The basic elements of a pie crust are pretty simple: some type of flour, fat, and something liquidy to bind the first two together. With that simplicity, you might think that all pie doughs are made alike but a simple "Butter vs Shortening vs Lard Pie Crust" Google search will prove otherwise. And it isn't only the difference in fat that you'll find in recipes. The most common binding ingredient in pies is water, but if you scroll through my recipe for Earl Grey Cheesecake Bars or today's Kentucky Transparent Pie you won't find any water listed in the ingredients. Instead, you'll find a single egg.
So what gives? How to make the perfect pie crust with so many options in such a little recipe?
Let's start with fat.
The two most popular options are butter and shortening. There is the occasional recipe that offers a compromise - a combination of both. Most bakers and lovers of pies that I know fall whole-heartedly in one camp (butter or shortening) or the other, so the combo crusts are a bastardization they won't mess with. Lard makes a tasty, tasty pie crust, but it isn't as readily available in stores as shortening and butter, so often gets snubbed. If you're making a savory pie, or even an apple or nut pie, strained bacon grease can act as a beautiful fat. Here's my humble breakdown and opinion on choosing a fat, and here's some great supporting material from Food52 and King Arthur Flour.
The pros: Fantastic, buttery flavor. Lighter texture, more golden brown after baking.
The cons: Less defined pie crusts edges, so pie may not be as pretty.
The pros: Easier to combine with flour, so possibility of overmixing is small. Great texture. Pie edges hold shape better after baking.
The cons: Not as flavorful as butter.
There are so many wonderful options for flours now, and most readily available. They can alter the flavor and texture of baked goods in remarkable ways. For pie crusts, we are looking for a bit of gluten development to help the crust support the tasty (heavy) filling. All-purpose flour is perfect for this while cake and pastry flour are a bit too delicate.
Most pie dough recipes will have very similar first steps. Sift flour, salt, maybe some sugar, together in a bowl and cut in the fat. After adding the fat and gaining the appropriate texture, you'll have the most important part of your crust ready, the part that makes it taste delicious. What you won't have yet is a disc of combined, slightly damp dough, that you can actually roll into a pie crust. We need to add some liquid to achieve that. In a good deal of recipes, this liquid addition will simply be ice water.
The pros: Easy to control texture and wetness of dough by adding cold water one tablespoon at a time. No additional flavor alteration or texture change from water.
The cons: Too much water will turn the dough too wet to work with. Water doesn't add any additional flavor to the dough.
You will not find water in any of my pie dough recipes. You'll find a single egg. This comes in part from my learning to bake tarts before pies and an egg is used in pâte sucrée, or sweet pastry dough. The added egg is the crucial difference between tart pastry and pie dough. Tarts are made to be able to stand on their own, outside the tart pan, while pies are served in their pans. The addition of the egg gives this strength and stability to the tart pastry.
The pros: Stronger pie dough. Beautiful color from the yolk. Added fat and protein for flavor and texture.
The cons: Nothing. Add an egg.
Experimental Liquids: Apple Cider Vinegar and Vodka
There are camps of bakers who swear by adding apple cider vinegar or vodka to pie dough. According to those who swear by it, these acids make the pie dough more tender and vodka has the added benefit of not imparting the additional tangy flavor of vinegar. This is, however, contentious and some bakers swear that not only is this not true, but that adding acid to pie dough can actually make it tougher. I can't help you here, but I do plan on experimenting when I'm out of wedding cake prepation.
Important Tricks and Tips
Even with your ingredients decided, your fat declared, your liquid added, you still need to properly combine everything to get the tender, flaky, pie crust of your dreams. Follow these rules of pie creation and you'll be on your way to a pie crust that will steal the show right away from the filling.
- Keep your ingredients and materials (including your hands) cold. You want to be very careful not to melt your butter and warm hands or room temperature butter isn't what you're looking for. You can even go so far as to chill your bowl before beginning.
- Use high-quality fat. Whether you are going the butter, shortening, lard, or combo route, you really want this to be a top-end product. The fat is essential in developing texture and flavor in your crust, so don't skimp here.
- Don't add too much liquid. Especially if you are using water, too much water in a crust may make it easier to roll out, but it will also make it tougher after baking.
- Don't overwork your dough before chilling. Once you have added the liquid to your dough, mix until the dough just comes together, then wrap in plastic and refrigerate.
- Refrigerate the dough for at least an hour before baking. If you can, make the dough a day ahead, then you'll know for sure it's ready to be used.
- Don't be afraid to add flour to the dough when rolling out. The flour will keep the dough from sticking to both the rolling pin and the work surface and make it easier to transfer the dough to the pie pan.
- When rolling the dough out, roll from the center of the dough to the outer edges several times, then do a quarter turn of the dough. This will help prevent sticking and ensure an even circle.
- Once rolled out and in the pie tin, let the dough rest in the refrigerator again if possible. Even thirty minutes will let the fats chill out and give the dough a moment to come back together.
- If pre-baking the crust, make sure to prick holes in the bottom in 1-inch intervals and/or to use pie weights, or beans, to keep the pie from puffing.
- While baking, check the pie at the halfway point. If the edges are browning, cover them in foil or a pie guard.