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The science of making pie crust, according to Mary Berg

Mary Berg

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For one reason or another, the thought of whipping up a batch of pie dough at home tends to spark terror into the majority of the population. Whether that’s due to the perceived mess that comes with pie making, getting that fat worked in just the right amount, finding the perfect balance of liquid to make a tender and flaky dough that’s easy to work with, or the dreaded process of rolling out a perfect, ¼-inch-thick circle, people fear pie.

It seems odd though, how could anything with essentially three ingredients cause panic in adults? Pie dough is, after all, simply a combination of flour, fat and liquid. What could be so difficult about that?

Well, try asking a group of grandmothers or the internet about it and you’ll quickly see that pie dough is a great divider in the world of baking. Everything from ingredients to the method is steeped in family tradition, myth, secret ingredients and legend. As you’ll see, I have inherited the belief that a little white vinegar can make a pie crust sing. Sifting through the mountains of pie facts, articles, recipes and tricks is nothing less than a daunting task, but I’m here to help!

In the name of science and baked goods everywhere, I’ve tested five different pie dough recipes, four of which have the exact same ratio of flour to fat to liquid. To limit this little experiment and make it a manageable task, I have chosen what I believe to be the main factor in pie crust flavour, colour, texture and workability: fat.

Below, I have highlighted four different fats in pie dough recipes using the following ratio:

  • 4 parts flour
  • 2 parts fat
  • 1 part liquid

The fifth pie dough that I have tested includes a bump in protein and sucrose with the addition of egg and sugar. The ratios for this recipe are almost the same as the above, but the liquid has been amended to account for the egg.

Now, just a quick note on dry ingredients before we begin:  due to its protein content, availability, and ease of use, all-purpose flour is best for making pie dough. I know that the bag proclaiming “Cake and Pastry” might seem like the right choice, but don’t be fooled. Cake and Pastry flour doesn’t have enough gluten in it to form a workable crust that will be easy to transfer from pan to plate when you’re ready to dig into your beautiful pie. Additionally, ½ teaspoon of salt per 1 cup of flour is required to help enhance the flavour of the pie crust. Even in baking, salt is your best friend.

Below are the results of this delicious food science experiment:
*wipes pie crust crumbs off of notes

Mary Berg

All Butter

Makes 1 single crust pie

  • Excellent flavour
  • So, so flaky
  • Beautiful browning
  • Did not hold its shape well
  • Butter oozed out (due to low melting point – 32-35C)
  • Uneven rise

Ingredients

  • 4 parts flour
  • 2 parts butter
  • 1 part liquid

Directions

  1. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the flour and salt. Break the fats into pieces and pulse into the flour until coated and broken up into hazelnut-sized pieces (this should only take about 5-8 pulses).
  2. Dump the flour/fat mixture into a large mixing bowl and, using a wooden spoon, gently mix in enough of the ice-cold liquid to form a shaggy dough. The dough should look like a bit of a mess at this point, but if you pick some up in your hand and squeeze, it should hold together.
  3. Set out a piece of plastic wrap, dump the dough out onto the plastic, and wrap and press into a 1-inch-thick disk. Pop this in the fridge for 30-45 minutes to allow the flour to hydrate and re-chill the fat.
  4. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 400F. It’s important to start a pie at a high temperature as this will allow for the fat to quickly melt, releasing some of its moisture, which leads to nice and flaky layers.
  5. When the dough is chilled, roll it out to ¼ inch thick and drape it into a pie plate. Fill and bake according to your pie recipe.

All Shortening

Makes 1 single crust pie

  • Very easy to work with
  • Shortening has a longer shelf life
  • Tender crust – very nice crumb
  • Held shape (due to higher melting point – 47-48C)
  • Hardly any flakes
  • Pale in colour
  • Not much flavour

Ingredients

  • 4 parts flour
  • 2 parts shortening
  • 1 part liquid

Directions

  1. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the flour and salt. Break the fats into pieces and pulse into the flour until coated and broken up into hazelnut-sized pieces (this should only take about 5-8 pulses).
  2. Dump the flour/fat mixture into a large mixing bowl and, using a wooden spoon, gently mix in enough of the ice-cold liquid to form a shaggy dough. The dough should look like a bit of a mess at this point but if you pick some up in your hand and squeeze, it should hold together.
  3. Set out a piece of plastic wrap, dump the dough out onto the plastic, and wrap and press into a 1-inch-thick disk. Pop this in the fridge for 30-45 minutes to allow the flour to hydrate and re-chill the fat.
  4. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 400F. It is important to start a pie at a high temperature as this will allow for the fat to quickly melt, releasing some of its moisture, which leads to nice and flaky layers.
  5. When the dough is chilled, roll it out to ¼ inch thick and drape it into a pie plate. Fill and bake according to your pie recipe.

