by Julie Grice
The perfect pie crust — and there are many — is an American obsession, and there have been a bevy of pie cookbooks introduced to the market lately. Like most things, the perfect crust is a result of art and science and, like the scientist I was trained to be, I took the year’s best pie books to the kitchen and put them to the test, looking for the most fool-proof flaky crust.
Some bakers swear by all-butter crusts, while others stand behind shortening, lard, or even cream cheese. In my testing, I focused on butter and shortening crusts, and found that a combination of the two is ideal, especially for piecrust novices. Butter may provide the flavor, but it is notoriously difficult to use in a piecrust on its own. It melts quickly, and has a relatively high water content.
This is where the shortening comes in. It is stable at a much higher temperature than butter, so it helps the crust hold its shape as it bakes and provides flakiness. Use too much, and you’ll have a greasy and flavorless crust. But use just a little, and you’ll have malleable dough that is easy to roll out.
To me, the ideal piecrust is composed of countless layers of fat and flour that flake and dissolve into a buttery richness on your tongue. To get such a flaky crust, the dough needs to be filled with large, visible chunks of fat. The fat traps the steam from the water as the crust cooks, effectively separating the layers of flour and water, giving the final crust those layers. If the pieces are too small, they will melt in the oven before the steam can “puff” up the layers, leaving you with a too dense crust. To keep the fat from melting too quickly, the assembled pie should also be chilled before baking.
For a flaky crust, the dough must be handled as little as possible. If it is overworked, too much gluten (the protein in wheat flour) develops and leaves the crust tough and chewy. For this same reason, the dough must rest in the refrigerator before it is rolled out. This rechills the fat so it doesn’t melt during rolling and relaxes the gluten so that the crust doesn’t shrink back as you roll it.
To keep myself from being lured in one direction or another by the filling instead of the crust in my taste testing, I used the same filling recipe for every pie: Brown Sugar Apple from Ken Haedrich’s Pie: 300 Tried-and-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pies.As I baked, I judged each crust recipe on how easy it was to manage and roll, as well as how large the visible chunks of butter and shortening were in the resting dough. Once they were baked, I looked for clear layers that shattered and flaked apart when I cut into the pie. I tested each crust recipe at least twice, just to be sure the results were consistent.
I started with the most voluminous book, Ken Haedrich’s Pie: 300 Tried-and-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pies (Harvard Common Press, 2011). Haedrich, a self-taught-cook-turned-cooking-teacher-and-food-writer, is the “Dean” of The Pie Academy. With over twenty pages of “Required Reading: What It Takes to Make The Perfect Pie,” his book seemed a logical place to start. The book thoroughly details how to make a crust by hand, with a food processor, and with an electric mixer. But while the rolling, filling and cooling instructions seem scientifically sound and full of helpful tips, the crust recipe gives you more of a shortbread-like crust than a flaky one. While this is an excellent crust that certainly has its place, it didn’t make the cut for my flaky pie crust mission.
The reason for this shortbread-like texture is that Haedrich’s methods create too-small pieces of fat. He indicates that they should be “pea-sized.” Though this is a commonly used phrase, I found in my experiments that crusts are flakiest when the chunks of butter and shortening were more the size of a thumbprint.
Whatever my quibbles may be with the author’s shortcrust preference, the breadth and imagination of his fillings make this the volume I will consult when I want 50 pages of possibilities for apple pie, or 136 pages of ideas for berry and other summer pies.
Next, I turned to the trendiest pie cookbook: Handheld Pies: Dozens of Pint Size Sweets and Savories by Sarah Billingsley and Rachel Wharton (Chronicle, 2011). Wharton is a James Beard Award–winning writer and editor, while Sarah Billingsley is a cookbook editor and co-author of Whoopie Pies, another popular “mini treats” cookbook. As a rule, the authors refuse to use shortening in their crust, saying, “We do not use shortening. We know this is an affront to many of you – especially to Southerners who grew up loving the easy-to-handle dough it yields and its smooth taste in flaky baked crusts. But we simply don’t think it tastes anywhere near as good as butter, lard or cream cheese. Yes, it yields malleable dough and flaky crusts, but flaky yet flavorless is not what we enjoy.”
