Friday, June 10, 2011

Tender and Flaky Pie Crust

Easy as pie?  For a lot of people, this saying doesn’t make sense.  Just the thought of making a pie crust can scare even experienced home cooks.  And I can’t blame them.  There is a lot that can go wrong; and if you don’t know what’s going wrong, you can’t fix it.

The ingredients themselves are very simple:  flour, salt, shortening, and water.  Some recipes call for sugar to make the crust itself sweet.  I prefer to let all the sweetness come from the filling.

The process of putting those simple ingredients together is where it gets tricky.  An ideal pie crust is tender and flaky, yet holds together.  To achieve this, it is necessary to get thin layers of fat (shortening) sandwiched between thin layers of flour.  All the techniques involved in making a good crust have this goal in mind.

Black=flour, orange=shortening
You can tell I'm not the artist of the family.

The fist step is to start with the correct amount of flour and incorporate air into it by sifting.  Contrary to popular belief, the main purpose of sifting flour is not to get the lumps out, though that definitely is one result.  The number one reason to sift is for consistent and accurate volumetric measurement.  If you measure one cup of packed flour, you will end up with more by weight than if you measure sifted flour.  Considering I have four kids and a crazy buys life, I generally skip the sifting step and just stir the flour with a chopstick before measuring.  But not when making pie crusts—they are just too delicate and fussy.

I prefer the crank version of a sifter rather than the spring-
loaded tricker kind--it's not as tiring.
I usually do this right in the flour canister...

...thus preventing this.

Level off with a chopstick of the backside of a knife.

Don't have a flour sifter?  Use a sieve.

I keep my leveling chopstick in the canister and use
it to aerate the flour when I'm not sifting.

Second, you want to cut the shortening into the flour, not mix it in.  The result of cutting in is small pieces of shortening, each coated with flour.  After rolling, these pieces will end up as the thin layers of fat in the above diagram.  A pastry blender is the best tool for cutting in flour.  Some cookbooks instruct you to use two knives if you don’t have one.  I suggest buying a pastry blender.  The results are so worth it and you can use it for any recipe requiring cutting in (e.g. biscuits, streusel topping).

I would guess the third step is where most people make a mistake.  You need to incorporate some water, but you want to do so without mushing all those shortening pieces and flour together, ending up with a homogenous, gooey mixture.  Using ice-cold water will help prevent this by firming up the shortening.  You also do not want to stir the water in.  Rather, drizzle the water in slowly while tossing the flour mixture with a fork.  Purposefully drizzle the water on dry particles and use as little water as possible—there will still be some dry pieces.  Avoid the temptation to add too much water, mix the dough, or overwork it!!!

To be sure the water is as cold as possible, I get it ready
before I gather up any of the other ingredients.  I added
another cube to this bowl a few minutes before using it.

You should toss while adding the water, but I just can't do
both of those things and take a picture at the same time.

Avoid the strong temptation to toss more than this!!

Even once the dough is correctly mixed, it can still turn into a flop if it is not properly rolled.  To once again firm up those fat particles and prevent mushing, wrap your pie crust dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least half an hour before rolling.

Yes, it's supposed to look crumbly.

Carefully, with as little manipulation as possible, form the chilled dough into a ball and place on a lightly floured surface.  Roll away from you with firm pressure.  Lift the dough and turn it a quarter turn, giving your surface a light dusting of flour if necessary.  You can also lightly dust the top of the crust if it is sticking to the rolling pin.  Roll away from you again, make a quarter turn, dust with flour, and repeat.  Continue rolling until your crust is about one-and-a-half inches larger than your inverted pie plate.

I use my Pampered Chef shaker to get a fine, uniform dusting.

After first roll...

...quarter turn, dusting of flour...

...second roll, repeat.

As the dough gets to large to lift to dust underneath, simply
fold over half, dust, then fold back the other way
to dust the other half.

