Pie crust bakers - HELP!

My first attempt at pie crust was about 35 years ago. IIRC, it was hard to do and not worth the trouble; this was before food processors, my mother had no clue what to do, and I did the whole “cut with two knives” thing and somehow produced something edible if not great.

Since then I’ve stuck with store-bought crusts. Usually the refrigerated sort where you let it soften, then carefully drape it into your own pie dish. That’s fine, but I keep hearing that only philistines use that stuff and I might as well poison my guests as serve them store-bought crust.

So… this fall I had a butternut squash to use up and did so using this recipe. And the pastry was actually OK. The shape wasn’t great - more of a lumpy oval than anything round, but the texture was OK, rolling it was OK, etc.

So, emboldened, I made this apple pie recipe.

Attempt 1: The dough seemed to come together OK (at least it held together OK when I tried molding it into a ball) but when I tried to roll it out the next day, it simply fell apart. I wound up patching it together enough to line the pan, and making something lattice-like for the top.

The following week, I tried it again. I added a bit more liquid than the recipe called for, and it was slightly easier to roll but still crumbly.

Most recently, I tried a recipe from the Bubby’s Pie cookbook. Did that all by hand (vs. food processor) using a pastry cutter (possibly the butter chunks were too large that time, I’ll use the food processor next time). The mixing, also done by hand per the cookbook (they insist you do that by hand even if you use a processor to do the cutting). I added the full half-cup of water it called for, and it was still not coming together. I added more - probably another quarter cup or so - and it seemed to be mostly coming together, there were a few blobs of pure glutinous stuff (obviously flour that wasn’t tied to any butter) but when I pressed it all together, it held together.

So I chilled it overnight, and rolled it, and could see lots of butter marbling in the dough but the edges were cracking badly and I probably left it too thick. Fortunately there was plenty of it so the cracked edges were only a very minor problem on the bottom crust (I had to patch a couple of spots on the rim) and not at all on the top crust.

Anyway - the resulting crust looked quite flaky coming out of the oven, but it was rather hard to cut (due to being overthick I assume). It tasted fine.

Flour:fat:liquid ratios:
galette: 1.25c / 4 oz / 2-3 oz
Alton: 2.75c / 8 oz / 2.5-3.5 oz
Bubby: 3c / 8 oz / 4 oz

In all cases, the ingredients have been well-chilled before I try anything (in fact I usually put the butter and flour in the freezer for a bit first).

I’ve told my family that I am GOING to learn to make decent pie crust come hell or high water and they’re just going to have to eat my mistakes.

What am I doing wrong? What should I try next? The one thing I notice is that the galette crust had a higher ratio of water to flour, and a higher ratio of fat to flour, than the other two.

I never used a food processor to make pie dough – I did it by hand.
Chill the fat before hand? Why? I usually let the butter (I always use butter) set out to soften, in fact. The trick, insists my wife, is to use really cold water. I keep a container of water with ice cubes in it when I’m mixing my dough, and usually end up using a bit more than the recipes say.

Another point is not to mix it too much. Pepper Mill complained at first that the way I had been making pie crusts had too much mixing time – the longer and the more vigorously you mix the dough, the tougher it gets. For a light and flaky crust, you want to limit the mixing time. (Of course, the shorter the kneading time, the less uniform the dough and the harder it is to spread out. You need to find a happy medium). I think you’ve got a deck stacked against you with a processor doing the mixing. Why not try mixing the crust by hand?

Correct. A flaky crust needs a minimum of handling. If I recall correctly, the bottom crust is more forgiving. When making multiple pies, one will use the scraps of the previous pie crust top as part of the pie crust bottom.

I have made tart dough in a food processor, but as you know, tarts are bottom crust only.

I make pie crust in the food processor all the time. Every recipe I have says to finish it by hand, but I never do that, I just process until it comes together.

Basic ratio I generally use for one crust is:

1 cup plus 2 T. flour
4 oz fat (usually butter, sometimes lard, sometimes crisco. Sometimes bacon fat). COLD, cut into chunks
3 T ice water (or more)

I put the flour (and salt and/or sugar if I’m using) into the food processor. Give it a pulse to mix, then scatter the fat over the top of the flour. Pulse 10-15 times, until the fat is pea-sized. With the mixer running, add the water 1 T. at a time until the dough comes together into a ball.

Cover in plastic wrap, fridge for an hour or so. Roll out.

The Vodka method also works well. It actually produces the most easy-to-roll-out crust I’ve ever made, and the vodka really does cook out. You might want to try that one a couple times and see if it helps.

