My absolute favorite thing to bake is pie crust. I’ve always had a love for pie, but making pie dough did not come easily for me. I can remember several Thanksgiving and Christmas pie baking attempts that resulted in burnt edges, crusts slumped and shrunk in the pan, a broken food processor, a major burn on my arm, and last-minute runs to buy pre-made pie crust from the grocery store. I never gave up, but after the first few meltdowns my neighbor Chris started stocking extra pre-made pie crusts in her freezer to give to me when mine turned into disaster.
I finally decided it was time to get over my pie crust issues and my mom and I took the Pies A Plenty class at Zingerman’s Bake! in Ann Arbor. This class taught me a lot about the science and technique behind pie dough and gave me the confidence to keep trying to make pie crust.
While I learned a lot from the class at Zingerman’s, the key to my success has been practice. Since last summer, I’ve made at least 100 pies and stuck to the same basic all butter pie crust recipe each time. I’ve taken the standard pie dough recipe that was given to me at the Zingerman’s class and made it my own. Using the same techniques and ratio of ingredients has allowed me to become familiar with the dough, learn its characteristics and tendencies, and troubleshoot when things get a little messy. I’ve gone from countless crust disasters to becoming a pie baker who is known for her great crust.
Pie crust can evoke fear in even the most experienced bakers and cooks. I’m here to tell you that it is time to get over that fear. Homemade pie crust is just too good and if you like to bake, it should be in your arsenal. I’ve made it my mission to learn about pie crust over the last year and now I want to share my pie dough knowledge and encourage people to make pie dough at home.
Once you start making pie crust from scratch, you will never go back to the store bought stuff. The homemade version has so much more flavor, better ingredients, and a more tender, flakier texture. I won’t lie and tell you that making pie crust is easy. It takes patience, practice, and confidence. But, once you give it a try, you’ll find it’s a fun challenge and your crust-making abilities improve with every single pie.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be sharing quite a few pie recipes on this site. Next month, I am teaching a pie crust class at Cooks’Wares and I am currently getting prepared by developing a few new recipes and fine-tuning some of my favorites. I will be posting them here as I go.
Today, we will start by talking about mixing the dough. I’ve put together a step-by-step photo tutorial of every step in the dough mixing process and later this week we will go over how to roll out pie dough.
I hope the photos and details help to explain the accompanying recipe and I am always here to answer questions and help troubleshoot via the comments below, Facebook, or email.
All Butter Pie Crust
Part 1: Mixing the Dough
1. Be confident and positive. I once heard Joy the Baker say, “Pie dough can sense your fear,” and that is 100% true. Don’t let it scare you.
2. Keep your ingredients cold, cold, cold. The butter and the liquid should be kept in the freezer when you are not actively using them. If your ingredients get too warm at any point, stick them in the freezer for a few minutes to chill them back down.
3. Practice is the key to successful pie making. Don’t expect your first attempt to be foolproof. I still improve my pie baking skills with every single pie I bake. I’m constantly refining my technique and learning new tricks. My crust isn’t always perfect. Sometimes the edges are over-browned or the crust shrinks a little bit and that is okay.
4. Imperfect pie is beautiful pie. The beauty of pie is that it isn’t supposed to be perfect – it’s a homestyle, rustic dessert – and even when there are flaws, it still tastes amazing.
5. Have fun. Baking pie is rewarding, delicious, and a skill worth having.
Let’s start by talking about ingredients. The key to good pie dough is quality ingredients. Pie dough in the simplest form consists of flour, fat, liquid, and salt in a ratio of 3:2:1 – 3 parts flour, 2 parts butter, and 1 part liquid with a pinch of salt added. You’ll notice I do not add any additional sugar to my crust because I just don’t find it necessary. I like the simplicity of using just four ingredients and enjoy the balance of a savory crust with a sweet filling.
All-Purpose Flour – Some recipes call for a blend of flours but I find that all-purpose flour creates the best pie dough. Make sure to buy flour that is unbleached and unbromated. I always use King Arthur’s Unbleached All-Purpose Flour because it is consistent, reliable, and produces a great pie crust.
Unsalted Butter – Butter is where the flavor comes from and the most important component to a good pie crust. Use a high-quality, European-style butter such as Plugra or Kerrygold. It should have at least 82% butterfat. Butter with less moisture is better not only for flavor but because the lower water content prevents the dough from shrinking when it bakes. You can try making pie dough with cheap, lower quality butter (and I have) but your results will be so much better if you buy the good stuff. Every brand of salted butter has a different quantity of salt so it is best to use unsalted and control the salt yourself.
Salt – Salt enhances flavor and makes a better tasting crust. I use a combination of flaky sea salt and kosher salt. For flaky sea salt, I recommend Maldon Sea Salt Flakes and I am kind of fanatical about only using Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt in my kitchen. You can also just use 1 teaspoon of kosher salt instead of the combination.
Buttermilk – I like to use buttermilk because it provides a rich flavor, a hint of acidity, and tenderizes the dough. Always try to buy full-fat buttermilk, although sometimes it can be tough to find. If you do not have any buttermilk, you can simply substitute water.
There are many recipes out there that use different variations of these ingredients and once you get the hang of the basic recipe, you can experiment with using other ingredients such as lard (excellent for savory crusts) or gluten-free flour blends.
