Pie is Not Scary

We all lament the passing of The Great Age of Pie. We remember our grandmothers and the way they seemed to turn out pies almost effortlessly, and wonder a.) whether our grandma’s were technical geniuses, or b.) when exactly it happened that something as easy as pie got to be so darn hard. The fact is that it doesn’t take an engineering degree to make a good pie, nor does it take a lot of time or skill. My feeling is that it’s been the well-intentioned advice of recipe writers over the last few decades that’s made pie seem unapproachable for the average home cook.

If I had to reduce the problem down to any one thing it would be dough refrigeration. Almost all pie crust recipes call for refrigerating the dough just after it’s made. This is an important step in that it allows the flour in the dough to soak up moisture and relaxes gluten. However what you’re left with is a rock-hard mass that doesn’t roll. When you try the frigid hunk just breaks into pieces or cracks as it flattens out. The aspiring pie maker ends up trying to press a crumbly mass together while rolling at the same time…oh what a mess. In the end the dough is overworked and lumpy. The cook heads to the supermarket in search of something pre-made.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For the fact is there’s no law of pie crust making that states that the dough has to be ice cold when you roll it. Our grandmothers (or great grandmothers) didn’t make pie that way. Some of them barely had access to refrigeration. No, you don’t want your dough warm per se, as that makes it greasy and paste-like. The happy medium is cool, which keeps the fat firm but nice and plastic.

How do you get this magic texture? By letting the refrigerated dough warm up on the counter before you roll. 10 minutes is usually good on a warm day, but if I press my dough mass with my fingers and don’t leave impressions (indicating that it wants to crack instead of roll) I wait another five and try again. Sooner or later the dough comes around and rolls out like a good dough should. I use plenty of flour and regularly slide the dough on the board to make sure it isn’t sticking underneath, in which case I lift the edge and spread a little under there.

One other thing that ruins a lot of attempts at dough: the obsession with using as little moisture as possible. It’s true that here in America we don’t use eggs or lots of boiling water in our crusts. Our ideal is a tender/flaky no-gluten sort of texture that’s virtually unknown in the world of classic Continental pastry. Too much water makes a crust tough by our standards. That said, hyper-critical dough makers that sprinkle ice water on their dough drop by drop seeking the critical point of adhesion are taking a good idea too far.

American-style pie dough should be slightly dry just after you mix it, at the point where you put it in the refrigerator, but it should not be crumbly. So add water to your dough until you’re feeling mostly comfortable with it. If you squeeze it and think “you know, another teaspoon or two of water and this would be the perfect consistency for rolling”, you’re at just the right point. My advice if you’re starting out making pies: err on the side of too much water. Yes your dough might be a little tougher than grandma’s the first few times you make pie, but as you practice you’ll figure it out. And the pie will still be amazing. MUCH better than any pre-made crust you’ll find in a store.

All of which is to say: it’s time to lighten up and make some pie! We all have to start someplace. Look at my peach pie here for example. It’s good but notice that the crust is quite thick and quite smooth on top. That smoothness is an indication that it’s tougher than the crust on the cherry pie just below. But that one tasted great, and anyway it was six years ago. I’ve since made a fair amount of pie. I shall continue to do so, steadily improving my technique. Because let’s face it, none of us can be grandma overnight.

The Second Great Age of Pie awaits if we can forget some of what we’ve learned over the last couple of decades and use our common sense. Onward!

24 thoughts on “Pie is Not Scary”

  1. When I was first instructed about pie making, I wasn’t taught to chill the dough and was told “don’t handle it too much” whatever that meant. Don’t handle it while cutting in the shortening or tossing it with the water or pressing the dough clumps together or forming it into disks? Or was I not supposed to handle it much when rolling it out or pressing it into the pie plate? I never quite understood but was successful in spite of my confusion. Successful but fraught with anxiety and frustration over the rolling of the dough. I have found that the fraisage method of mixing the dough solved all my problems. Talk about what appears to be over handling the dough! This method has you smear the moistened clumps of dough out with the heel of your hand before forming the disks. And my reward was the the most malleable dough and the flakiest layers of finished pastry I’ve ever eaten. Don’t hand the dough…pft!

    1. Hey Susan! Yes, there’s a lot of misinformation about dough handling. People get all freaked out about it, but resting is the palliative that makes up for many a sin. It’s great that you found a technique that works for you. A lot of people really like the fraissage method. I definitely do for tart crusts. Not so much for pie since it makes a crust that’s a bit flakier than I prefer. We all love what we grew up with, no? Keep on making pie and thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

      1. I’d add when you do refrigerate that dough, refrigerate in a nice square or oblong, not in a huge ball – 10 minutes out of the fridge ain’t gonna do squat to a huge fat ball, but will do nicely for a nice pat of dough!

        1. Very good advice, Chris. Yes, some sort of flat shape both warms faster and gives you a head start when you set out to roll. Thanks!

          – Joe

  2. I use plenty of flour and regularly slide the dough on the board to make sure it isn’t sticking underneath, in which case I lift the edge and spread a little under there.

