1) The Secret to an Amazing Pie Crust Is You
Cooking in any form is part science and part art. Nowhere is this perhaps better understood than in baking. Baking relies on the chemistry of several items working together to produce something surprisingly wonderful.
Think about it.
The best bread often contains only oil, salt, yeast, water, and flour. The best pie crust contains only fat, water, salt, and flour. Yet, as is the case with so many other seemingly simple things, taking those four ingredients and turning them into something wonderful requires practice and artistry aplenty.
Anyone who tries to tell you that they have the “secret” to making the best version of anything is either full of themselves or selling something. There is no single secret to excellent, flaky, tender pie crust, but there are little tricks to be done with each of the ingredients. These tricks, along with patience and practice, will have you making better and better pie crusts each and every time you make one.
Note: For the purposes of this post, we will only be talking about flour-based pie crust. No graham crackers were crumbled or otherwise harmed in the making of this article.
2) Fat: The Top Pie Crust Secret
If you grew up in the seventies or eighties, then you probably ate quite a few pies whose crusts were composed using partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or shortening. In those decades, fat was a no-no and American cooking strayed as far from natural as it possibly could.
Now, natural is back and just about every accomplished baker has moved away from the shortening yesterday, to re-embrace the butter of… well — of the day before yesterday.
Most crust recipes call for either straight butter, or a combination of butter and shortening. Butter has better flavor than just about any other fat. So if you’re going for the best and you don’t care about any dietary restrictions (including weight gain), then you might just want to reach for the butter.
But make sure it’s straight-from-the-refrigerator cold. For bonus points, consider incorporating some lard into your crust in place of the shortening. It’s what your great grandmother most likely used, and it produces an amazing, light, airy texture in pie crust.
3) Flour: The Easiest Part of Pie Crust
The flour is the easiest part, provided that you are measuring it correctly. For pie crusts, a good all-purpose flour works just fine. It’s not too heavy. It won’t develop gluten as fast as bread flour. And it is substantial enough to make a good crust, unlike cake flour.
For best results, measure your flour (and other ingredients) with a scale. Whatever you do, do not tamp it down in your measuring cup.
4) Water: Everything Matters With Pie Crust
The quality of the water you use will be reflected in the quality of your pie crust — much the same way it is with pizza.
Quality crust can be made with either hard or soft water, but you may need to adjust your recipe as you discover how your water behaves with your other ingredients. Also, always use very cold water. You can set up an ice bath for your water, or just refrigerate it prior to use.
5) Equipment and Technique: How You Make the Crust
So you may have guessed by this point that correct selection and use of equipment and technique are the most important aspects of making great pie crust. If you really only need to worry about the relative temperature of two ingredients and the density of the third, then everything comes down to assembly, right? Well yes… and no.
Excellent pie crust is obtainable using a variety of tools and work surfaces, and through the employment of a variety of techniques.
What’s most important, whether you’re using a fork or a special pie crust tool, whether you’re working the dough on a marble slab or on your regular cutting board, is the amount you work with. Many of the old cookbooks recommend cutting the chilled fat into the flour and salt with your fingers, working until you get pieces or inconsistent size, roughly the size of a pea.
Work the chilled water in just until the dough comes loosely together. The reasons for these various approaches are the same: you want a loose dough (tenderness) with big pieces of un-worked butter (flakiness).
Secrets to Pie Crust (Or the Lack Thereof …)
Your attention to detail and the development of your own technique to working the dough: these are the only real secrets to an amazing pie crust. Make sure your butter and water are ice cold, don’t pack your flour, and learn through time and practice how to work the dough, and more importantly, when to stop.