« baking tips and primers

Pie crust primer

Our yeasted breads, doughs and pastries have acted as containers for food for centuries. As baking with yeast seems to have originated somewhere around the Mediterranean, so, too, did the art of baking with pastry. The earliest pastries from Greece sound a bit like modern baklava, vehicles for carrying a concoction of nuts and honey. Romans used pastry to enclose and cook meat, rather like cooking in a pastry “Dutch oven.”

In fact, it was as containers for cooking and serving food that pastry was primarily used until sometime in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries. At that point, when types of grain and the process of milling them improved, the quality of the pastry also improved. People discovered that a pastry could be an edible addition to a filling rather than just a container.

But even then, pastries contained fillings that were basically savory (salty) rather than sweet, although most savory, or meat, pies contained fruit as well. This was a combination of flavors that was dear to medieval tastes. We still have remnants of this culinary inclination around today in the form of plum puddings and mince pies whole roots are centuries old. It wasn’t until the end of the eighteenth century (about the time that the parent company of King Arthur Flour was formed) that pastries filled just with spiced and sweetened fruit appeared.

As it takes many decades for eating habits to change and evolve, those early fruit pies, like their meat-filled predecessors, were still eaten as part of a main meal, often breakfast. There are families today whose “fit breakfast” includes a chunk of cheese and a big piece of pie, which together are a great source of energy for anyone who is very active physically.

Pastry itself is a fairly simple combination of ingredients: flour, salt, sometimes a bit of sugar, fat and a little liquid. But, as with all types of baking there are a number of pastry types or traditions that have evolved over the years. These are determined by the ratio of those ingredients to each other and the way in which they are combined.

Today, there are five basic types of classic pastry: mealy or shot flake, medium flake, long flake, puff and “choux,” with variations that may have characteristics of more than one type. Some, like their pastry ancestors, are relatively durable since they need to stand up by themselves; some are tender and flaky since they are baked in containers that provide the structure; some are ethereally light puff pastries that can act as containers for fillings but can stand on their own as well.

In this primer we will focus on a traditional American pie crust made with a medium flake pastry. After describing it and explaining how to make it, we’ll use it as a standard to measure other types of pastry by. this isn’t because it’s better, but because, for most of us who have had any experience with pies at all, either making or eating, it’s friendly and familiar.

King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour for pastry

Because the bleaching process chemically toughens the gluten in wheat flour and destroys some of the flavor and nutrition, an unbleached flour is preferable for making pastry and pie dough. King Arthur Flour is unbleached, but it is a strong flour, which means it has more protein than other pastry flour. When it’s handled gently, it can make a superior pie crust.

To turn King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour into “pastry” flour, substitute 2 tablespoons of cornstarch for an equal amount of flour in each cup. This lowers the percentage of gluten in the flour.

Basic medium flake pastry

Medium flake pie crusts can be used for main course dishes or, by adding the optional sugar, for sweet fillings and tart shells. They contain the same ingredients as other pie crusts, but it’s the way the shortening is incorporated into the flour that gives these crusts their name and characteristics.

When you break a medium flake pie crust with your fingers, it separates into flakes rather than breaking “clean.” A crust that breaks clean is made with short flake pastry. To make a crust “short,” the ingredients are put together a little differently. Short crusts are equally good and used just about as universally.

A traditional American pie crust

Our Generous Version makes more than enough dough for one 9 or 10 inch double crust pie, two or three 9 inch single crust shells or about a dozen tart shells. We’ve made it very generous to give you lots of dough for patches and trimmings and some to share when you have “helpers.” When you have become a very efficient pie crust maker, or don’t have someone to share your dough with, you can cut this recipe by a third and still have enough for a double crust 9 inch pie. The resulting, smaller, Economy Version follows.

Although instructions are neat and tidy, the first (and maybe every) pie crust you make won’t necessarily be. But don’t ever let that discourage you. Just undertake pie making as a new and exciting adventure.

Generous version

  • 3 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
  • 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt (depends on taste and whether you use salted or salt-free shortening)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (optional and not necessary even for a sweet filling)
  • 3/4 to 1 cup shortening, you choice; the larger amount will make a richer, flakier crust but add more calories 6 to 9 tablespoons ice water

Economy version

  • 2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar (optional)
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup shortening
  • 4 to 7 tablespoons ice water

The two-step method of incorporating the shortening

When you blend shortening into flour to make pie dough, you want to break it into lots of medium-sized pieces which become coated with flour in the process. By doing this in two steps, incorporating half the shortening at a time, you will create a dough with multiple pieces or pockets of shortening. When you roll this mixture out with a rolling pin, you flatten out all those little pieces of shortening which will bake into layers, or “flakes,” hence the name of the crust.

