Baking flaky pastry dough can be one of the most satisfying yet difficult tasks in the kitchen.
Pie crust was one of the first things I learned to make when I was a teenager. It’s amazing with all the pie crust experience I have, I still seemed to get inconsistent results with each pie or quiche I made. Sometimes it would be perfect, other times it would be tough or would fall apart while trying to roll it out. Part of my problem was my infrequent pastry dough baking.
I would only make dough two or three times a year and would throw caution to the wind with my methods of preparation. In order to get a crust that is consistently flaky and buttery, one must adhere to a few simple steps.
The pie gods demand a homemade pie crust to showcase the filling to its fullest expression. Have no fear, Bessie is here to show you how to bake the most delicious pastry dough time and time again!
The process you use to make a pastry dough is by far the most important. There are many different varieties of pastry dough that can be used for tarts, custard fillings, quiche, etc. French pastry doughs have different applications for mixing the dough. The method I prefer for a pie crust with fruit fillings stays the same no matter what recipe I use.
However, I have come up with what I feel is the perfect pie crust recipe. I have tried numerous recipes over the years and the one that works like a charm every time has a mixture of butter (for flavor) and shortening (for flakiness). A small addition of vodka helps to slow gluten formation because its 40% alcohol. Less water means a flakier crust. For years I have marveled at my dad’s pie crust.
His trick is to add an egg to help bind the ingredients. Many professionals urge against adding an egg because it adds too much moisture. So I came up with a compromise and added only the egg white to help with binding. I have tried recipes from cookbooks and online sources who claim they have tested over 100 recipes to get the perfect crust. When I put this recipe up against any others, I still find this one to be the flakiest I have ever tried, and less tricky to roll out. It’s win-win!
Thou shalt keep all ingredients cold. That means placing the mixing bowl, liquids, flour, butter, and shortening (or other fat) in the freezer for about 20 minutes prior to mixing. If the fat is too warm, it will melt in the dough. You need the flour and fat to be separated so that the when steam is released from the fat, you have pockets of flaky dough, versus dough that is all the same texture.
Thou shalt cut in fat. Whether you mix by hand with a pastry cutter or by mechanical means with a food processor, one must “cut in” the butter or fat until it’s distributed in small chunks throughout the flour mixture. Again, this will allow the fat to be separated so that steam pockets create a flaky texture.
Thou shalt not over-mix. Only mix the dough until it starts to come together when pressed between your fingers. It will still be loose and crumbly, but over-mixing, once the liquids are added, activates the gluten, thereby creating a tough crust.
Thou shalt rest the dough. Resting the dough in the fridge for one hour (or up to 24 hours) allows the gluten to relax and the fat to chill once again. It will be much easier to roll out once it has properly rested. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge. Once I have rolled out and shaped the dough in a pie dish, I like to pop it back in the freezer (especially if my kitchen is warm) for 10 minutes to firm back up.
Thou shalt make two crusts at a time. Ok, so I know this isn’t really necessary, but if you are going to need one pie crust, you might as well make two and freeze the second for future use. A standard food processor is big enough to make dough for two crusts.
Extra tip: Although I know of many people who can easily roll out pie dough without tearing it, I seem to be one who needs a little assistance in this department. Rolling the dough out between two layers of plastic wrap keeps the dough together perfectly.
Once the crust is rolled, the plastic removes easily. To place in a pie shell, simply remove the top layer of plastic and invert in a pie shell. Gently press it into the shell and remove the second layer of plastic and shape the edges. Chill the dough uncovered for 20 minutes before blind-baking or filling. This will help to reduce what George Castanza so memorably called, SHRINKAGE!
How about a Peach Crostata with Spiced Crumble that you bake right on a sheet pan?
Once you get comfortable making your own pie crust, you won’t want to buy store-bought ever again!
Bon Appetit Ya’ll,
Perfect Pie Crust
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 1 Tbsp . sugar or 1/2 Tbsp. for savory quiches
- 3/4 tsp . salt
- 1/2 cup shortening
- 1/2 cup or 1 stick of butter
- 2 Tbsp . cold water
- 2 Tbsp . cold vodka
- 1 egg white
This recipe works well in a food processor, but you can use a pastry cutter to mix by hand.
Cut the butter and shortening into small cubes.
Mix the water and vodka.
Mix the flour, sugar, and salt together.
Put the mixing bowl or food processor bowl, along with the butter, shortening, and water/vodka mixture in the freezer for 15-20 minutes or until all ingredients are very cold.
Take ingredients out of the freezer and add half of the dry ingredients and all of the butter and shortening and pulse until the fat is in tiny chunks.
Add the rest of the flour and pulse two or three more times until just combined.
Mix the beaten egg white into the water and vodka mixture. Pulse in the liquids until the dough just starts to come together when pressed between your fingers. The mixture will still be crumbly.
Press dough together into a thick flat disk and cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for 30 minutes to one hour, or up to 24 hours.
Take the dough out of the fridge and split into two disks. Cover the extra disk and place back in the fridge if you are using both crusts, or freeze for later use.
Roll the dough out in between two sheets of wax paper or lightly greased parchment paper.
Remove from paper and shape in a pie pan.
Place in the freezer for about 20 minutes to re-firm.
Bake as needed.