The perfect pie crust: light, delicate & so flaky it practically shatters when you touch it with a fork. Making a pie crust from scratch to meet those standards is a skill that takes a little piece of practice & a slice of serendipity.
Pie crust can be a bit temperamental and while pastry dough is essentially just three ingredients: flour, shortening & water; the simplicity of the ingredients ingredients is made up for by complexity in technique.
My mother is an excellent pie crust maker and while I don’t think I’ve quite reached her level of pastry proficiency, I had the privilege of learning from the best and can share a few of her secrets of success.
1. Select your shortening: You want a fat that is solid at room temperature for pie crust (not an oil). Butter is a possibility but a fat with a higher melting point like vegetable shortening or lard works best. My mom always uses lard.
Lard is rendered pork fat. Although the idea may conjure up images of bacon grease, lard is white, odorless and it does not have a pork flavor. Once the fat of choice for many cooking applications especially on the farm, lard fell from favor due to its saturated fat content. But fresh lard does not have trans-fats, so while it’s not a health food it may not be such a villain either.
2. Less is more: Keep your mixing to a minimum throughout the whole process from cutting the shortening into the flour to stirring in the water. You also want to handle the dough as little as possible (no kneading) and it’s always best when you can roll it out once.
The trick here is all about avoiding the development of the gluten in the dough. Gluten is a protein naturally found in wheat and some other grains and it’s a good thing in breads and cookies because it gives the dough elasticity, giving rise to a soft texture. But too much gluten development in pie crust makes it tough and dense rather than light and flaky.
3. Cold is key: Use cold shortening, ice cold water and chill your dough before (and maybe after) you roll it out. Cold ingredients also help keep gluten development to a minimum in order to maximize your flakiness factor.
4. Tools of the Trade: The culinary weapons of choice for my mom’s method of making pie crust are an old fashioned pastry blender, a fork and a rolling pin. In pie crust, you don’t want your shortening to be creamed – crumbled is what you’re after. Using a pastry blender (or two knives) and a fork can help you achieve the optimum amount of mixing (see #2)
5. Practice makes perfect: As with many skills in the kitchen, successfully making pie crust from scratch may take a few tries. But the reward for your efforts (even the flops) can be pretty delicious!
Homemade Pie Crust
Single Pie crust:
- 1/3 cup shortening
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 3-4 Tbsp. cold water
Double Pie Crust:
- 2/3 cup shortening
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 5-7 Tbsp. cold water
- Cut shortening into flour with pastry blender just until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
- Add cold water and stir with a fork until just moistened.
- Form dough into a ball with hands.
- Place in refrigerator to chill.
- With a floured rolling pin, roll crust out on lightly floured surface to desired size.
- Gently fold crust into quarters and transfer to pie pan.
- Unfold and trim edges evenly.
- Fill with your choice of pie filling.
- For a two crust pie – repeat the roll out step for the top crust. Lay over top of filling. Trim edges evenly and seal by pressing edges together firmly. Cut slits in top crust to vent.
- Pinch all the way around to form fluted edge.
- Bake according to the directions for your specific type of pie.