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The Secret to Perfect Pie Crust

Updated on January 22, 2012
ChristyMarieKent profile image

Christy learned the art and science of cooking from her Southern kin. Her cooking secrets aren't secrets because she shares them freely.

Do you know the secret to the perfect pie crust?

Me, make a perfect pie crust? Let's get real!

I'm not a professional pastry chef.

I'm not Betty Crocker.

I'm not Martha Stewart.

I'm a working mom. I know that working dads and even non-parents struggle with work-life balance, just like I do; but it's harder for working moms because we have to deal with all the whining and crying and temper tantrums ... and go home and take care of our children, too.

My crust was tough, hard to chew, dry, and tasted like cardboard

The point is, I love baking, but I never could make good pie crusts. When I make pecan pie from my great grandmother's scrumptious recipe, I need a crust as perfect as hers. (My great grandmother's pie crust. Not my great grandmother's crust.)

No matter what I tried, my pie crusts were tough, hard to chew, dry and tasted like cardboard. Even if I used a storebought crust, it was never as flaky as my great grandmother's perfect crust.

And then one day, after asking everyone I knew for advice, I learned the secret to making perfect pie crust. Now my crust is perfectly browned, just like Great Grandmother's. I enjoy those last few bites of crust that I had used as a handle while I ate the rest of the pie slice. Maybe I'm not a professional pastry chef, but my family thinks I bake like one.

Here's how I do it.

Christy Marie Kent

Writer | Storyteller | Speaker

Get your mess in place

You'll need:

Flour. 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, not self-rising. Unbleached flour is okay, if you prefer not to have the chemical taste of bleached flour. Have a little extra on hand to spread on the countertop and on the rolling pin.

Fat. 1/2 cup butter or shortening, cut into cubes and frozen for at least an hour. I prefer butter because it gives a richer, more flavorful crust, although it isn't quite as flaky as one made with shortening. Some people use 1/4 cup butter and 1/4 cup shortening.

Ice water. 3 or 4 tablespoons.

Salt. 1/4 teaspoon. Not strictly necessary, but it helps the flavor.

Rolling pin. For obvious purposes.

Pastry blender. Unless you're using the special trick shown below.

For a tasty extra touch, add a pinch of sugar, cinnamon, or nutmeg to your flour before you cut in the butter. But only if it complements the taste of whatever type of pie you are making.

Be creative! Experiment!
This is your chance to express yourself.

The recipes

Let's take a minute to talk about what kind of pie you're hungry for.

My favorites are pecan pie and Key lime pie, from a recipe book that has never been published. As I flip through its yellowed and well-worn pages, I read hand-written notes in the margin, like "I made this for George for breakfast the first day after we were married," or "I picked up this recipe for Key Lime Pie when we lived in the Keys in the 30s." That recipe for real Key Lime Pie, made by Keys natives in the days before electric refrigerators were common, is nothing like the refrigerated stuff you find in restaurants today.

What makes this recipe book so special is that those notes were hand-written by my grandmother, my aunts, my mother, my great-grandmother, by women from four generations of our family, with some of those recipes having been handed down by their mothers before them. My aunt compiled them about twenty-five years ago, copied the pages, bound them in three-ring binders. There is no label on the cover, no table of contents, no ISBN number and no pre-printed price, but I know that that book is more valuable than any other cookbook on my shelves.

So what are you going to make?

Photo credit Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons

Blending it with a pastry blender

Back to the crust preparation. Whisk the salt and other dry goods (if you're using them) into the flour.

Using the pastry blender, cut the butter or shortening cubes into the flour until you have pea-size pieces.

Add the ice water, a tablespoon at a time, and toss with a fork until the dough just begins to stick together. Be careful not to work the dough any more than necessary, because the more you handle it, the more gluten forms. The gluten makes the crust tough.

(Photo credit Evan-Amos, via Wikimedia Commons)

Pausing, with my chin on my hand as I think about this ...

Okay, I'll be honest: I have made crusts this way, and it works well for biscuits, but I have trouble getting tender, flaky pie crusts with a pastry blender. Maybe Martha Stewart can do it, but we've already agreed that I'm not Martha Stewart.

For an easier method, read on.

- Or - The easy way, blending it with a food processor

I love my Cuisinart!

  1. If your food processor has a pastry blade, attach it. Otherwise attach the chopping blade.
  2. Put the flour, salt, and other dry goods (if you're using them) into the bowl and pulse for a second or two, just enough to mix the ingredients.
  3. Add the butter or shortening cubes
  4. Push "Pulse" for about a second. Repeat a few times until you have pea-size pieces. (try not to make the pieces too small, as that will make the crust less flaky.)
  5. Add ice water through the top feeder, a tablespoon at a time. Pulse for another second. Repeat with another tablespoon and another pulse, until the mixture begins to resemble dough.

