Pie crust

I do not use lard or shortening, which limits my pie crusts to butter (or vegetable oil) crusts. Many cookbooks present specific pie-crust formulas for every pie — these are usually tweaked for quantity and flavorings — but a few offer recipes for generic “pie crust” that can be used in a variety of sizes, shapes, and applications. The generalized formula and procedure are nearly identical in most cases, but there are sometimes small differences depending on the particular flavor, texture, or ingredients the authors wish to emphasize.

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Generic all-butter pie crust

The following formula is based on the “All-Butter Crust” from Emily Elsen and Melissa Elsen, The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book (p. 207):

12½ oz (350 g) all-purpose flour
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tbl granulated sugar
½ lb (225 g) unsalted butter, cut into cubes and frozen
2 cups (480 ml) ice water (equal parts ice and water by volume)
¼ cup (60 ml) cider vinegar

My post “Tutorial: Basic pie crust in a food processor” demonstrates the process. The vinegar helps to prevent excessive gluten development and thus toughening of the dough; lemon juice can also be used, and with care, you can do entirely without. The sugar doesn’t have a huge impact on the dough, and can be left out — or it can be replaced by a flavorful fruit juice, such as apple cider or orange juice. Viscous liquid sweeteners such as molasses, honey, corn syrup, agave nectar, etc., will not combine properly with the dry ingredients, but brown sugar can be used. Some recipes add a small amount (¼ tsp) of baking powder. It’s possible to substitute the grains as well; I’ve done this half-and-half with pastry flour, and you can also substitute whole wheat or cornmeal. (The Elsens’ “Cornmeal Crust”, p. 211, swaps out 1/5 of the flour, by volume, with cornmeal, and their “Chocolate All-Butter Crust”, p. 210, uses cocoa powder in the same ratio.)

Other variations

Joanne Chang prefers egg- and dairy-enriched pie crusts; her “Pâte Brisée I” (Flour, p. 92) and “Pâte Brisée II” (p. 216) are identical in procedure, but have a slightly different parts list (the second version has more sugar and less egg). She also uses a stand mixer to prepare the dough, which is a bit closer to how it might be done in a commercial bakery at scale. I did a tutorial on this procedure in January, 2015.

Diane St. Clair presents a basic buttermilk pie crust in The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook (p. 150); the lactic acid in the buttermilk serves the same function as vinegar in the Elsens’ recipe above, but buttermilk also functions as a flavoring. St. Clair’s recipe has a much higher flour-to-fat ratio (5:2 versus 3:2 for the Elsens’ and most other formulas); additional flour is required to absorb the substantial amount of water in the buttermilk.

In Brooke Dojny’s The New England Cookbook, among numerous other sources, there is a cream-cheese variant (p. 587). This pastry, which was probably developed during a wartime fat shortage (cream cheese wasn’t rationed, butter and lard were), has nearly a 1:1 flour-to-fat ratio, counting the cream cheese as “fat”; the cream cheese serves the same function as vegetable shortening in many other pie crusts.

For many tarts, a sweeter, more cookie-like pâte sucrée is called for. Joanne Chang provides two in Flour (pp. 210, 222), and Judy Rosenberg has a similar “Basic Tart Crust” in The Rosie’s Bakery All-Butter, Cream-Filled, Sugar-Packed Baking Book (p. 340). Rosenberg also offers a sweeter, press-in “Shortbread Tart Crust” (p. 341) using confectioner’s sugar and no egg. Rosetta Costantino’s recipe for pasta frolla is an Italian equivalent, with a substantial amount of sugar and also enriched with egg (the recipe is one of the master recipes in the back of Southern Italian Desserts; see also my walkthrough).

TV producer and New England Culinary graduate Alton Brown, best known for the show Good Eats on the Food Network, has done pie crust a few times. In I’m Just Here for More Food, he describes pie dough as a specific application of a more general “Biscuit Method” of baking, but his first whack at the subject was in season 2 of Good Eats, in the episode “Crust Never Sleeps”. He wrote this recipe up in Good Eats: The Early Years (p. 100); in addition to cornmeal and apple juice for flavor, he divides the butter in two parts — one at room temperature, which is combined entirely with the dry ingredients to coat the flour, and the second chilled, which is cut in to leave chunks. This process is said to provide an balance between flakiness (from those chunks of cold butter, which roll out into thin flakes) and tenderness (which in his other formula is provided by shortening).

I checked the three King Arthur Flour cookbooks, and they show an unsurprising evolution over time — the earlier ones suggest using shortening or lard, but the most recent one, Whole Grain Baking, uses only butter, now that hydrogenated oils are no longer considered acceptable (certainly not to those who are interested in the supposed health benefits of whole grains). This book provides a variety of all-butter pie-crust options, including traditional whole-wheat (p. 443), barley (p. 452), oats (p. 459; with ground nuts, p. 465; with brown sugar, p. 471), whole-wheat pastry flour (p. 474), and a truly over-the-top version with whole-wheat pastry flour, bread flour, cocoa powder, and chocolate chips (p. 482).

There are a couple of other notable pie crusts I should mention. J. Kenji López-Alt developed a crust formula for Cook’s Illustrated which uses vodka to create a pliable dough without allowing as much gluten formation as using all water would; this recipe, however, calls for vegetable shortening in addition to the vodka, so I doubly won’t be using it. (The basic principle, however, is similar to that behind adding an acid like lemon juice or vinegar — prevent undesired toughness in the dough by inhibiting gluten formation — and should work with nearly any dough formulation.) After leaving Cook’s Illustrated, López-Alt went on to develop another pie crust for SeriousEats, where he is managing culinary director, which avoids many of these issues by fully coating the flour with fat (thereby preventing the water from contacting the proteins in the flour to begin with, which again inhibits gluten formation) — I’ll post a full review at a later date.

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