I used to make the best pie crust ever. It was easy to work with and baked up perfectly flaky and crisp.
And then, a few years ago, I decided to take hydrogenated oils out of our diet completely. This has been a mostly-easy process because most of the things with HVO are garbage we shouldn’t be eating anyway. (Except for that big bag of meatballs they sell at Costco. Why do they need to imbue meat with HVO? I’m still missing those.)
Easy except for pie. Because that pie crust I’d perfected? It was effortlessly flaky because of shortening. I thought it would be as simple as replacing the shortening with butter, but a light, flaky, just-right all-butter crust has mostly eluded me. Some of my crusts have had the texture of cardboard. Some have just been OK. None of them has been perfectly delicious.
More than anything, though, what has made me crazy about it was just how hard it is to work with butter. (Maybe it would be easier if I bought a food processor…but I don’t want to buy one just to make crust. And part of me thinks I should be able to do it with the tools I already have.) The butter has to be cold to end up with flaky crust, but cutting in cold (or frozen) butter is a miserable experience. It takes forever. And the dough seemed impossible to roll out. One time I nearly started weeping, I was so frustrated with rolling out my crust.
But I persevered. This fall, I resolved to figure out this issue once and for all, so that I could bring some perfect pies to Thanksgiving and put to rest my mother’s doubt that an all-butter pie crust could ever be good. I am the Dessert Aunt, after all. I won’t allow pie crust to be my kryptonite. (That would be cheesecake, which I also think I mastered recently.)
As I also have had problems getting my berry pies to thicken properly, I put that on my list of November projects.
And after several delicious experiments, here’s a list of all the pie secrets I have learned:
- Make your crust in a dry kitchen. If you’re doing anything that makes steam—boiling potatoes, running the dishwasher, hanging out while someone handwashes the pans—it’s harder to get the moisture content right. No steam!
- Make a double recipe. If you’re going to the effort of making pie crust, double the recipe. If you don’t need all four, freeze two. Your future self will be grateful to have two prepared crusts. But: don’t try to roll out frozen pie crust. It will only make you cry.
- Nearly every pie crust recipe is the same. What changes is mostly technique and liquid. I haven’t tried the vodka recipe so I can’t speak to it, but otherwise the basic recipe is nearly always:
2 ½ cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 T sugar
1 cup butter (purists will say only use non-salted, but purists are fancier than I; I use salted butter)
¾ cup (about) some liquid—water, eggs, vinegar, vodka
- Fewer eggs, but still: eggs. The recipe I started with (the one with shortening) has one egg for a double crust. I doubled everything (to make 4 crusts) except the eggs. After trying one with eggs and one without, I think the egg makes the crust tenderer and more flavorful, but two eggs made it harder to roll out. So if you’re just making one batch, use ½ of a beaten egg.
- Grate the frozen butter. I do this with my Bosch, but if you have a box grater that will work, too. It will just take a little bit longer. Use the big grate side. I mix all of the dry ingredients, then pour half into the bottom of the bowl. Grate the butter on top of the flour, then pour it all back into the bowl with the rest of the dry ingredients. Then, use your pastry cutter to mix everything together. You don’t technically cut it in; mostly you’re just mixing to make sure all of the butter is coated with flour.
- Don’t be afraid of the liquid. Even though that really is the frustrating part about making pie crust: the right amount of liquid makes or breaks it. Too little and it won’t stick together, too much and you lose the flakiness. But no one will stick to an exact amount. You just have to try until you get it right. Make sure the liquid is as cold as possible. I fill up a 2-cup glass measure with ice, water, and 2 T of vinegar, and then I put it in the freezer while I do the flour/butter part. You have to get your hands involved with this part of the process. Pour in some liquid and start stirring it in with a rubber spatula—it’s sort of a folding action. Fold, spin the bowl, fold. Add some more water and repeat. Then, when you think it’s ready, start using your hands instead of the spatula. Add a little and see if the whole mass will stick together, by trying to form it into a ball. If it crumbles when you squeeze it together, it needs more water. Add it slowly at this point. You might be able to start making balls in layers—the top might come together but then bottom might still need more water.
- You have to chill the dough. I already knew this, but I did try once to roll it out right after I made it. It was an impossible sticky mess. Squish each ball into a disk, and then cover each piece with plastic wrap. Put all four into a Ziplock bag, and squeeze out as much air as you can.
- Speaking of rolling out: go read this post at Smitten Kitchen right now. My mom taught me that you should use the least amount of flour possible when you’re rolling out your crust, to prevent too much flour getting in and making the crust dry. But I decided to try this method of rolling out, and OMG. It took three minutes to roll out a crust. Fewer than three minutes. It was so easy. And the crust was still delicious.
- The secret to making non-runny berry pies: cook some of the berries. For a raspberry pie in a regular (non-deep-dish) pie pan, do this:
3 pounds berries (this is 4 of the containers from Costco)
1 cup sugar
2 T Minute tapioca
2 T corn starch
1/3 cup cran-raspberry juice
juice of ½ lemon
Wash the berries. In a big bowl, mix the sugar, tapioca, and cinnamon. Stir in the berries and let sit for about an hour. Position a sieve or strainer over a saucepan; pour the (now juicy) berries into the strainer so that the juice drains out. Ad the cran-raspberry juice, the lemon juice, and the corn starch. Stir until smooth. Add about 1 cup berries. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened. Pour over the remaining berries and stir to combine. Then pour them over the bottom crust in your pie pan. Top with remaining crust. Bake at 400 for 15 minutes and then 350 for about another half hour.
- Buy the right amount of apples. I like to make a deep dish apple pie, but I am never sure how many apples to buy. This year I paid attention: 8 normal-sized apples. (Not the small ones, in other words.) Some of my other apple pie secrets:
- After you peel, core, and dice the apples, toss them with some lemon juice and a capful of vanilla. It adds a warmth to the apples.
- Cinnamon is not the only spice! I put nutmeg, ginger, and cloves in my apple pie. This might offend an apple pie purist, but who cares?
- Use a combination of white sugar and brown. It helps the filling set up better.
- Glaze the pie! I’ve always skipped this step as just seemed unnecessary. This year I glazed both pies with egg mixed with cream. They were much prettier than any other year!
- Reheat the pie. I’ve never quite been able to get the timing right on Thanksgiving pies. When do you bake them while your oven is so busy, so that they’re hot when you’re ready to eat? In theory I guess you could bake them while you’re eating dinner, but then you’d have to make them just before dinner (because filling sitting on that uncooked bottom crust will make it soggy). Instead, bake the pie in the morning, and then put the pie, covered loosely with tinfoil, into a 300-degree oven for about 20 minutes. The tin foil will help it not to burn, and it will be nicely warmed. (This is how to reheat a slice of pie for breakfast the next day—or the rest of the weekend, depending on how much leftover pie you have—except just put the slice in the toaster oven. If you reheat your pie in the microwave, I’m not sure we can still be friends!)
So! Those are all of the pie secrets I know. Do you know any I missed?