Let’s talk about Pie Dough

I recently got an email from my friend Doris who wrote about her Peach pie woes. The experience of making it had been anything but “easy as pie.” It got me thinking about pie and how that old adage came to pass? Really, for whom is pie all that easy to make? Most people give up at the crust, it is hardly ever as tender or flaky as those you can buy at the bakery, and the fillings are always too runny or too bound up with starch.

I want to demystify pie making for Doris and anyone else who has fond memories of homemade pies but haven’t found a recipe that satisfies. First let’s talk about the dough. In the end it isn’t the recipes that will make or break the pie, so much as the technique used in dealing with the ingredients. I’m going to make a pie with you and show step by step how to deal with the rather simple list of ingredients: Butter, lard (or vegetable shortening), flour, ice water and a touch of baking powder to insure you don’t have a leaden crust.

First you have to have all of your ingredients COLD. The butter should be refrigerated and the lard or shortening should be frozen because it is a softer fat and will break down too quickly if it is too warm. On a hot summer day I will even start by sticking my measured ingredients in the freezer for 15-20 minutes. the trick is to keep some of the fat in pea sized pieces in the end. It is those pieces that cause the dough to have flakes. If the fat is too soft it will all blend in and you’ll loose the flakiness. So keep it cold.

I’m going to start with a basic recipe I got from a book by Madeleine Kamman called When French Women Cook. My aunt Kristin sent me this 1976 masterpiece. The recipes are basic, very old and terrific, which shows that pie making really hasn’t changed over time. The only thing I will change is to add a wee bit of baking powder. I find it gives the crust the extra rise that so many crusts are lacking. A little insurance for your first time. You can try this recipe or take out the one grandma gave you and use it instead.

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp baking powder

10 Tbls unsalted butter, chilled and cubed

8 Tbls lard or vegetable shortening, cubed and frozen

7-10 Tbls ice water

1. In a large mixing bowl whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder.

2. Add half the butter to the flour and “cut” it into the butter using your hands or two knives. I prefer to use my hands because I like to feel the consistency of the flour and butter. You want the mixture to resemble course meal. What that means is you are trying to coat the flour with the butter so the butter will tenderize the flour and prevent the crust from being tough. The flour will actually turn a slightly pale yellow color and no longer be powdery.

3. Now add the rest of the butter and just “cut” it in until you have pieces that are the size of lima beans or large peas. You still have to add the lard and you don’t want to over work the butter or you will lose all the big pieces. Those bigger pieces will cause the flakiness in the crust and are very important. At this point if your flour and butter are getting too warm you can put the whole bowl in the freezer for a few minutes to chill it down. You can do this at any point before the water is added.

4. Now add your lard or shortening. “Cut” it in until all the fat is the size of large peas. You still have to add the water so don’t overwork the butter or you’ll lose your flakes.

5. Now add about 5 Tbls of the water and toss the flour/butter mixture around until the water is incorporated. Make sure you don’t knead the dough, just toss.  Add more water 2 Tablespoons at a time until the flour no longer looks dry and the dough comes together when pressed. If the butter is getting too soft, make sure you don’t knead the dough or you will lose all the flakiness (as you can see I’m very concerned with flakiness!). Just gently press the dough together and then divide it into two equal pieces. Press the pieces into disks and wrap really well in plastic.

6. Refrigerate for at least an hour. This gives the dough time to rest so you can roll it out without it springing back on you.

From here it really depends on what kind of pie you make as to how you bake the crust.  Some pies have just a bottom crust, some a top, some are baked “blind” or empty and others are full to the brim. Tomorrow we will bake a double crusted Apple pie. It is fall in Minnesota and the apples are divine! We’ll just let our pie dough rest in the refrigerator until then.

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2 thoughts to “Let’s talk about Pie Dough”

  1. HI Zoe,

    I am from India and an avid reader of your blog. Congratulations!!! It is a wonderful blog indeed.

    Zoe, since shortening is not freely available in India, what is the next best substitute and if it is butter then do you match the same amount of it to the shortening mentioned in the recipe.

    Also some recipes call fro butter and shortening. In that case do when then use all butter???

    Looking forward to your reply.


    1. Hi Gauri,

      Yes, you can use butter in equal amounts. The butter doesn’t break down nearly as much as the shortening, so butter can be added a bit sooner, but will be fine to add at the same time I had you adding the shortening.

      I hope that helps! Here is a post using all butter in the crust: http://zoebakes.com/?p=3053

      Thanks, Zoë

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