Pie Crust 101: What You Need To Know About Making Pie Dough From Scratch
If you're new to pie-making, we've put together a quick guide on how to make pie crust from scratch.
While you’re planning celebrations and holiday dinner menus, it’s tempting to put store-bought pie dough on your grocery list, but we’re here to evangelize the homemade pie crust. Why? Because it IS that much better than store-bought dough. Because you CAN taste the difference.
Not only are we active advocates of homemade pie crust, we’re also here to arm you with knowledge of how to make a pie crust from scratch — and do it well. Surely you remember Grandma’s ethereal crust wrapped around crisp-yet-jammy apples to contrast the gooey, cinnamony center ... right? Recreating that memory is a culinary conquest that’s within reach.
But the first thing you should know is that pie-making is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
Bakers, Take Your Marks …
A good pie dough only has a few required ingredients: flour, fat, liquid, and salt. There are many variations, but this is the simple formula and there’s no real need to mess with it. Here are some quick explanations of the different ingredients you find might in recipes:
Flour. Some recipes call for pastry flour because it’s low in protein and produces a tender crust. But all-purpose flour is great for pie dough and can return a delicate, flaky crust as well.
Fat. Grandma probably used lard, but it’s not as easy to find as it used to be; many pie crust recipes now call for unsalted butter, vegetable shortening, or a combination of both. Shortening helps a pie hold its shape during baking because of its high melting point; a butter pie crust has good flavor and the low melting point prevents air gaps in double-crust pies. Both options produce great results.
Liquid. Ice water is the most common liquid used in pie dough, but milk or buttermilk is used in some recipes for a rich crust. Vodka or vinegar are sometimes used to make the dough less chewy because they help bring the ingredients together without adding too much moisture. Liquid aids in gluten development — and you want minimal gluten development because it’s what makes dough tough.
Salt. Salt is a non-negotiable. If you forget it once, you will NEVER forget it again: Dough without salt is a flavor experience akin to cardboard. Some recipes call for sugar, but it's not required (any sweetness is canceled out by a sugary filling). Excluding sugar creates a crust that provides a welcome contrast to a sweet filling, but can be used for savory pies as well.
Get Set …
Keep It Cool. For the flakiest crust possible, all of your ingredients should be VERY cold. Having cold ingredients helps keep the fat intact, which is what makes it flaky. While you can refrigerate the flour before combining your ingredients, you don’t have to. However, it’s important that you use cold butter or shortening and that the liquid is ice-cold.
Mixology. Grandma probably mixed the dough by hand, but you don’t have to. A food processor works just as well and takes less time and energy (but it does add a few more dishes to clean).
By Hand. On a work surface or in a bowl, whisk together the salt and flour. Toss in the cubed butter or shortening and make sure each cube is coated with flour as you start squeezing the mixture together. Gently break up the fat and work it with your hands until the butter resembles peas in coarse sand. Make a well in the mixture. Pour in the cold liquid sparingly (you may not use it all). With a fork, starting from the outside of the flour and working toward the center, mix the flour/fat mixture with the liquid (using more liquid only as needed) until it’s just combined. Bring everything together to make a shaggy ball and form a disk. If you’re doing a double crust, divide evenly into two balls and gently form two disks. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes to one hour. This lets the ingredients mingle and rest in the plastic wrap while you prepare the filling.
By Food Processor. Place the flour and salt in the food processor and pulse once. Add the fat. Pulse 3 or 4 times or until the mix has large chunks of fat. With the processor on, quickly pour the liquid in a little at a time and only as much as is needed (you may not use it all) to get it all combined. Turn off the food processor when the dough forms. Remove the dough from the food processor and form a disk or divide to make two disks if it’s a double crust. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes to one hour.
How We Roll. When you remove the dough from the refrigerator, make sure to handle it as little as possible. When you rub, squeeze, and roll, you're helping the gluten develop, which makes for a tough crust and an unpleasant edible experience. Gentle handling also prevents the dough from shrinking away from the pie plate during baking.
As you’re rolling the dough out on a lightly floured surface, you want to do it quickly and gently so as not to overwork the dough — roll it just enough to make it big and round to fit in your pie plate. For each roll of your pin, you should lightly push the rolling pin away from you once and then turn the dough counterclockwise 45 degrees. The slight turn helps keep the dough round, and the movement keeps it from sticking to your work surface.
Keep your pie plate nearby so you can check to see when the dough has expanded just enough to cover the pie pan with a little hanging over the edge for sealing (for a double crust) and crimping.
Quick note: If you see streaks of butter or shortening, don’t worry! That’s a good thing! A lot of pie dough images on the internet show perfectly uniform doughs, but streaks (even small chunks) of fat means a flakier dough.
The Mobile Experience. Transferring dough from the workspace to your pie plate can be tricky. Lifting it directly from the work surface to lay it on the plate puts you at risk for tearing it — and you don’t want to re-roll it because that would make the finished product tough and chewy. Instead, you can roll it up on the rolling pin and then use the pin to lay it on the plate. The other option is to fold it in quarters and lay the corner in the middle of the pie plate so when you unfold it, it’s perfectly distributed around the plate and minimal adjustment is required. You will, however, have to lift and lay the top crust with a rolling pin or without guidance if you’re making a double-crust pie.
