November kicks off the start of pie month and what better way to start of pie month than a deep dive into everything you need to know about pie crust.
Pie crust is one of those baking things that has always intimidated the heck out of me. I HATE making pie crust. But the problem is, homemade just tastes SO MUCH BETTER than store bought.
Cut fat into flour. The fat coats flour. Larger pieces of fat are also left. Large pieces of fat melt in the oven creating layers. The fat coats the flour leaving it unavailable to fully hydrate with the addition of water so very little gluten can develop. Less gluten=more tender crust.
What is gluten anyway?
Flour has two main proteins, gliadin and glutenin. When water is added to flour, these two proteins combine to form gluten. Gluten is what provides structure and elasticity to dough. We want this in bread dough so our bread bakes up tall and is nice and chewy. Chewy is not what we’re looking for in a pie crust.
What kind of flour do you use?
Depends on your recipe, but my go-to pie crust recipe calls for pastry flour. Pastry flour is higher in protein than cake flour but lower than all-purpose flour. Many recipes simply call for all-purpose flour because that is what most people have in their pantry. Sometimes whole wheat flour is used, because even though it has a higher protein content, because of the wheat bran in the flour, there is less gluten development.
Is chilling my ingredients necessary?
I am the queen of baking shortcuts. I hate chilling things, just adds extra time that I’m already short on. But in some cases, chilling is super necessary. This is one of those cases.
Yes, you must chill your ingredients.
Chilling everything to do with pie crust is necessary. We don’t want the fat to melt before we get it in the oven. Why? Because when all the fat is absorbed into the flour, the layers are lost. The layers are what makes your pie crust flaky.
Chilling the dough also gives the gluten in the dough time to relax and the flour time to fully hydrate (all the water absorbs properly into the flour. This makes it easier to roll out.
Quick tip: shape your dough into a circle before chilling, it will make it easier to roll in a circle to fit your pie plate later on.
How is a tart different than a pie?
Pretty much just different pans. Also, tart dough is often a little bit heavier because it’s meant to hold up on it’s own. Oftentimes tart dough is a little more crumbly or tender and less flakey than traditional pie dough. It also typically contains more sugar, both for added sweetness and because sugar tenderizes the dough. Think of tart dough a little more like shortbread rather than traditional flaky pie crust.
What is a galette?
A galette is a French pie that is made a little more rustic and free form. You don’t use a pie plate, instead you fold the fruit into the crust. This is an especially lovely way to make a pie if you stink at crimping edges like me.
Should I add vodka or vinegar to the dough?
Lots of pie dough recipes encourage you to add a little bit of vinegar or vodka. Why? The vinegar is added because the acid prevents proper gluten formation, thus a more tender crust. It also helps to prevent shrinkage when the crust is baked (again with the reduced gluten formation). Vinegar is cheap and almost everyone has it in their cabinet
The vodka is added for the same reason. The ethyl alcohol doesn’t attach itself to the flour in the same way that water does, therefore inhibiting gluten production. Inhibited gluten production=a more tender crust. It doesn’t have to be vodka, any 80 proof liquor will do. The biggest drawback of the vodka? It’s expensive.
Can I freeze my pie crust?
Sure can! You can either freeze it right after you make the crust, I like to wrap the dough in plastic wrap, flatten it into a disc, and then put it in a gallon size freezer bag.
If you have enough pie plates, you can also roll out your dough, shape it into your pie pan, and freeze it. I like to freeze my shaped dough for 30 minutes without wrapping (to get the dough nice and hard so wrapping it doesn’t mess up the edges) and then wrap it in plastic wrap and freeze.
For fruit pies, you can even freeze your whole unbaked pie. Simply do the same thing, flash freeze the whole pie for 30 minutes without wrapping it, then wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap and freeze.
Nobody Likes A Soggy Bottom.
One of the worst parts about making pie is that you put in all that work and still have a soggy bottom crust. There are a few different ways to mitigate this.
- Completely pre-bake any single crusts. If you are making a crumble top or custard pie, anything where a top crust doesn’t need to be baked, simply pre-bake your crust all the way.
- You can brush your bottom crust with egg white (1/2 egg white per crust), fruit preserves (about 2 tablespoons), or melted chocolate (about 2 tablespoons, no-bake pies only) to create a seal between your pie filling and your pie crust.