If you get tears, holes, thin spots, or just a weird shape, DO NOT start over!  This will result in overworked dough and a tough pie crust.  Simply cut off an extra piece and patch it together with the next pass of the rolling pin.

Definitely not the ideal pie shape.

Cut off from here...

...add here.

Once the dough is large enough, carefully transfer it to your pie plate.  I do this by wrapping it around my rolling pin then unrolling it into the pie plate.

Be careful not to let the weight of the rolling pin
mash one edge into the other.

Cut off excess dough so that you still have a quarter-inch left around the top.  Tuck the edge under and flute, if desired.

There are tools to do this.  You won't find one in my kitchen.

Baking temperature and time will vary depending on the filling.  I filled mine with strawberry and added a top crust.  Rather than using a second large sheet of dough for the top, I cut out hearts and slightly overlapped them.  A lattice top would work too.  The main key is to leave gaps for steam to escape.

If you attempt a pie crust and it doesn’t turn out, don’t give up!  The more you make, the better they will get.  Pretty soon they truly will be easy as pie!

Tender and Flaky Pie Crust
2 c. sifted flour
1 tsp. salt            
⅔ c. shortening
6-8 Tbsp. ice water

Mix flour and salt in medium bowl.  Cut in shortening.  Drizzle in ice water 1 Tbsp. at a time while tossing with fork until most flour is moistened.  Divide dough in half and wrap each half in plastic wrap.  Refrigerate at least 30 minutes.  Form into ball, roll to desired size on lightly floured surface.  Transfer to pie plate and bake according to filling directions.

*Of course you can’t let all the scraps go to waste.  Make pie crust cookies!  I give Keanna the extras and let her go at it.  Cut out desired shapes, sprinkle with sugar, bake at 400° until golden brown.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a photo before they all got eaten.


StaceyN said...

I LOVE the idea of cutting out shapes for the top... WAY easier than rolling. I'll have to remember that one.

I used to make crusts the way you do, but I think I’m too lazy now LOL! Now I just throw all of the ingredients (minus water) into the food processor and pulse until it looks grainy. Then I add water and pulse a little more. I dampen my countertop and lay down plastic wrap, put the dough ball on top and cover with another piece of plastic. Then I roll the dough between the two layers of plastic, and it never touches the rolling pin (one less thing to wash). When I’m ready to put it into the pie pan, I just peel off one piece of plastic, lay the crust into the pan and gently pull off the other piece of plastic. The plastic seems to keep it from coming apart when I’m putting it into the pie pan (a serious challenge for me before). I think I will try wrapping it around the rolling pin like you do next time.

I will often make up a number of dough balls while I have my food processor out. Then I wrap them in plastic and freeze. When I want to make a pie, I just leave one or two out on the counter for a couple of hours before rolling.

I used to have a sifter, too, but I could never seem to use it without making a preschooler-ish mess :-). I have found that banging the side of the measuring cup full of flour a few times with a butter knife works just as well to remove air pockets and clumps, and then my countertop doesn’t look like my two year old tried to cook, hee-hee.

Since my family LOVES fruit pies, I try to make “health-pies” (not to be confused with mud pies!). I make the crust out of fresh-ground whole wheat pastry flour and butter. Then I use fruit mixed with one can of white grape juice concentrate and some tapioca plus corn starch to thicken. It ends up very sweet, but without refined sugar. My people love it, but unfortunately it costs more than a regular sugar pie because a can of white grape juice costs $1.88 at Winco (ugh). but it does mean we can have pie for breakfast!!

I’m excited to try out shapes for the pie top. My kiddos will love helping with that! Thank you for the idea. Have you ever tried covering the bottom of the pan with shapes instead of rolling? That would be fun as long as the crust didn’t shrink away from the sides. Any thoughts?

Umm, sorry my comments are always so long :-).

Anonymous said...

You can also make fruity cookies by cutting circles out with a cup and layering with jelly. Very good!

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