A Crash Course in Mastering Pie Dough

fruit pie with a flaky crust

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

My method for pie dough is as bare bones as they come. Made with equal weights of butter and flour, the recipe all comes down to technique. In a system that simple, every detail matters. For some, that can make the recipe seem like a fussy, high-pressure affair. But to me, it provides a comforting framework for success—nothing is random, and everything is within my control.

So whether it’s a technique you’re still working to master or one you’re about to try for the first time, it helps to understand the ground rules going in.

Low-Protein Flour and American Butter Are Key

My old-fashioned flaky pie dough works best with all-purpose flours with a protein content around 10% (brands like Gold Medal, Pillsbury, and Immaculate) and no-frills, American-style butter. This is true for all of my recipes, but they make a particular difference when it comes to pie dough.

So what’s the deal?

Pantry staples like refined white sugar, pure salt, and baking soda have chemical definitions (C12H22O11, NaCl, and NaHCO3, respectively), so one brand is as good as another. Underneath the spiffy packaging, they’re all the same (well, in some cases different brands can have different densities, but this isn’t an issue if you weigh your ingredients instead of measuring them by volume).

None of that’s the case with butter and flour, whose composition can differ drastically from brand to brand. Such differences can average out in more complex recipes, where those ingredients may only play a supporting role, but in a pie crust the characteristics of butter and flour will be on full display.

Some brands of all-purpose flour, like White Lily, use 100% soft white wheat, for a starchy, low-protein profile similar to that of cake flour, making it perfect for high-rising biscuits and cake, but too low in gluten-forming proteins for a well-structured pie dough.

Other brands, like King Arthur, use 100% hard red wheat, for a relatively low-starch, high-protein product similar to that of bread flour, making it perfect for chewy sandwich loaves and crunchy crackers, but too high in gluten-forming proteins for a tender crust.

My favorite brand of flour, Gold Medal’s Blue Label, falls between those two extremes with a blend of white and red wheat, so it has the right balance of starch and protein for a wide range of baking projects—including pie crust.

With this style of all-purpose flour, the dough won’t fall apart when transferred from the counter to the pan (a symptom of low gluten development), nor will it bake up greasy and tough (a sign of low starch and excess gluten development). It has just the right balance of protein and starch to make a dough that’s sturdy and easy to handle, but bakes up flaky, tender, and light.

A similar level of variation plays out in butter, with American styles clocking in at about 80% milk fat and European styles coming in a tad higher at 82%. Aside from a richer composition, the longer churning method gives European styles a slightly softer consistency. The softer structure and higher fat content are ideal for laminated doughs like croissants, but can wreak havoc on recipes developed with American butter in mind (i.e., literally all of my recipes; I’m an American pastry chef writing about American recipes on an American site).

With extra fat and a creamier consistency, European-style butters can make my old-fashioned pie dough a soft and squishy mess to roll, one that contains more fat than the flour can handle, resulting in a dough that bakes into a greasy puddle—a problem that will only be magnified when paired with a high-protein, low-starch flour.

Keep the Dough Cool, Not Cold

Making a pie crust by hand is like building a house out of butter: a brick can be rock hard when ice cold or fully melted when warm. Because butter constitutes nearly 50% of the dough’s mass, the dough will share those characteristics as well. It will be hard and crumby when cold, and hopelessly soft when warm.

A melting stick of butter on a marble surface

That range of consistency at different temperatures can make the dough seem too dry or too wet, leading bakers to mistakenly believe the problem has to do with dry or humid air, resulting in attempts to “fix” the issue by adding more water or flour. Unfortunately, those adjustments only create new problems (excess gluten development, shrinking, toughness) because they’re addressing the symptoms rather than the underlying issue: butter temperature.

Fortunately, temperature-related problems are easy to control—and I’m not talking about cranking up the furnace or running the AC. When it’s warmer in the kitchen, the answer is as simple as popping that bowl of flour in the fridge for a few minutes before making the dough. In winter months, it’s as easy as using slightly warmer tap water to counteract the chilling effect of cold flour from the bag.
I already have a full guide to conquering pie dough in a hot kitchen as well as a tutorial on overcoming the problems of a chilly kitchen.

Ultimately, the idea is to keep the pie dough somewhere between 68° and 72°F, so it stays pliable, cool, and easy to handle. Below that range (especially in a cold kitchen), the dough will be crumbly and prone to cracking when rolled. Above that range (particularly in a warm kitchen), the dough will be sticky and eager to tear.

