American vs. British “Hot Water” Pie Crust

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Reader L wants to know, since we’re talking pie, what the difference is between a standard American pie crust and a British “hot water”-style pie crust of the type usually used for pork pies. Thank you for that, L! You can think of it this way: an American pie crust is primarily designed to be eaten. It’s rich, flaky and tender, easy on the teeth and the taste buds, but something of a weakling. If it didn’t have a pie plate top support it, it would collapse in a heap.

Hot water pastry is a descendant of the old-style “coffin” pie crusts that I referenced below. It functions more like a free-standing container, though compromises have been made such that you can eat it if you want to. It’s richer than its bruiser ancestors and quite a bit more toothsome, but still a lot tougher than an American-style crust. If it weren’t it would never be able stand alone without a form to support it, much less be able to hold a volume of liquid (as show above) without leaking.

It can do all that because its structure is much more uniform than an American-style crust. If you have a look at the posts and compare how they’re made, you can see that American crusts are made by “rubbing” cold fat into a mass of flour. This process creates uneven pockets of fat in the finished dough. It’s these pockets, which are flattened when the dough is rolled, that create the American crust’s trademark flakiness. The fat pockets become layers, not unlike the layers in a laminated dough. When heated, they push the dough above and below them apart.

The fat pockets also do something else: they undermine gluten formation, preventing proteins from hooking up with each other and forming a tough mesh. The small amount of water also helps to deprive the gluten of the water it needs to activate. Put it all together and the crust is not only flaky but very tender, a true pleasure to eat. All this tenderness and flakiness comes at a cost, however, as the uneven, gluten-compromised structure makes it very weak in spots, and potentially leaky.

Take a look at the hot water crust and you’ll see that it’s made very differently. In this process a mixture of hot, melted fat and water is added the flour and thoroughly mixed in. It’s enough to make an American crust maker fall over faint. However the result is a very uniform mixture of fat, water and flour. That uniformity translates to structure and, by extension, strength. Indeed it’s so uniform that you can pour a liquid gelatin mixture into it and it won’t leak. Being quite rich it’s not as strong as the pie coffins of old, so you can actually chew it and eat it, but it’s a very different experience than an American pie. Hope that helps, L!

12 thoughts on “American vs. British “Hot Water” Pie Crust”

    1. Hey Stewart!

      First, many thanks! And yes I’ve seen several food processor pie crust recipes. I like them for the ease of preparation. I think crusts made by hand are flakier since the butter pieces are less even in size, but that’s a quibble. When it comes to pie crusts I’m a firm believer in the if-it-works-for-you-do-it principle. So long as home made pies get made, the fine details aren’t important!

      Many thanks for the comment and keep up the good work!

      – Joe

  1. I recently read about a French crust method that uses hot water and melted butter-almost browned. Supposedly makes a lovely flaky pastry and much easier than the usual way.

    I took down the recipe but haven’t made it. Have you heard of it?

    1. Hi Donna!

      I have not heard of that, but my feeling is that it would be firmer rather than flaky, a lot like a hot water crust. But the browned butter probably gives it a great flavor. Send it to me one of these days as I’d be curious to try it!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  2. Thanks! Makes a lot of sense… Actually, since we’re talking about lipids, etc., I have another question:
    What’s the difference between bread with no fat, with butter, with oil, and with animal fat? Also, talking about bread, I’ve heard that sourdough starters are sometimes made with mould scrapings from vegetables, fruits, leaves, etc. Isn’t that dangerous? And what about cheese mould, like from brie?

    1. Hey L!

      You mean a bread with oil added the dough mixture? It’s there to enrich the dough and give it a less chewy, silkier feeling in the mouth. Extreme examples of enriched bread include brioche and challah. They’re delicious, but are more cake-like, with a very tight crumb and yellow color. If you want big holes in your bread crumb you want to keep the fat to a minimum. The type of fat doesn’t matter terribly much, though oil being liquid it will create the most tender crumb of all. Does that answer your question?

      Regarding starters, fruit skins are covered with yeasts. For that reason some people like to begin their starters that way. As you point out though, they can be covered with other sorts of less beneficial microbes, which can cause problems. That’s why any starter that looks green, purple or black, or which is foul smelling needs to be thrown out. Of course yeasts also cover the outside of wheat berries, so they’re abundant in flour, which is why I prefer the standard (though less exotic) flour method. The results are identical in terms of flavor.

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  3. This isn’t a comment…it’s a question about something unrelated. Couldn’t find a different way to contact you.

    Are these the same thing?
    Toasted Sesame Seeds that are black in color
    vs
    Black Sesame Seeds…that I see in so many recipes but cannot find in my neck of the woods.

    Also can’t find Matcha Powder & Espresso Power. Yeah, I know, I can buy them on line. Just venting.

    Thanks for your assist.

    1. Hey Janice!

      As far as I know black sesame seeds are a completely different type of sesame, a relative of the tan-colored seeds we normally see on buns.

      What are you making if you don’t mind my asking?

      – Joe

  4. I learned to make pasties from my mom and learned the difference in crusts. Her comment was, “These things had to survive a morning in the mine, they had to be tough!” She may have said something about meat pies where the crust was not meant to be eaten or that may have leaked in form someplace else.

    1. Hey again Frankly!

      You remind me of a pasty festival I once attended in Cornwall, where top pasties not only had to taste great, they had to survive a 20-foot fall into the hands of a waiting judge. It’s said that once upon a time Cornish wives tossed them down the mine shaft to their waiting husbands. I suspect that’s bunk, but it’s fun bunk.

      – Joe

  5. American readers should not get the idea that hot water pastry is the norm for pies in the UK, however. It is a specific pastry for a specific sort of pie: flaky, puff, and shortcrust are also used, probably a great deal more often.
    In addition to the cold pork and game pies, hot water pastry is also used for what we in the south of New Zealand (they don’t seem to exist in the North Island) call “mutton pies” but in the UK seem to be called “Scotch pies”. My Scottish ancestry rebels a bit at “Scotch” but there you go. These are eaten hot, in one’s hand, and at some point in the eating process one has to tip the pie so that the fat that has rendered from the mutton during cooking can drain out. I had one for the first time in years the other day and forgot – ended up with a long stream of hot fat down my arm. Sounds gross, but is delicious. Very peppery.

    1. Hey Bronwyn! Yes indeed, and notice I specifically said “pork pie” as a Brit corrected me on that point once before! 😉

      As always, very good information from you. Thanks!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

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