- Freeze your whole pie completely before baking. The heat from the oven will start baking the crust before
What Are Pie Weights?
When you bake a flaky pie crust, the gluten and the water evaporation in the crust is going to cause the crust to want to shrink as it bakes. Pie weights* are weights placed in the bottom of your pie to help prevent it from shrinking.
To use pie weights, place a piece of parchment paper into the bottom of your chilled pie crust. Pour in your pie weights. Bake crust. After baking, grab the edges of your parchment and remove the weights.
Another really nice option, instead of pie weights, is uncooked dried beans. They are cheap and work just as well (if not better) since they are not quite as heavy as traditional pie weights.
What Kind of Pie Plate Should I use?
Use a metal, ceramic, or glass pan*. (Super helpful, right?). A metal pan will crisp up your crust more quickly, however, it’s actually pretty hard to find a metal pie pan (metal tart pans seem to be more common).
Glass, like the cheap and easy to find Pyrex, makes it easy to see how baked your pie crust is on the bottom and won’t react with acidic fillings. It’s also easy to clean and generally dishwasher safe. Even though it’s a poor conductor of heat, the benefits outweigh the negatives.
Here is a more in-depth article about which kind of pan to use and why.
What temperature should my oven be?
It a little bit depends on what you’re baking, but typically for a flaky crust to bake up crisp you want to have the oven hot. Start at 400-425 degrees for the first 20 minutes, then you can back it down to 350 degrees for the remaining time. If you find that your top crust browns too quickly you can use some aluminum foil over the top to protect it.
Kinds of Flaky Crusts
There are a bunch of different types of flaky pie crusts that each have their pros and cons. My family tends to favor a lard crust, but I can tell you from experience that they are tricky. Which type you choose will ultimately depend on what kind of pie you’re making, your personal taste preferences, and how easy the dough is for you to work with.
- Lard Crust
- increased tenderness when compared to butter crust because lard is 100% fat where butter is 20% water and 80% fat
- can be difficult to roll due to tenderness
- Tip: roll dough on whole wheat flour makes it easier to roll but does not increase toughness because of the low gluten content of whole wheat flour
- Butter Crust
- most flavorful type of crust
- higher risk for gluten development since butter is 20% water
- mitigate this risk by finely incorporating 2/3 of the butter into the flour-butter coats the flour with fat so that water can’t hydrate the flour and create gluten
- using a combination of butter and shortening keeps the flavor of the butter while decreasing gluten development
- Shortening Crust
- also 100% fat
- easier to work with than butter because the dough stays soft even after chilling
- always holds shape during baking (good for decorative borders, doesn’t slide down the pie plate)
- browns faster than butter crust
- flavor isn’t as good as butter
- Cream Cheese Crust
- crust does not shrink because there is little gluten development
- no additional water is needed because cream cheese is 51% water
- milk solids in the cream cheese add flavor and tenderness
- Pate Sucre
- sugar dough
- mainly used for tart crusts
- firmer but more tender than traditional pie dough
- more sugar=less gluten because the sugar draws the water away from the flour
- stays crisper longer, even after freezing and refrigeration
- Whole Wheat Crust
- swap out 1/3 of the all-purpose flour for whole wheat flour
- more tender than regular crust because the whole wheat flour has less protein which equals less gluten
- Vegan Crust
- use room temperature coconut oil instead of butter (coconut oil is a solid at room temperature)
- no dough chilling required!!
We’ll be taking a deeper dive into each of these types of flaky pie crusts in later posts.
Can I just use store-bought crust?
Obviously, since this is a baking blog, I would encourage you to make your own crust, but this is real life here and making a pie crust is an epic pain in the butt. So, yes, if buying pie crust gets you to make a pie, then more power to you. No shame.
Now, let’s talk about the best ones to buy. When I’m feeling super lazy, I just grab the two pack from the freezer section. But honestly, you’re best bet is getting those rolls of pie crust from the refrigerator section. Pillsbury is the best, but if you have a Trader Joe’s in the area, theirs are pretty good too. Once nice thing about Trader Joe’s crust is that it comes in 10 inch, so you can use your bigger pie plate.
Jazzed up to make pie now? Awesome! Head over to the “Pies” section and pick out your favorite! I happen to like the chocolate pecan pie but the mini lemon meringue pies are pretty fun and delicious too!
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America’s Test Kitchen/Cooks Illustrated