Butter/Shortening Combo

Makes 1 single crust pie

  • Easy to work with
  • Nice and even browning
  • Flavour was great – only tasted the butter
  • Fat did not ooze out and puddle
  • Relatively neutral in flavour – perfect for savoury or sweet pies
  • Good rise – even but a little “homemade” looking

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 5 tbsp cold unsalted butter
  • 3 tbsp cold shortening
  • ¼ cup ice water + 1 tsp white vinegar

Directions

  1. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the flour and salt. Break the fats into pieces and pulse into the flour until coated and broken up into hazelnut-sized pieces (this should only take about 5-8 pulses).
  2. Dump the flour/fat mixture into a large mixing bowl and, using a wooden spoon, gently mix in enough of the ice-cold liquid to form a shaggy dough. The dough should look like a bit of a mess at this point, but if you pick some up in your hand and squeeze, it should hold together.
  3. Set out a piece of plastic wrap, dump the dough out onto the plastic, and wrap and press into a 1-inch thick disk. Pop this in the fridge for 30-45 minutes to allow the flour to hydrate and re-chill the fat.
  4. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 400F. It’s important to start a pie at a high temperature as this will allow for the fat to quickly melt, releasing some of its moisture, which leads to nice and flaky layers.
  5. When the dough is chilled, roll it out to ¼ inch thick and drape it into a pie plate. Fill and bake according to your pie recipe.

Coconut Oil

Makes 1 single crust pie

  • Surprisingly easy to work with
  • Frozen coconut oil held up in the food processor
  • Even distribution of fat
  • Faint coconut taste
  • Lovely flake and crumb
  • Just generally surprised with how well this one turned out!
  • Great for sweet pies – fruits and custards that would go well with coconut
  • Vegan

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ cup frozen coconut oil
  • ¼ cup ice water + 1 tsp white vinegar

Directions

  1. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the flour and salt. Break the fats into pieces and pulse into the flour until coated and broken up into hazelnut-sized pieces (this should only take about 5-8 pulses).
  2. Dump the flour/fat mixture into a large mixing bowl and, using a wooden spoon, gently mix in enough of the ice-cold liquid to form a shaggy dough. The dough should look like a bit of a mess at this point, but if you pick some up in your hand and squeeze, it should hold together.
  3. Set out a piece of plastic wrap, dump the dough out onto the plastic, and wrap and press into a 1-inch-thick disk. Pop this in the fridge for 30-45 minutes to allow the flour to hydrate and re-chill the fat.
  4. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 400F. It’s important to start a pie at a high temperature as this will allow for the fat to quickly melt, releasing some of its moisture, which leads to nice and flaky layers.
  5. When the dough is chilled, roll it out to ¼ inch thick and drape it into a pie plate. Fill and bake according to your pie recipe.

Egg and Sugar

Makes 1 double crust pie (perfect for lattice!)

  • By far, easiest to work with
  • Edges stayed intact when rolling
  • Lovely yellow colour when raw
  • Even browning – promoted by the egg and sugar
  • Sweeter in flavour
  • Does not lose shape in the oven
  • Little to no shrinkage

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into pats
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tbsp cold milk

Directions

  1. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the flour, salt, and sugar. Break the fat into pieces and pulse into the flour until coated and broken up into hazelnut-sized pieces (this should only take about 5-8 pulses). Meanwhile, whisk together the egg and milk and set aside.
  2. Dump the flour/fat mixture into a large mixing bowl and, using a wooden spoon, gently mix in the egg and milk mixture to form a shaggy dough. The dough should look like a bit of a mess at this point but if you pick some up in your hand and squeeze, it should hold together.
  3. Set out a piece of plastic wrap, dump the dough out onto the plastic, and wrap and press into a 1-inch-thick disk. Pop this in the fridge for 30-45 minutes to allow the flour to hydrate and re-chill the fat.
  4. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 400F. It’s important to start a pie at a high temperature as this will allow for the fat to quickly melt, releasing some of its moisture, which leads to nice and flaky layers.
  5. When the dough is chilled, roll it out to ¼ inch thick and drape it into a pie plate. Fill and create a lattice by rerolling any scraps into long ribbons. Weave your lattice however you please and bake according to your pie recipe.

So, if you’re looking for the perfect, all-around pie dough recipe, the combination of butter and shortening is the way to go. The butter offers a lovely flavour and colour while the shortening’s higher melting point offers a little more structure to the crust. This little number would work perfectly with any pie, sweet or savoury.

The coconut oil pie dough is perfect for sweet custard-filled pies or any fruit that would benefit from a hint of coconut. Stone fruits and berries come to mind. Personally, I’d avoid things like apple or pumpkin, but that’s just me. The texture of this crust is crisp and flaky and it holds up beautifully when baked. Additionally, this pie dough is vegan, so it’s the perfect option for anyone who avoids animal products such as butter!

If you’re one to delve into fancy lattice work, I’d recommend the egg and sugar dough. The added protein of the egg and the slight stretch caused by the sugar makes for a dough that is superbly easy to work with. All of the folding and unfolding that goes along with snazzy, lattice-topped pies will have little to no effect on this dough, where others might crease and break.

Basically, the moral of the story is that there are no hard and fast rights or wrongs when it comes to pie dough (other than overworking or over-watering your dough, of course!). Choose a dough that works for you and consider the type of pie you want to make, and soon you’ll be telling everyone that homemade pies are easy as, well, pie!

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