Combining the ingredients

  1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt and sugar, if you’re using it.
  2. Cutting or Rubbing in the Shortening
  3. With a pastry blender, two knives, or your fingertips, cut or rub half of the shortening into the flour mixture until it resembles cornmeal.
  4. Then take the remainder of the shortening and cut or rub it in until the largest pieces are the size of peas.
  5. Although “rubbing in the shortening with your fingertips” may sound like just what you don’t want to do, this is actually a very effective way to do this job. Your fingertips are usually quite cool so, if you work quickly, they won’t really soften the butter much.
  6. As you become experienced, you will find that your fingertips will “know” when the shortening pieces are the right size. You can also lift and fluff the mixture with your fingertips to incorporate air, another ingredient in a flaky pie crust. The trick with this (or any) method is not to overdo it.

Adding the water

By using ice water, you keep the shortening solid and minimize the development of the gluten.

You want to use just enough water so the dough will just stick together. Too little and your crust will be crumbly; too much will liberate the gluten in the flour, which can make the final pie crust tough. (Neither is a disaster. By experimenting with “too little” and “too much,” you’ll discover what’s “just right,” one of those things that experience will tell you.)

Sprinkle the ice water, one tablespoon at a time, over the flour/shortening mixture. With a fork, toss together the mixture you’ve just moistened and push it to one side. Continue until the dough is just moist enough to hold together when you press it.

Shaping the dough

Gather the mixture together and cut it in two pieces. If you are making the dough for a double crust pie, make one piece slightly larger than the other since it has to fit down into the pie plate. Gently press each piece into a round, flattened disk about 4 or 5 inches in diameter. This makes the dough easier to roll out later.

All of this may sound simple enough, but it’s at this point that you may wonder why what you’re doing just doesn’t look the way the directions say it should. Just come as close as you can without overdoing it and don’t expect a miracle on your first try. You’ve heard it before and it really is true; something miraculous really does take lots of practice. And you really will get better and better.

To chill the dough or not to chill

Now that you’re this far along, you have several options.

Overnight or Two-Hour Chill

This will produce the most tender and flavorful crust. After you’ve divided and shaped your dough into disks, wrap them, separated, in plastic or waxed paper and put them in the refrigerator for about 2 hours or even overnight. This re-solidifies the shortening in the dough so it stays in its separate flaky state, it puts the gluten in the flour soundly to sleep, and it also matures the flavor of the dough. In addition to making a more tender crust, it will help keep it from shrinking as it bakes.

Short chill

Another option is to chill the dough for a shorter period, from 30 minutes up to 2 hours, which will partially accomplish all of those things mentioned above.

Chilling or freezing after shaping

This time roll your crust out immediately after you finish mixing your ingredients (see next step) and chill the shaped crust, covered, right in the pie plate for 20 minutes to an hour before you fill and bake it. (You can also freeze pie crusts at this point so you always have one on hand.) Chilling the shaped crust before baking relaxes the gluten and minimizes shrinkage during baking. You can even chill a filled pie for 10 or 15 minutes, just enough to relax the gluten, which helps keep the crust from shrinking or pulling out of shape as it bakes.

No chill
  1. Roll out your crust and bake it (or fill and bake it) right away according to the directions below. As with many things, what you gain in time, you lose in flavor and texture but if you haven’t overworked your dough during the mixing process, this method will still produce a pretty good pie crust.
  2. Rolling Out & Shaping a Single or Bottom Crust: If your dough has been in the refrigerator for more than an hour, give it 10 or 15 minutes at room temperature to soften a bit.
  3. The simplest way to roll out your dough is on a lightly floured surface with a floured rolling pin. (Give your rolling pin an occasional rubdown with a good quality vegetable oil. It is not only good for the wood, it will help prevent it from sticking to a dough.)
  4. Or roll your dough between two sheets of floured waxed paper, which gives you a bit more control and makes it easier to get the crust into a pie plate.
  5. If you want to get a bit more “high-tech,” you can buy a pastry cloth and sleeve for your rolling pin at most hardware stores. They are not critical to making a good pie crust, they eliminate sticking and make it easier to get the dough into a pie plate.
  6. Roll the dough from the center to the outside edge in all directions. Do it gently, without pushing down hard, because you don’t want to squeeze out any air that is lurking in the dough. Use a spatula or bowl scraper to loosen it if it begins to stick, and throw a bit of flour underneath to keep it loose. Ditto with your rolling pin.
  7. By rolling from the middle out to the edges, you enlarge the dough without making it “stretchy,” which happens when you go back and forth over the whole thing. This helps keep it from shrinking when it bakes.
  8. If the crust tears or splits, just patch it by moistening the edges and pressing some excess dough on the “wound.” Dust it with a bit of flour, top and bottom, before you begin rolling again. If the wound is on the bottom crust, no one will see it; if it’s on the top, only a grouch will care.
Single crust shell

Roll the crust until it is about 1/8 inch thick and about 2 inches larger than the diameter of the pie plate. This gives you enough to make a good high rim. If you turn your pie plate upside down on the dough, you’ll be able to figure out just about how big to roll it.

Double crust bottom

This one can be a little smaller, about 1 1/2 inches larger than the diameter of the pie plate.

Latticed crust bottom

Roll this out 2 inches larger than the diameter of your pie plate as this piece needs to come up and over the edges of the lattice.