Pie crust is as artful and profound a thing as a painting. Mona Lisa’s limpid, lifelike eyes may follow you about the Louvre, and her coy little smile may entice you like a siren’s song, but the painting’s real power lies in the fact that we can’t really explain why the subject moves us so…she just does.
And so it goes with the pie crust—though little more than flour, fat, and water, a perfectly made pie crust is the result of hundreds of years of baking trial and error. Too little fat and it will tear or crumble after baking. Too much water and you end up with a sticky, unmanageable dough. But in the hands of a master, a perfectly baked pie crust has a tender, buttery bite that transcends the sum of its parts.
You don’t have to have the skill of Da Vinci to make one (though certainly, it helps). You do, however, have to adhere to a few basic principles of pastry-baking—and like all great things, those principles have changed very little over time. Here are a few key guidelines from Chef Chris Koetke, the dean of the Kendall College of the Culinary Arts in Chicago.
- Whether using butter, lard or shortening, the key to a flaky pastry is to cut the fat into the dry ingredients so that very small pieces remain distinct—pieces about the size of small peas.
- Use as little water as possible. Adding extra moisture makes the dough easy to work with but yields a tough result. There should be just enough moisture to hold the dough together.
- After the dough is mixed up, let it rest for a bit in the refrigerator. This will make it easy to roll out and contribute to a lighter crust.
- When rolling out the dough, add only enough flour to keep it from sticking.
- Metal (stainless is my favorite) pie tins conduct heat efficiently and help develop crisp crusts.
- If your pie recipe calls for a blind-baked crust, first chill the dough in the pan for half an hour. Next, place a square of aluminum foil or parchment in the center of the pie pan over the uncooked crust and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Remember, you just want to partially bake the piecrust and help the pastry retain its shape, so bake for typically about 15 minutes, or just until the crust turns a slightly golden color. Cool for a couple of minutes before adding the filling and finishing the baking process.