Their crust recipe does work, despite the lack of shortening: it rolls out nicely, is easy to handle and has a reasonable level of flakiness. This book’s true draw, however, comes from its forming and baking methods. Mini desserts are all the rage right now, and Handheld Pies hits on every permutation out there: free-form “pop tarts,” pies made in Mason jars and pies made in muffin tins. Those who prefer more filling than crust will love the structured pies, which are made in a muffin tin, while crust lovers will be drawn to the free-formed pies. As a crust fanatic, I was thrilled to serve a variety of pie “pop tarts” on Thanksgiving.
A Year of Pies: A Seasonal Tour of Home Baked Pies (Lark Crafts, 2012) is Ashley English’s, the author of the Homemade Living Series, latest venture. Her Basic Pie Dough (Shortening and Butter Version) was by far the easiest dough to handle. It rolled out smoothly, and held its shape well when I cut shapes out of the top crust and crimped the edges. However, it had so much shortening that the crust itself was a little bland and greasy. Just a touch more butter and little less shortening would have made this piecrust the winner.
I ended my quest for a foolproof flaky piecrust with Gesine Bullock-Prado’s Pie It Forward: Pies, Tarts, Tortes, Galettes and Other Pastries Reinvented (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2012), which was the focus of my final pie experiments. Bullock-Prado, author and commercial bakery owner, is known for her beautiful, vibrant pastries. The part-shortening variation of her “easy pie dough” uses nearly the same proportions of fat, flour and water as Handheld Pies with the key exceptions that hers includes a little shortening and a teaspoon of lemon juice. Adding a bit of acid, like vinegar or lemon juice, inhibits gluten formation, so even if you accidentally overwork your dough a bit, you will still come out with a flaky, instead of tough, crust.
The dough was easy to handle and roll out, and the baked crust was flaky and buttery and flavorful. While this is an excellent crust recipe, it doesn’t appear to be used in many of the pie recipes within the book. The bulk of those use the tart doughs and puff pastry dough she also details in “The Basics” chapter. Regardless, I found her crust recipes to be as detailed and as filled with helpful tips as I did the recipes in her first book, Sugar Baby, though the lack of a table of contents is a bit disorienting.
From now on, I’ll rely on a combination of two pie cookbooks: Pie by Haedrich for its filling recipes and techniques, and Pie It Forward by Bullock-Prado for its perfectly flaky, fool-proof crust.
Part-Butter/Part-Shortening Easy Pie Dough
Recipe from Pie It Forward: Pies, Tarts, Tortes, Galettes & Other Pastries Reinvented by Gesine Bullock-Prado
Makes enough dough for 1 (9-inch/23-cm) double-crust pie
2 cups all-purpose flour, cold
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and chilled in the freezer for 10 minutes
4 tablespoons shortening, chilled in the freezer for 10 minutes
½ cup ice water (don’t add the ice to the pie dough, just the water)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment, pulse together the flour, salt, sugar, and butter until the mixture resembles cornmeal.
2. In a small bowl, stir together the ice water and the lemon juice. Slowly add the liquid to the flour mixture, pulsing, until the dough just comes together. Squeeze a small piece of dough between your thumb and index finger to make sure it holds its shape.
3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide it in half. Gently turn over each piece of dough a few times so that any dry bits are incorporated. Form each piece into a loose disk, cover the dough with plastic wrap, and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes.
Julie Grice writes the blog SavvyEat.com, where she uses her food science and engineering background to teach readers about the science behind our food and the best way to store food. She also writes about her favorite recipes, creative meal planning, and appreciating the little things in life. When she isn’t blogging, Julie is designing sites for Savvy Blog Services and serving as an administrator for the Healthy Living Blogs community website.