“The first law of pies: No pastry, no pie.”
Janet Clarkson, in her book Pie: A Global History
Pie eaters will forgive a dicey fruit filling if your crust is crisp, flaky, and flavorful. But present them with a soggy, tasteless, cardboard-y crust and you can expect—rightly—that your pie will go uneaten. And that would be sad, sad, sad.
Many people thinking creating a perfect pie crust is a task more difficult than the second labor of Hercules—killing the Hydra, a nine headed serpent with one immortal, and therefore indestructible, head. But that’s—mostly—because they haven’t tried.
Grandma always made her pie crusts with her own hands. That way she could tell exactly when the crust had reached the right consistency. These days, many are using a food processor to create pie crusts because, as Alton Brown, creator and host of the Food Network television show Good Eats would say: “My best advice: Handle the dough as little as possible.”
My preference is the food processor method, but more because I like machines and gadgets (woot, woot, woot!) and I hate getting my hands messy. But let’s take a look at both—then you can choose which works best for you.
Another benefit for me with this method is that I don’t have to guess at what to do when and for how long—plus it’s faster. Here is the recipe and the process from CHEFS catalog’s recipe collection:
Basic Pastry Dough
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon well-chilled shortening
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons water
In a food processor add flour, sugar, and salt. Add well-chilled butter and well-chilled shortening. Pulse this 3 to 4 times for 2 to 3 seconds each time, until it’s crumbly.
In a small bowl blend egg yolk and water. Sprinkle this mixture evenly over the flour mixture in the food processor and pulse 2 to 4 times, for 2 to 3 seconds each time, until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the bowl and clings together.
Now remove the dough, cover and chill for 30 minutes.
Flour work surface and rolling pin when working the dough. With a rolling pin, roll to desired size, handling as little as possible.
Now, let's look at doing the same thing, only by hand.
This method, a little more in-depth than the video, comes from John Phillip Carroll’s book, Pie, Pie, Pie: Easy Homemade Favorites, and is used with permission. See this recipe and method online in CHEFS catalog's recipe collection.
Crisp and flaky, this dough is suitable for any pie.
For a 9-inch pie shell
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup vegetable shortening
3 to 4 tablespoons cold water
For a 9-inch two crust pie
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable shortening
7 to 8 tablespoons cold water
Your hands are the best tools for making pie dough, so plunge them into the flour and shortening and forge ahead. You will become familiar with the feel of the dough right away, and be surprised how quick and easy it is. When friends taste your pies, they will want you to show them how you did it.
Put the flour and salt in a bowl large enough to hold the ingredients, with room for your hands, and stir them together with your fingers. Drop in the shortening, then with your fingers break it in to several pieces as you push it around the flour.
Now put both hands in the bowl with the flour and shortening, and rub the fingers of each hand against the thumbs, lightly blending the shortening and flour together into smaller lumps and flake-shaped pieces. Your goal is to rub the shortening into the flour while keeping the mixture light-textured and dry.
Work as quickly and comfortably as you can, lifting your hands often and letting the mixture fall back into the bowl. You know when you have blended enough when you do not see any lumps of shortening and you have a mixture of particles the size of coarse and fine bread crumbs.
Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of water over the dough and stir briskly with a fork. Continue adding water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring after each addition and concentrating on the areas of the dough that seem the driest. When the dough forms a rough, cohesive mass, reach into the bowl and press the dough together into a roundish ball. If it does not hold together, or if parts of it seem crumbly and dry, sprinkle on a little more water.
Rub some flour on your hands and pat the dough into a smooth cake about 1 inch thick and 3 to 4 inches across. (If you are making a two-crust pie, pat it into 2 cakes, one slightly larger than the other.)
Sprinkle your rolling surface (about 12 inches in diameter) lightly with flour. Put the dough in the center, using the larger piece first if it is a two-crust pie, and sprinkle lightly with flour. Flatten the dough a little with your hands, then begin rolling it into a circle, rolling from the center out to the edges. Lift and turn slightly every 5 or 6 rolls to help keep it round. A size-marked pastry dough board can help you gauge the right size for your pie plate.
If it sticks, toss some more flour under the dough as you lift it gently with the spatula. If the top of the dough is damp and sticky, dust it with additional flour as well. Although the edges will probably look uneven, keep the shape as round as possible without agonizing over it. When you have a circle 11 to 12 inches across and about 2 inches larger than the top of your pie pan, you have rolled enough.
Pick up the whole circle of dough and set it in the pie pan, centered. If it tears, push it back together. Pat the dough snugly into the pan, starting around the edges and easing toward the center.
You should have ½- to 1-inch of overhanging dough all around the pan. If there is more than an inch, cut it off with scissors or a sharp knife. If there is less, brush the edge lightly with water and press one of the scraps of trimmed dough onto it.
For a two-crust fruit pie, roll out the second piece of dough just as you did the first. Transfer it to a sheet of waxed paper, and set it aside.
Put the pie filling into the dough-lined pan as directed in your recipe. Using your finger, a small brush, or a wet paper towel, brush the rim of the dough generously with water. Transfer the rolled-out top crust from the waxed paper and place it over the filled pie. Press firmly all around to seal the top and bottom crusts together. Trim the edges, using a sharp knife or scissors, so you have about half an inch of overhang.
Fold the overhang under itself to make a thick, upstanding rim. Flute the rim. With the point of a sharp knife, cut 10 to 12 slits, or vents, in the top crust, so steam can evaporate as the pie bakes. Be as random as you want with the vents.
Bake according to recipe directions. It is okay to open the oven and check your pie during baking. If you see the edges of the crust becoming too brown, remove the pie from the oven. Gently cover the edges with 2-inch strips of foil (or a pie crust protector) and then return to the oven.
Once you're perfected a basic pie crust, there are other options you may want to consider that will make your baked pies prettier and more appealing, including different decorative ways to crimp your pies and creating even more elegant lattice-work tops for your pies. The first video from Pillsbury will show you how to crimp creatively. The second video shows you the process of creating that pretty lattice top.
Plus, you can make special occasion pies by taking cookie cutters of stars, hearts, Christmas characters, Halloween images, what-have-you, and cutting shapes out of your top crust. Want to see a video on how to do this? Or consider a decorative pie top cutter.