The #1 reason people tell me they don't make pie at home is that they're intimidated by making the crust. I often hear things like 'doesn't it take a skilled baker?' or 'isn't the pre-made stuff just as good?'. I am here to tell you that both of those things are far from true.
To move past this fear, the first step is to admit this is a totally rational feeling. You should never feel silly for being intimidated by something you haven't tried before. The second step is to know, understand and believe that it is actually easy. You may be thinking "of course she thinks it's easy because she cooks for a living and has done this a bunch." I thank you for giving me the benefit of the doubt, but in reality, it's just really not that hard. I will say, it's kind of messy, so be prepared for a bit of kitchen clean up. The end result is totally worth it, though. Making pie dough from scratch is about to become the easiest part of making pie and it's freakin' delicious. With that said, if you try this and mess up the first time, try it again. Don't give up on yourself (or pie!) that easily!
Now, let's begin. If you've done what I often do, and just scrolled through this post you're probably thinking that this looks like a heavy post, filled with lots of information, but don't let that deter you. It's information that is helpful to know in order to make your pie dough creating experience much better. It's kind of like checkers - once you learn a few basic moves, it's actually really simple.
Flour, Fat and Moisture
Pie dough is all about ratios and the only thing that is "hard" about it is understanding how flour, fat and moisture work together.
A brief note about flour: I use the same brand of flour (Bob's Red Mill) anytime I make pie crusts. This way, I know how it will react to my liquid. The important thing to remember here is brand doesn't really matter. Consistency does.
LIQUID TO FLOUR (GENERAL) RATIO
- 1/4 cup flour : 1 Tbsp liquid
This ratio is generalized, meaning you may end up using a little more or less liquid to flour depending on how dry your flour is or how humid the air in your kitchen is (wait don't leave - it's not really that complicated!). We'll ignore the chemistry behind this to simplify it - all you need to learn is how the dough should look (see graphics in the Visual Guide at the bottom of this post). Once you know that, you can tell if it needs more water or not. If you aren't confident on whether your dough is too dry, just remember it's always better to err on the side of too much liquid than too little, here. Any liquids you add to your dough should be ice cold.
FAT TO FLOUR RATIO
- 1/4 cup flour : 2 Tbsp Fat
In this instance, any 'solid' fat will work. You can use butter, shortening (even the vegan shortening), lard, or others like coconut or palm oil as the fat in your crust. (All of these really do work, just not all the same way. Once you've got the basics down, start experimenting!) I prefer butter - the fresher the better, because mmmm...fresh butter - but whichever you use just make sure that it is cold. Heat is also an enemy of flakey crust, until we bake, so be sure all of your ingredients stay cold while working your dough. If using shortening or lard, I suggest placing it in the freezer for 15 minutes before adding it to your crust. If using butter, keep the sticks in the freezer and cut them when ready to use. For blending the fat into the flour, you can use a food processor, pastry blender, two knives or even your hands. My hands are naturally hot and end up melting the butter too quickly, so I prefer a pastry blender over knives and a food processor over everything.
Alcohol or vinegar
Using a small amount of alcohol or vinegar in your pie crust will promote tenderness of the crust and guard against overworking the dough. They both inhibit our frenemy Gluten from forming when the water and flour combines. Gluten is great in bread, but not usually pastry - it causes shrinkage in the oven and can make the crust tough.
As I mentioned earlier, until you're ready to bake, heat is the enemy of making good pie dough. In order to get that delicious flaky crust, the fat needs to stay in solid pieces while being worked into the dough. If it melts and breaks down too much, it will create a tough dough. Try to touch your dough as little as possible - this is why I prefer using a food processor over my hands to work in the fat. Ambient temperature can influence your dough, as well. If it's warmer than 72 degrees in your house, I suggest placing all of your ingredients and mixing bowl in the freezer for at least 15 minutes prior to use, this will help to keep your fat cold for longer as you work it.