I use the foolproof pie crust recipe from Cooks Illustrated - they substitute half of the water for vodka, which doesn’t form gluten when mixed with flour.

I’m in much the same boat as you - I will conquer pastry, dammit. Here’s the recipe, plus one of my notes at the end.

Cooks’ Illustrated Foolproof Pie Dough for a Double-Crust Pie

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (12 1/2 ounces)
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup chilled solid vegetable shortening , cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup vodka , cold
1/4 cup cold water


  1. Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

  2. Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

  3. Remove dough from refrigerator and roll out on generously floured (up to ¼ cup) work surface to 12-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick. Roll dough loosely around rolling pin and unroll into pie plate, leaving at least 1-inch overhang on each side. Working around circumference, ease dough into plate by gently lifting edge of dough with one hand while pressing into plate bottom with other hand. Leave overhanging dough in place; refrigerate until dough is firm, about 30 minutes.

  4. Roll out top crust similarly, to about 10" diameter. Remove chilled crust from refrigerator and fill. Roll top crust loosely around rolling pin, and unroll over top of filled pie.

  5. Trim overhang to ½ inch beyond lip of pie plate. Fold overhang under itself; folded edge should be flush with edge of pie plate. Flute dough or press the tines of a fork against dough to flatten it against rim of pie plate. 

  6. Preheat oven to whatever temperature you need, with a cookie/baking sheet on the middle-ish rack. Bake pie with your pie pan directly on the preheated sheet, the extra heat from below will help crisp the crust before it can get soggy from the filling.

I have made countless pies and I have taught many people to bake them as well. Most of my students are better than me at this point. One thing we have found is that refrigerating the ball of dough is almost useless. We start with frozen butter pre cut onto smallish chunks and ice cold water. Processor.

We often roll it right out. Move quickly and straight into the pan. Making multiple pies we often set some wraped in the fridge for hours or even days. No difference. It is much easier to roll out right after mixing and the refridgeration does not improve the results. Only makes it harder to roll.

Side note. I have almost compleatly quit Top crusting pies. We use lattice top sometimes and some varient of a crumb crust if any. The reasoning. We can make a great top crust but they are really only delicious for the first day or so. Crumbs hold up for much longer.

We also blind bake every crust no matter what the filling recipe asks. Depending on the filling we may bake it more or less. But everyone gets this treatmennt.

Pastry dough is something you have to do by hand and for it to be PERFECT, you have to know by consistency. You can’t just put in so many tablespoons of water as the recipe says and it come out right. Altitude, humidity, etc. are variables that change the amount that you need. Do it by hand and you will eventually learn what consistency works best.

Practice, practice, practice.

What’s puzzling me, with the amount of water, is that last night I put in significantly more than the recipe called for, and it still felt too dry. I got nervous when I went that much over the prescribed amount. It was a dry evening, being wintertime. If I try the recipe again, I’ll be less leery of adding additional water.

MN_Maenad: the recipe from Alton Brown uses applejack (apple brandy) instead of water, for the very same reason (reduced gluten development). I think the ratio of liquid to flour must be too low, however. Interesting that your Cook’s Illustrated recipe has 10 ounces of fat for 2.5 cups of flour (vs the 8 ounces / 3 cups in the recipe I used yesterday). Even allowing for the different properties of the shortening vs butter, that’s quite a difference! And it’s more in line with the galette recipe (1.25 cups flour and 4 oz butter; scaling up to 2.5 c / 8 oz, which is less flour for the same amount of butter as the Bubby’s recipe).

Cold butter, softened butter - direct contradictions there. CalMeacham, your technique actually meshes with one site that recommended “rub the butter into the flour using your fingers”. though that directly contradicts what most other sources say (keep it as cold as possible). How do you feel it affects the dough in your case (if you’ve tried using the cold-as-possible approach)? Easier to handle? changes in texture?

To tell the truth, I’ve never tried using cold butter. Maybe I should, and see if it makes a difference.

But, no matter how much water you put in, your dough is going to feel too dry. Putting more water in won’t help – you’ll find that with too much water the dough is too sticky, and you’ll just end up putting more flour in (only now without the butter/fat to balance it). In my experience, your gut feeling about how moist the dough ought to be is just wrong. The last time I made a crust it felt far, far too dry, but it came out beautifully.

I might just be a barbarian cook, but my strategy is this:

About a cup and a half of flour in a bowl. Cut up about 20 ~ 30 gr of cold butter (from the fridge) in small chunks and add. Add one egg yolk and whatever spices you like.