Stick With Big Flakes of Butter

It takes big chunks of butter to create big, flaky layers in a pie crust, so check that concept of “mealy, pea-sized bits” at the dough-or. I start with butter that’s cut into cubes no smaller than half an inch (slightly larger is fine, but take care not to go under). From there, each piece is smashed once, like bubble wrap, to create a flaky mix. That’s it!

Collage of making dough for pie crust: adding cubes of butter to dry mixture, tossing butter with flour and smashing flat, adding water, ball of finished dough

If the butter is worked into smaller pieces, it will undermine gluten development and make the dough soft, wet, and unstructured—prone to tearing and sticking, and greasy after baking. But avoiding all those problems couldn’t be simpler: Cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes, and smash once. How easy is that?

Use a Heavy Dusting of Flour

When rolling out the dough, use as much flour as needed to prevent sticking. A cool dough won’t absorb the flour anyway, so there’s no benefit to skimping. Extra flour can always be dusted off with a pastry brush in the end, so don’t be shy!

Collage of rolling out pie dough: block of layered dough, rolling out flat, draping dough over pie plate, crimping crust edges

Use a heavy hand when dusting, both above and below, and you’ll never worry about sticking again.

Avoid Stoneware Pans

What a pie plate is made from (glass, ceramic, aluminum, stoneware, etc) will directly control the rate at which heat is conducted to the crust. If the butter melts too slowly, it will simply ooze out into a greasy mess, without helping the dough to puff up and form flaky layers as it should. For that reason, it’s important to avoid thick ceramic and heavy stoneware pans at all costs—however cute they may be, they produce crusts that are wet, pale, and limp.

20160713-pie-pans-ceramic-vicky-wasik.jpg

With lightweight, conductive materials such as aluminum, glass, or thin ceramic, the butter will melt at a brisker pace, helping the dough to puff and brown, for a light and flaky crust.

20160713-pie-pans-aluminum-vicky-wasik.jpg

Fully Weight the Dough to Blind Bake

When blind-baking a pie shell, a common step for single-crusted pies like pumpkin, sweet potato, or chocolate cream pie, it’s important to fully weight the dough.

The purpose of a pie weight is to provide a physical barrier to prevent the dough from collapsing inward along the downward sloping sides of the pie plate. That means the weights have to be flush with the top edge of the dough; a mere handful of pie weights on the bottom won’t do a thing.

Four images showing process of filling pie with sugar.

Refined white sugar is my go-to pie weight, because it’s cheap and abundant in most kitchens, heavier than rice or beans, and better able to conform to the shape of the crust when compared to ceramic pie weights. Because sugar is so heavy and effective for weighting a pie, it also eliminates the need for docking the dough (a.k.a, poking holes in it with a fork to eliminate air bubble).

Let the Dough Relax

After rolling and shaping the dough, whether for a single- or double-crusted pie, it will need to be refrigerated for at least two hours before use. This gives the gluten time to unwind, and the butter time to chill, so the dough is cool and relaxed when it hits the oven, producing a tender, flaky crust.

So if you want to make the dough in advance, roll and shape it right away, then wrap up the fully formed shell and/or sheet (for the top crust of a fruit pie). These can be frozen for several months in advance, then thawed to 40°F (4°C) in the fridge before use, or refrigerated up to a day in advance. They’ll technically keep a few days longer than that, but may begin to turn gray over time, and will have a greater likelihood of sticking to the pie plate.

If the dough is wrapped and refrigerated in blocks, it will still need two hours to relax after rolling and shaping down the road, which cancels out most of the benefits associated with making a dough in advance.

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After relaxing for two hours, or thawing to 40°F (4°C), single-crusted pies are ready to blind bake and double-crusted pies are ready to assemble. Because double-crusted pies see a little more action and warmth when the top and bottom crusts are crimped together, I recommend refrigerating the assembled pie for at least 30 minutes before baking. This ensures the edges are perfectly cool, and better able to hold their shape in the oven.

This is especially true for lattice-topped pies, like my blueberry pie, that may take some extra time to assemble, allowing the top crust to further soften and warm.

A slice of herringbone lattice–topped blueberry pie on a plaid-rimmed plate with a fork, next to the rest of the pie

It may seem like a lot to remember, but detailing every aspect of a simple process creates an illusion of complexity—just imagine writing out the directions for tying your shoelaces. What’s difficult to articulate with the written word is far easier in practice, and becomes easier still with practice. So give yourself room to learn, and know that all of these details will become second nature in time, from stocking the right ingredients and equipment, to understanding the texture of the dough, to remembering to keep it cool and relaxed in the fridge.

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Post Author: MNS Master

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