There are many ways to approach making pie, and all good ones have merit.
There are also countless ways to screw up pie, too, and through the years I've made nearly every mistake. Getting comfortable with pie dough takes practice, but not an insurmountable amount. Like any dough, you get a sense of what it's supposed to feel and look like at certain stages, cutting out the need to follow a recipe. I have made off-the-cuff pie in rental cabins and friends' apartments using wine bottles as rolling pins and the results have always been edible, if not downright delicious. There aren't any secrets. You just need to have some common sense and a near-foolproof formula for pie dough in your back pocket.
Here, how to make + master pie crust:
Pick out a trustworthy recipe
There are several options, and nearly every all-purpose baking book includes one. Sometimes it's called pâte brisée, sometimes it has egg, sometimes it's made with lard, or a mix of butter and lard, or straight-up butter or shortening. It's really up to you, but when you get started, pick out a simple recipe with few ingredients.
The most important factor is the ratio between flour to fat. For an all-butter crust that does not include egg, 1 cup/140 g flour to 7 tablespoons / 100 g butter is my gold standard.
The following is the basic dough recipe I use for any double-crust pie. It also yields 2 9-inch tart shells, or 2 to 4 galettes:
- 14 T / 200 g unsalted butter, cold, cubed
- 2 cups / 280 g flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup ice water
When getting the hang of handling pie crust, it can be nice to have extra dough in case you need to patch a piece that ripped or to ensure you have enough overhang. Williams-Sonoma has an excellent deep-dish pie recipe that makes a larger batch of dough than the recipe I use, allowing more room for error when rolling and shaping.
Get your hands dirty
There is no shame in using a food processor to make pie dough. (The Williams-Sonoma recipe link above provides good instructions for how to do it.) But when I taught myself how to make pie crust, I found that using my hands gave me a better sense of how the dough looks and feels throughout the process. Plus, it's easier cleanup.
Here's what to do:
- Grab a large bowl that will allow plenty of room for mixing the flour and butter with your hands.
- Ensure the butter is cold.
- Mix the flour and salt together with your hands or a whisk. You can use plain-old AP (all-purpose) or a mix of AP and rye flour or cornmeal. You can even go all whole-wheat. (For whole-wheat crusts, I add a spoonful of sugar to the dough.) If it's a hot day in the kitchen, throw the bowl of flour in the freezer with the butter for a few minutes to ensure everything is cold before proceeding.
- Gently rub the butter into the flour using your thumb and fingertips, running your hands over different areas until all the butter cubes have been rubbed into the flour and the flour has small and pea-size pieces of butter in it. The variation in size of the butter bits gives the crust a cool, marbled effect when you roll it out, and it's also what will make the crust flakey. When done, it will look something like the photo above.
I used to be so stingy with adding water to dough because everything I read said that more water will take away some of the flakiness of the crust. Now I feel it's OK to sacrifice a bit of flake in favor of dough that stays together and rolls out beautifully.
Here's how to proceed:
- Pour the ice water over the flour/butter. I fill a Pyrex liquid measuring cup with the water and then float a couple of ice cubes on top to ensure the water is cold.
- Using your fingers, gently mix the water into the flour. Then use the palm of your hand to pat the dough into the base of the bowl. Fold the crumbly dough over itself.
- When you first add the water to the dough, it may not look like enough, but it will probably be fine once the flour has had a chance to absorb the water and rest. Have an extra tablespoon or so on hand just in case.
Give it a gentle knead
After a few more gentle patting and folding reps (light kneading), the dough will start to look like the dough above. If it is crumbly at this point, here is where to sprinkle a tad more water over the surface. I find that 1/4 cup is generally plenty for 2 cups of flour.
Roll into a cylinder
I put the dough on a clean surface. The dough is pretty sturdy, so it won't need a bunch of flour to keep it from sticking. But add a dusting of flour if you want to be sure.
Divide in half
Rolling the dough into a cylinder makes it easy to divide it into 2 equal halves, pictured above. A bench scraper (the plastic thing) makes this easy work, but a butter knife works, too.
Pat into discs
When the pie dough is shaped into a round, like a hamburger patty, before it's time to roll out, it's much easier to roll the pie dough into a round. Plus, you can see all those neat swirls, which means the dough will hold its shape while you roll it but still be flakey when it bakes. These rounds get wrapped up in plastic wrap and refrigerated for at least an hour or up to 3 days. They also can be frozen for about 1 month.
Roll out the dough
This step requires the most practice, but it is not difficult to get the hang of it. If the dough starts to stick to the rolling pin, chances are it is becoming too warm and it's a good idea to chill it before proceeding.
Here's what to do:
- If the dough is straight from the refrigerator, let it sit for 10 or so minutes to make it easier on yourself.
- Put the dough on a lightly floured work surface and flatten out with your fingertips. I like working on the wooden board (pictured above) that I've used since high school, but any kind of flat surface will do. You may want to roll it out onto parchment, which can be great if you're making galettes and want to transfer the dough straight onto a baking sheet. Parchment paper also makes it easy to move the crust if it starts to get too warm.
- Using a rolling pin, roll the dough into a round. I generally start in the center of the dough and roll upward, giving the dough a quarter turn often to keep it from sticking to the bottom. Generally, 13 inches is standard-issue for pie dimensions.
Shape the dough in the pan
With a well-made, not-too-crumbly dough, this should be easy.
- Fold the dough into quarters, dusting off flour if it's excessive, gently drape it into a pie pan, and unfold.
- Chill the dough before adding filling or blind-baking it. This helps the dough relax so it won't shrink up as much when baking. For a double-crust pie, I chill the base while rolling out the top crust.
And really, that's it. The long-form way on how to make pie crust. If that's too many words, It really comes down to this: "Make the dough; chill. Roll out into a 13-inch round, put in pan. Crimp, chill, fill, bake. DONE"