Using your hands: roughly stir the mixture until the moisture has been mostly absorbed. Using your fingers, rub the chunks of butter in with the flour until the mixture feels like course, slightly wet beach sand. Try and form it in a ball that’s only just sticky. If that doesn’t work, add just a bit of cold water (I use probably less than 100 ml on average) - no need to use ice, just tap water at its coldest will work fine - I just run the tap until it’s really cold, and fill a small glass and use however much water I need. Mix and try again.

The answer to cold vs. soft/warm butter is in the quality of the flake.

Cold fat will give you the genuine"flake" that is so elusive in so many pies, the kind where you can actually see the separate layers.

Warm/soft fat will give a texture more like cookies or shortbread- it will be pleasant but not a truly flaky result. (It’s called a long vs. short flake, in fact)

The reason is that when the fat is cold it remains physically separate from the flour and when it melts in the heat it forms pockets. When it is warm it meshes with the flour, preventing any “flaking”.

Found good info here.

And here’s a ten-year-old SDMB thread!

I don’t have my recipe handy, but I’ve always used a very basic approach. Flour, cold salted butter and water. I’ve never used shortening, added salt or any other ingredient, and 95%+ of the time get a nice, flaky crust. I don’t even sift my flour (the horror). I do, however, use a pastry cutter/blender. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastry_blender It’s probably the only specialty kitchen item I own. However, on the rare occasion I find myself in a kitchen without one, I’ll take 3 knives and stick them between my fingers. It looks something akin to Wolverine.

Basically, I measure out the flour, put in a solid chunk of butter (usually the whole stick) straight of the refrigerator, and cut it up using the pastry blender until the butter pieces are about pea-sized. Then I add in water, one tablespoon at a time from the tap using cold water. (No ice or refrigeration.) I do that until the dough just sticks together enough to create a ball. I then roll it out on a floured board and am fairly liberal with the flour on the board and rolling pin. I use a plain wooden rolling pin that belonged to my grandmother. It’s one solid chunk of wood and the kind of badass thing I could picture her threatening my relatives with for misbehaving as kids.

Dough goes straight from the bowl to the board. No refrigeration time. I roll out the dough thin, maybe about a quarter of an inch, put the pan over, and use a knife to cut it out one inch or so beyond the edge and flip the whole thing over. Prick liberally with a fork and fold the edges over pretty. Bake per instructions. Perhaps the pie gods have smiled on me all these years, but I’ve never really had an issue with the above approach.

I have not tried it yet, but the next pie crust I try will be with this recipe. It looks fantastic, and I haven’t had one of her recipes lead me wrong yet.

I use the, I guess fool-vulnerable, recipe from Cook’s (in the Best Recipes book). Basic idea is flour+salt+sugar mixed in the processor, add Crisco and process until it’s very well mixed. Then add cut-up (cold) butter and process only a few pulses until the butter is in pea-sized bits. (Without checking, the amounts in MN_Maenad’s recipe look familiar).
Pour into a bowl, mix in by hand (well, by spatula) ice water (starting with six tablespoons) adding more water just until it all sticks together.

That looks brilliant. Another variation on the French practice that was described on America’s Test Kitchen, I forget what it’s called… but it does look perfectly brilliant and I have to try it.

As someone who has made a lot of puff pastry, a lot of danish/croissant pastry, and an insane amount of pie crust in her life, I will be very interested to see what this method really produces: perfect pie crust or less-than-perfect puff pastry.

My method, inherited from my mother, from off the back of a shortening that isn’t even made any more (This is for a 2-crust pie.):

2 1/4 C flour
1 t salt
3/4 C + 2T shortening (of couse the recipe specified the brand but it really doesn’t matter)
about 1/3 C ice water

Mix flour & salt.
Seriously refrigerate the shortening - freeze if possible
Cut in 2/3 of the shortening/butter/lard with two knives until the shortening & flour pieces are like meal. Add the rest of the shortening and cut until pieces are the size of large peas.
Add the ice water a tablespoon or two at a time, mixing lightly with a fork. Stop adding water as soon as the dough will hold together. Gather LIGHTLY into two balls. Refrigerate for a short while.

Handle the dough as little a possible. If it breaks while rolling you can re-gather it and start over ONCE. Never twice. If it breaks up again start over unless you really enjoy piecrust with the texture of cardboard.

Cold vegetable shortening works well. Butter is good also. If you really want to splurge, get European butter – seriously – it has an even higher fat content. Very tender pastry can be made with lard, but it’s more difficult to work with, less room for error.