That's it!

Cuisinart BDH-2 Blade and Disc Holder
Cuisinart BDH-2 Blade and Disc Holder
Worried about your children reaching into the drawer and slicing their fingers? This will put your mind at ease.
 
Photo by Alcinoe via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Alcinoe via Wikimedia Commons

Rolling it

Put the dough in the refrigerator for fifteen minutes or so. Meanwhile, spread a little flour on your countertop or rolling mat, and a little more on your hands and rolling pin. Not a lot, because you don't want to add flour to your dough; but just enough to keep the dough from sticking.

Pour the chilled dough out on the counter or rolling mat. Gently work it into a circular shape.

Now start rolling. Always start in the center and roll toward the edge. Rotate it so that you keep the dough roughly in a circle.

Don't worry if you have a few rips and tears. Just tear a little dough off from the edge, patch up the tear, and roll it smooth.

Roll it until the dough is about 1/8 inch thick, and is in a circle about 2 to 3 inches wider than your pie plate.

(Photo by Alcinoe, via Wikimedia Commons)

(Okay, you wanna see another cool secret? You could roll your dough out on the counter, and try to measure it right. But for perfect circular pie crusts that measure just right for your pie plate, try one of these awesome mats. They're marked with circles so you know when your dough is the right size. Plus, when you roll it on this, it's so easy to flip it over into your pie plate without tearing the dough.)

If you don't have a rolling mat, try rolling your dough on waxed paper. When you're finished, turn the pie plate upside down over the dough, flip it over, and peel off the waxed paper.

Pie crust in dish
Pie crust in dish

Put it in the pie plate

Here's one of the most important secrets to a successful pie:

Use the right kind of pie plate! You can do all the preceding steps to perfection, but if you use the wrong plate, it won't cook the way you want.

  • Glass. My favorite. Pyrex.
  • Stoneware. Other people love stoneware. Try it and see if it works for you.
  • Aluminum? You wouldn't cook a pie in a hubcap, would you? Of course not! So why would you use a metal pie plate?
Now carefully lift your rolled crust into the plate. Don't stretch it, as that can cause the crust to shrink while cooking.

If you rolled it out on a rolling mat or on waxed paper, this job is easy. Just put the pie plate upside down on the dough, slide your other hand underneath the mat or waxed paper, flip plate and dough over, and peel off the mat or waxed paper.

If you didn't use a mat or waxed paper and you're having trouble transferring it without stretching or tearing your crust, try this. Lift one half of the crust, resting it on the rolling pin, and then lift the other half. Gently place that half in the pie plate, and then unroll the other half from the rolling pin.

(Photo by Kellen, via Wikimedia Commons)

Good Cook Bradshaw International 9′ RED Ceram Pie Plate
Good Cook Bradshaw International 9′ RED Ceram Pie Plate
Some people like ceramic because of the way it distributes the heat.
 
Le Creuset Stoneware 10-Inch Pie Dish, Cobalt
Le Creuset Stoneware 10-Inch Pie Dish, Cobalt
Stoneware is another choice for even heat distribution.
 

Wait, you're not afraid of messing it up, are you? What's the worst that could happen? You burn one? So what. Go ahead, burn one. Get it over with.

Like getting the first dent in a new car. Once it's done, you can quit worrying about it.

What makes pie crust tough?

Try not to work the dough any more than necessary. When you turn it with a fork, the water and flour form gluten, which is what makes bread stiff.

How do you prevent the edges from burning?

The edges burn when they are overcooked while the pie filling is not yet done. If your edges are burning, try covering the edges until the last 15 minutes or so of cooking.

Cut a square of aluminum foil large enough to cover your pie. Cut a hole in the center large enough to expose the pie, but still cover the edges. Remove the foil about 15 minutes before the pie is finished.

Or, try one of these super-cool pie crust shields. (I love mine.)

Christy Marie Kent's books on Amazon

Did you know that Christy Marie Kent is a writer and storyteller? If you like the writing style in this lens, you'll love Pecan Pie, Cigars, and the One and Only Secret to Happiness.

Pecan Pie, Cigars, and the One and Only Secret to Happiness
Pecan Pie, Cigars, and the One and Only Secret to Happiness
Imagine giving a toast to your grandmother, recognizing the amazing things she did in her life. Now, imagine that instead of telling true stories, you just make all this stuff up. That's the kind of stories you'll find in this fictional book.
 

I've love to hear from you!

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