You will get a gorgeous, flavorful, flaky AF pie crust every time.
Lesson #2: Keep Everything Cold
The key to a flaky pie crust is keeping everything ice cold. Essentially, those flakes you’re looking for come when solid fats melt quickly in a hot oven, creating layers. In order to keep those fats (in this case, butter) solid, you need to keep it cold. I always have ice-cold extremities, but if your hands tend to get warm easily, run them under cold water every now and then when kneading the dough. (Softened butter not only makes the dough extra-sticky and difficult to work with, but also makes the end result a bit tough.)
I’m also crazy and open the window in the middle of winter so that my apartment stays cool when pie-crusting, but you probably don’t need to do that. Instead, if your kitchen gets hot, refrigerate early and often: after you cube the butter, after you work it into the flour, etc etc.
Lesson #3: Don’t Be Afraid To Get A Bit Dirty
I don’t own a food processor so I can’t really speak to how amazing they are for making pie crusts. But it’s really important to work a pie crust as little as possible (so as not to overwork the glutens, which again, lead to a tougher crust), and it is much harder to overwork a crust using your hands.
Obviously, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty to knead and roll out the dough, but I find it’s easiest to use your hands from start to finish. Use your fingertips to work the butter into the flour (this is oddly satisfying and kind of a good stress release) and then use your hands to work the water into the dough. It’s fun, I promise!
Lesson #4: Pie Crust Works Around Your Schedule, Not Vice Versa
Don’t be daunted by the steps it takes to make a good pie crust. It’s actually pretty flexible — you can make the initial dough a few hours (or even 6 months ahead of time!) then roll it out and leave it in the fridge for an hour or two, then blind bake it and fill it when you can. I made my pie crust in the morning, went to the gym and ran some errands, rolled it out and made some stuffing, then finally baked the pie a full 12 hours after I started.
Lesson #5: Be Generous With Your Flour
Two things will keep your dough from becoming a crazy sticky mess: keeping it cold (but you knew that already) and flour. Flour your working surface, flour your hands, flour your rolling pin and when in doubt, flour again. You can always shake off excess, but being liberal with your flour use will keep things from getting sticky and messy. (If you do end up with dough that’s sticking to your work surface, use a spatula to scrape it off the surface, flour that sticky spot (a heavy sprinkle on the work surface, a lighter sprinkle on the dough itself) and continue. If you have time and space in your fridge, you might want to stick the dough in the fridge for 10 minutes to let it cool down a bit before continuing.
Lesson #6: Roll And Rotate, Roll And Rotate
The easiest way to roll out your dough is to roll once or twice in one direction, then rotate the dough 90 degrees and roll again. Then rotate and roll, roll and rotate until your dough is stretched to the proper size (a 12- to 13-inch circle for a 9-inch deep dish pie plate). Work fast, so that the dough doesn’t heat up too much (though you already know what to do if it gets sticky — flour!).
To transfer your dough to your pie plate, gently drape the crust over your rolling pin and then lay it flat in the pan. Center it and then trim excess overhang. Patch any cracks using your fingers and the excess dough.
Lesson #7: Use A Fork To Crimp Your Border
There are a lot of super sophisticated really adorable ways to decorate a pie crust. I don’t have the patience for that (or, to be honest, the skills). You can get a perfectly neat crust using a fork, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
If you want a shiny bronzed crust (this is especially important for the top crust on a double-crust pie), beat an egg in a small bowl, then brush the egg over the crust. Sprinkle with a bit of turbinado sugar on top and win all the prizes at the fair.
Lesson #8: Blind Baking Yields The Best Results
Look, I am as lazy as they come in the kitchen. (There’s a reason why most of my dinners involve only a sheet-pan.) But sometimes that extra effort is worth it. In the case of blind baking, or baking your crust unfilled so that it crisps up a bit, it’s ALWAYS WORTH IT. You’re doing all of this work for a flaky crust, right? What’s the point of getting your hands dirty and keeping your apartment ice cold if you’re going to end up with an underbaked, kind of soggy crust anyway?
- 1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1-1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea or table salt
- 1 stick (4 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
- 1/4 cup very cold water, plus an additional tablespoon if needed
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Add the butter, and using your (hopefully very cold) fingers, work the butter chunks into the flour. (I use a squeezing and chomping method that I've found very effective, but anything works as long as your hands don't get so warm that they're melting the butter.) You can also use two knives to cut the butter into the flour, but that's way less fun. Eventually, the mixture should resemble a coarse meal, and the largest pieces of butter should be the size of small peas.
- Add the 1/4 cup of water, and using either a rubber spatula or your hands, stir until the dough starts to form clumps. Knead the dough gently until it comes together, adding the last tablespoon (or less) of water if needed.
- Shape the dough into a flat disc and triple-wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour (or up to 48). You can also freeze it for 15 minutes if you plan to bake immediately OR freeze, triple-wrapped and placed in a freezer bag, for up to 6 months.
- Roll out the crust: Generously flour a cold clean surface. Roll the dough into a 12- or 13-inch circle using the roll-and-turn method, then carefully transfer to a buttered pie plate. (I find it easiest to gently fold the dough into quarters, then transfer and carefully unfold.) Trim any overhang that's greater than 1 inch, then crimp the edges decoratively. Return the pie crust to the fridge for 30 minutes.
- Blind-bake (this is optional, but leads to a flakier, crispier crust, so I'm a big advocate): Preheat the oven to 400F. Prick the bottom of the crust with a fork all over, then line it with a piece of buttered foil or parchment. Fill the pie with pie weights (or dried beans or rice, which is what I usually use). Place on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, then remove the pie weights and the foil and bake for an additional 5 minutes, until the crust is golden-brown and crisp. Remove from the oven and let cool before proceeding onward with your pie!