While you’re a long way from tasting the final product, your finishing touches start with the sealing and crimping.
Sealing. Sealing is crucial for double-crust pies like fruit pies. It’s the process of locking the top crust to the bottom crust before crimping so the filling doesn’t ooze out during baking. The foolproof way to do this is to trim the bottom crust a little shorter than the top crust, then tuck the top crust under the bottom crust and and gently press down on the two crusts on the lip of the pie plate just before crimping.
Crimping. Crimping is the process of pinching the edge of the crust in a pretty pattern. You can do this by squeezing the dough together using your index finger and thumb from one hand and the index finger of the other hand, pinch-by-pinch around the pie, or you can create patterns using knives, spoons, or forks. You can also do something more elaborate like using small cookie cutters to cut out shapes (like tiny leaves or apples) from dough scraps to line the edges. The object is to make the finished product delightful to look at when serving. Aside from giving diners a handle to hold while eating the last bits of pie, the edge doesn’t have a practical function.
Maintaining The Shape. Once you're done sealing and crimping, place the pie in the freezer for 30 minutes to an hour to help it hold its shape while it’s in the oven.
The Final Stretch
Baking a pie is not quite as simple as just sticking it in the oven. Custard or cream pies are handled differently than double-crust (fruit) pies as the crusts need to be baked separately from the filling.
Blind Baking. Blind baking is the method of completely baking a pie crust without a filling — typically a single crust recipe. This is used for custard pie recipes or cream pies in which the fillings are cooked or prepared before being added to the crust to set.
Pie Weights. Pie weights are used in blind baking to keep the bottom of the pie from puffing up. After you’ve set the dough in the pie plate, line the dough with parchment paper and fill it with specially made pie weights, uncooked rice, or uncooked beans. The rice and beans shouldn’t be eaten after they’ve been used as pie weights, but they can be saved for future use as pie weights.
Docking. "Docking" is simply poking tiny holes (usually with a fork) in the pie dough to allow steam to escape during baking so it doesn’t puff up — it achieves the same objective as using pie weights.
Parbaking. Don’t confuse parbaking and blind baking. Parbaking is pre-baking the crust a little bit — but not all the way — to prevent a soggy bottom (although there are ways to get a crispy bottom without parbaking). This is sometimes done with nut pies like pecan pie. It’s also sometimes done with double-crust pies by parbaking the bottom crust then filling. Rather than sealing the parbaked pie crust with the unbaked crust, you tuck the uncooked top crust into the filling around the edges.
Pie Crust Shields. The pie edge cooks faster than the rest of the pie and is susceptible to burning. To prevent burning, you can cover the crust with strips of aluminum foil or specially-made pie crust shields for the first 20 minutes of baking. You don’t necessarily need them — I never use pie shields and never burn the edges — but if you have concerns, shields provide peace of mind that your pie will not burn.
Venting. Double crust pies need to be vented. You can do this by cutting small slits in the top of the pie or by using a pie bird specially made for pie ventilation. This provides a place for steam to escape as the filling cooks. Without the vents, the top crust puffs up into a big dome creating an air gap between the crust and the filling. If you forget to vent, it’s a pretty deflating experience for a baker.
Crunchy Bottom. You can get a crispy bottom with a few different methods:
- You can bake your pie directly on the bottom of the oven.
- You can bake it on a pizza stone.
- Depending on the filling, you can make a streusel to sprinkle in the pie shell before filling it to give the dough an extra layer of protection against a wet filling. This works for fruit fillings — like apple — that won’t be put off by an additional crumbly (and delicious) texture.
The Finish Line
If making your pie pretty is important, you can apply a wash, but you don’t have to. Apply a wash by brushing a little bit of liquid — egg, milk, or cream — on the crust just before baking. The result depends on what kind of wash you use, and while pies with a wash are more aesthetically pleasing than a pie without a wash, it doesn’t change the texture or flavor experience.
Egg Wash. Beat one egg with 2 Tbsp of milk. This results in a shiny, golden crust.
Milk Wash. Set aside 1/4 cup milk. This results in a golden brown crust.
Cream Wash. Set aside 1/4 cup cream. This results in a golden crust.
Giving your pie an adequate amount of cooling time is crucial if you want the best pie. The internal temperature of a pie is quite high (180° F for an apple pie) and pies are very dense, so you should let any pie cool for at least three hours before slicing. If you don’t let it cool, the slices collapse, the filling oozes all over the plate, and it may be too hot to eat.
At the end of any race you’ve been training for, after it’s over participants have one question: So what now? For pie bakers, that’s an easy answer: Sit down and enjoy your well-earned and well-made slice of pie.
Pie Crust Recipes To Try
One of the best reasons for making pie dough from scratch is that you’re not bound to one 9-inch circle of crust. Divide up your dough (without handling it too much) to make: Hand pies Small pies Tarts Galettes