I love to bake. Cooking is great and all, but I’ll take a slice of cake over a bowl of pasta any day. As the temperature has continued to climb this past week, so too has my level of craving for the perfect summer dessert: pie.
I’m so often told by people that they’re terrified of making pie dough. Seems like everyone I know has a great recipe for pie – typically endowed by a grandmother – that they make using a store-bought dough. Tragedy.
I’m here today to be your guide. Pie dough is not scary, it won’t bite you. It does, however, make all the difference between an okay pie and an “I swear, just one last piece” pie. So please, do me a favor and commit to making your own pie dough. It’ll change everything.
Makes 2 crusts for an (8- or 9-inch) pie
3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup vegetable shortening, cut into small cubes
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup ice water, as needed
PULL IT ALL TOGETHER
If you’re one of those people that’s leery of pie dough, I feel it’s likely because you’ve been watching these cooking shows where the host talks about all the things NOT to do to dough. “Don’t work it too much, don’t talk too loud, don’t look at it funny.” “Take it easy,” I say to these people. It’s hardly brain surgery.
There is truth, however, in being aware of the temperature of the dough. The fat needs to be cold when you’re mixing the dough together. If it’s not, the dough will be greasy. Cube the fat up and put it in the freezer for 15 minutes – that should do the trick.
GET TO RUBBING
Chefs call the technique used to prepare pie dough “rubbing”. Literally, it’s as simple as rubbing the cubes of cold fat into the flour and salt to blend everything together into a shaggy mixture. This technique keeps big pieces of fat present in the dough which, once baked, are what keeps the dough nice and flaky.
You may have heard of using a pastry cutter or two knives to do this. That’s certainly acceptable, I just like to use my hands. This is the part where, once you begin, you should aim to finish somewhat quickly – remember, keep that butter cold!
FLAKY OR MEALY?
Professional chefs will tell you that there are two kinds of pie dough: flaky and mealy. Flaky crust is used for non-liquid or cooked fillings – things like fruit pies where the filling is made with raw or cooked product. It keeps its namesake texture by keeping the pieces of fat a bit larger during rubbing. To make flaky pie dough, dial back the rubbing to keep the pieces of fat no smaller than a pea (the picture below is of a flaky dough).
Mealy dough has a less flaky texture and is what to use when making a pie with a liquid or custard filling, like pumpkin pie or quiche. Having a more dense texture for fillings like this will keep them from getting soggy and hold up better when removing a slice. To make mealy pie dough, rub the fat in completely so that the mixture resembles cornmeal.
ADD WATER SPARINGLY
When it comes to adding the cold water, be sparing. Start with about half the amount that the recipes calls for. Using a fork, mix the dough together and add more water, a teaspoon or so at a time, as needed.
The goal here is to get a dough that is just hydrated enough to be gathered together into a ball. It will be a little bit sticky, but shouldn’t feel damp. It may seem like some spots of the dough are more wet than others – that’s okay. As the dough rests, the moisture will distribute and evenly hydrate the dough.
LET IT REST
Pie dough may not be complicated to make, but it does take time. Letting the dough rest is a key step in getting it ready to be rolled out and baked. Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap, press it down into a disk about 3/4-inch thick, and wrap it tightly. Refrigerate the dough until it feels firm, at least 1 hour and even up to overnight. This gives the fat time to firm up and water time to evenly hydrate the dough, setting you up for perfect dough.
That’s it – you’re done! Use the dough in your grandma’s heirloom recipe or check back in next week for my post on how to make a perfect lattice-top pie with my favorite filling: blueberry & white peach.
Patrick W. Decker’s life revolves around food. Always has, probably always will. As a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America and past member of the culinary teams for Food Network stars Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee, Bobby Deen and Paula Deen, he now works as a food stylist and producer in NYC by day and a food writer and recipe developer at his home in New York’s Hudson Valley by night. You can see what he’s up to by following him on Instagram at @patrickwdecker or visiting his website at patrickwdecker.com.