MISE EN PLACE
Mise en place is essential when making pie dough. Before you begin, you need to have everything ready and make sure your workspace is clean and organized. Since the key to pie dough is keeping ingredients cold, it’s important to have everything ready to go before beginning the mixing process.
Gather the necessary equipment. To mix the pie dough, you will need the following:
- A large bowl (around 6 quart capacity), preferably stainless steel. A shallow bowl with lower sides works best because you need to be able to comfortably and easily get your hands inside of it.
- Small measuring cup for the buttermilk
- Small ramekin for the salt
- Fork to mix the dough
- Knife to cut the butter
- Parchment paper for the butter
- Bench scraper
- Plastic wrap to wrap up the dough
Once you gather the ingredients, do the following:
- Measure the flour into the large bowl
- Measure the salt into the small ramekin
- Measure the buttermilk into the measuring cup and place it in the freezer
- Dice the butter, place it on the parchment paper and put it in the freezer
I divide the butter into two portions and dice one quarter of it smaller than the rest. Once it’s time to mix the dough, the larger portion is worked into the flour more than the smaller portion. This helps keep chunks of butter which results in a flaky, tender crust.
To dice the butter – Divide it into two portions, a three-fourths portion and a one-fourth portion. Take the larger portion and dice it up into small cubes, no larger than 1/4-inch each. The smaller you dice it, the less work it is to rub it into the flour. Take the remaining quarter of butter and dice it into a bit larger cubes, about 1/2-inch in size. Place the butter on a piece of parchment paper and put it in the freezer until it’s time to use it.
I’ve started using a combination of salts. However, you can simply use just 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and omit the flaky sea salt.
MIXING THE DOUGH
A clean workspace is key to good baking. Make sure you have ample space and remove any clutter that could get in the way. It’s easy to make mistakes (or spill) when you have a cluttered work area.
Start by adding the salt to the flour.
Use a fork to whisk the salt into the flour and distribute it.
Now, take the larger portion of butter (the smaller 1/4-inch pieces) and add it to the bowl.
Give it a quick toss to coat the butter in flour.
Now, use your hands to start rubbing the butter into the flour. I put my hands into the bowl, grab some of the mixture between my thumb and fingers and rub it to break the butter down into smaller pieces and coat it with flour.
Some people prefer to do this step with a pastry blender. That is fine but I have found that you have more control when you use your hands. The work goes faster and it’s important to learn how it should feel when it is mixed correctly. The more you do it, the more you will find the process relaxing and almost therapeutic.
Continue rubbing until the mixture looks like a coarse meal. You want to work rather quickly or the butter will become too soft and it will smear into the flour. If you start to notice this, simply place the bowl into the freezer for a few moments and let it chill.
Once the mixture looks like coarse meal, add the remaining quarter of butter and work it into the flour until it is the size of small peas. You don’t want to work this portion of butter quite as much as the previous addition.
Once you’ve worked in all the butter, the mixture should resemble a coarse meal with some pieces about the size of small peas scattered throughout. You will be able to see some visible pieces of butter and that is a good thing.
If this process took awhile, put your bowl in the freezer for a few minutes before moving to the next step.
Create a small well in the center of your bowl and pour in half of the buttermilk.
The reason we create a well is to see if the butter was worked into the flour well enough.
If the buttermilk creates a small pool in the well, you did a good job and can continue the mixing process.
If the buttermilk absorbs into the flour immediately, the butter was not worked in well enough. If this happens, it’s best to start over because there really is no way to fix it.
Use a fork and gently whisk the buttermilk into the flour. Once the first addition is incorporated, add another 1 or 2 tablespoons and whisk it in with the fork.
Now, check to see if you’ve added enough liquid or need more by squeezing a handful of dough in the palm of your hand. If it holds together easily, it is moist enough. If it is still really crumbly, stir in the rest of the buttermilk and check it again.
You’ve added enough buttermilk when the dough starts to form clumps and will hold together easily when pressed in the palm of your hand. The dough will feel moist but not wet and will remain crumbly.
I usually find myself adding the full 4 ounces of buttermilk, however, this can change based on the ingredients, temperature, humidity, and various other factors. Every dough can require a different amount of liquid.
Once the dough is mixed, dump the bowl out onto a clean work surface and gently gather the dough into a loose mound.
I use a rolling mat but counter tops and marble or wood surfaces work well too.
Now, we use a technique called frisage. This is a classic French technique that incorporates streaks of butter into the dough without working it too much. It may be a little different at first but don’t be intimidated.
Place the heel of your hand in the center of the mound and push the dough away from you, about 6-8 inches. You are essentially smearing it across the table.
Continue using the smearing motion to work across the dough
Once the dough is completely smeared across the table, it should no longer be crumbly and will look and feel like a more supple dough.
If the dough is still crumbly around the edges, you can mound it back up in the center and smear it out a second time.
Once the dough has been smeared, use the bench scraper to mound it back up in the center.
Now, use your bench scraper to divide the dough in half. You can eyeball this but I prefer to use a scale to make sure I portion them equally.
Take half of the dough and pat it into a flat, thick disk about 6 inches in diameter. You can use your bench scraper to measure – the disk of dough should be about the size of the bench scraper in both width and length. Repeat with the second half of dough.
Now, wrap the disks in plastic wrap and refrigerate them for at least one hour or up to three days.
Next Up: All Butter Pie Crust – Part 2: How to Roll Out Pie Dough