December 8, 2009

Cooking School: Pie Crust Primer

This weekend, I stumbled across some old questions friends had posed when I had another incarnation of this blog several years ago. One of my best friends in Atlanta posed this question: "Why is pie crust so hard to make? Grocery store crusts taste better than my slop!"

All I could think was, "Oh no. Don't go the supermarket route!" Those are filled with preservatives, made with all shortening and no real butter, and full of salt to give them shelf life. You can master pie crust this holiday season, and here are a few tips for obtaining a good, workable, flaky pie dough. (I'll tackle nut and cracker/cookie crusts that require parbaking another time.)

This recipe from Epicurious is pretty foolproof. I replace half the butter with shortening to give it superior flakiness. Some people replace it with lard, but I just can't use that part of an animal (maybe it's the Hindu in me again???), so I'm fine with shortening. I do think it adds texture and allows the flaky layers to form better than an all-butter crust does.

Don't make the crust unless you're really going to use it within the allotted time. Chilling for an hour is perfect. If you think you can't get to it the day you make it but still want to cross the task of handmade crust off your list, then form the disc, wrap it twice in plastic wrap, put it in a freezer-safe Ziploc (label and date it!), and freeze it until you use it. Transfer it to the fridge first before using it because you want it to return to that "chilled-for-an-hour" temp (usually overnight works fine). If the pan-ready pie crust is your thing, then buy these glass pie plates that you can even get at CVS and Walgreens, roll out your dough after the hour chilling time, place it in these plates, lay waxed paper or parchment between each plate, stack and wrap them, and then freeze them in a Ziploc bag. You'll even have reusable glass pie plates, and they're sturdier for transport to a party than foil ones.

You can also go whole-grain on this pie crust recipe. I replace about half the flour with whole wheat pastry flour when going for a somewhat healthier or rustic slant. I do think it's crucial to use pastry flour and not just simply whole-wheat flour, otherwise you won't have the pliability you'll need for pie and tart dough. Here is a great guide on all the flours so that you can better understand gluten content and how it works in certain doughs.

I am also a fan of the silicone rolling pin for working with pie dough. Because of the high butter content, you'll want to make sure the dough doesn't stick to your pin. Flour your surface well, then flour your disc of dough. Roll with even pressure and turn the flattening disc often. Reflour your surface as necessary. I often pick up the widening circle of dough on opposite ends and circulate it, in a rather "Mr. Miyagi/wax on, wax off" way, so that I know it never sticks to my rolling surface. Wooden straight and French-style rolling pins are also great, and I got used to using one in pastry school. Just remember not to wet-wash it. It's wood and will rot and splinter if in regular contact with water. For cleanup, just allow buttery bits to dry and then scrape off with a dry, rough-surface towel or bowl scraper. This is one reason I really like the silicone pins. They offer the same even weight as a French wooden pin, but with an easy-to-clean surface. Just keep it away from knives, box graters, and other pointed surfaces when you store it, so as not to tear up the soft silicone surface.

Lattice-top fruit pies are just about the prettiest things on the planet! But lattice work takes some practice, in my opinion, so an easy way out is to use small shaped cutters. The end result is a pretty darn beautiful pie that still has the venting needed for the water in fruit pies to escape during the baking process. Scraps of leftover dough can be rekneaded and frozen until later use. For lattice-top pies, I will often insert a baking sheet with a lip (jelly-roll pan) on the rack below the pie in order to catch fruit drippings that bubble out over the lattice.

All the best with your pie-baking this holiday season, and just remember, nothing beats homemade pie crust. Really, after you become a whiz at this, the supermarket version will truly pale in comparison!


Penny said...

I confess that I usually fall back on store-bought crusts. But I will use your tips next time!

Jennifer said...

Riley's galette crust (your recipe) was much better than her first attempt (Williams-Sonoma). Thanks!

uncharted said...

This was very helpful! In the past when I've had pie crust trouble, it usually had to do with the dough being either too dry or two sticky - even though I followed the proportions of ingredients in the recipe to a "t". I often would just balance it out by either adding more flour or adding more liquid... any suggestions there?


Adding teaspoonsful of ice water is the best way to bring a crust together, but I will say this recipe here is A+, so you shouldn't have any problems bringing it together. Try it and let me know what you think!

Amber said...

I love to bake, but have never tried homemade crust. Everyone else focuses on taste, and I think store bought taste good enough (the rolling out part seems like a HUGE hassle). But your preservative comments have swayed me so I will try this recipe ... maybe tonight. I'll keep you posted!