    I dare you to roll your next pie crust between two sheets of wax paper (or parchment). I haven’t touched flour since I’ve started using the stuff. The only time it ever sticks to the paper is if the fat starts melting, at which point I add a light dusting of flour and spread around the soft area with a pastry brush.

    add water to your dough until you’re feeling mostly comfortable with it. If you squeeze it and think “you know, another tablespoons of water and this would be the perfect consistency for rolling”, you’re at just the right point.

    This may sound odd, but I actually use a fork to mix my dough while adding the water. Usually, my dough needs 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons to come together. I’ve never had a successful crust when I’ve added less than an ounce. But, usually I go by the tablespoon, then “rake” through the flour for about a minute (in all directions). Then, if it feels dry in my hands or fingertips, I add more, then “rake” it through. After that, if it still feels dry, I add it by the teaspoon until it feels moist enough on my fingertips. I think the worst thing anyone could do is just pour an ounce of water in the bowl and then barely mix it around before adding more water.

    As for how the dough should look before you bring it together into round disk, I noticed a pattern that emerged when I was practicing last fall: When the dough starts looking like little pearls of tapioca, it’s usually ready. This may be a little unorthodox, but if the dough cracks around the edges after I’ve formed it into a disk (or looks/feels dry), I pat it with a little bit of canola oil – just in case I might’ve gone a little too shy on the water.

    Also, I think it’s important that people form their doughs into circulardisks that are at least half the size they need the finished piece of pastry to be. Think about it: If you form your dough into a thin, 6″ disk, nearly half the work is done for you (and you only have to roll it out by another 6 inches.

    Lastly, I just want to address one of your first points, Joe: It is VERY true that most people try to roll their pie dough when it’s rock-hard (after being in the fridge for an hour or overnight). I did this numerous times in the beginning because the recipe didn’t say otherwise. I failed EVERY time.

    If there is one thing I would disagree with, though, it would be that pie dough must sit in the refrigerator for an hour or longer before rolling. When I was practicing last fall, I stumbled upon a recipe by Michael Ruhlman, who – in his recipe – recommended refrigerating his pie dough for a mere 15 minutes before rolling. I could not believe it, so I tried it.

    I was amazed. None of the problems I had in the past made an appearance. So, it is my belief that 15 minutes is all you need – even though I’ve waited up to 30 minutes with no additional problems. I also compensate the short refrigeration time in the beginning with a longer rest later on (usually overnight) to make sure the dough does get fully hydrated.

    So, there’s my two cents on mixing pie dough 😉

    Also, this might be a nit-picky question, but with regards to your Standard Pie Crust recipe, do you think it would be ok to reduce the amount of fat by 1 oz? That way, there’s an even amount of fat and it’s not such a pain in the butt to measure the shortening. I know, I know! I have a scale so it wouldn’t be as difficult as having to use tablespoons or cups, but: I’m just sayin…:)

    1. Nice tips, Andrew! I think everyone who likes to make pie has their own set of subtle techniques that they like. You clearly have some that are working for you, and that’s really the point: it takes some trial and error before you hit on the system that delivers the crust you like. To me hard and/or under-moistened dough are two hurdles that discourage people from trying pie in the first place.

      And I agree with a lot of what you say here. Wax paper or even plastic can be a help, flat shapes are a big help and who knows? Maybe 15 minutes is enough. I’ll try that. As for the fat question, I’m sure you can do that without major consequences. I highly recommend lard!

      Thanks for the comment

      1. Thank you for the response, Joe. I didn’t mean to be so long-winded.

        I really do think 15 minutes is plenty, as it’s just enough time to get the fat firm enough so that it doesn’t melt when you start rolling. A long rest later makes up for the shorter refrigeration time.

        As for the question about the fat in your crust recipe, I meant to say a 1/2 ounce not a full ounce, sorry!

        Somehow or some way, I will get that lightly golden crust, though! 😀

        1. Hey Andrew! I definitely believe you. I generally make my crust ahead of time: hours, days, weeks…months even. But I’ll remember the tip for sure. And half ounce won’t make any discernible difference, you’re good!

          As for the lightly golden crust: high heat to start plus a pie shield, then lower heat to finish! Cheers and thanks for the comment!

          – Joe

  3. I make good pie crust. Long ago, I stopped measuring the water. I crumble the butter into the flour until it feels just right (experience) and then set the kitchen faucet on drip. I put the bowl under the faucet and start tossing the butter-flour mixture. When the dough sticks together, I pull the bowl out from under the faucet.

    I’m often in a hurry to make my pies, so I may refrigerate the dough for only a short time before I roll it out.

    I also learned to transfer the rolled-out pie dough by rolling it around the rolling pin and unrolling it into the pan, or onto the top of the pie.

    1. Nice! Those are all great techniques, Karen. I shall try them, because I always admire people who can make a good pie by feel. I get a little to attached to my scales!

      Cheers and thanks for the inspiration!

      – Joe

  4. Here in NOLA, it is humid all the time (except right now oddly -it’s only 52%). The first time I tried making a crust, I had added a tablespoon of water and was getting ready to add another, when I paused and felt it. I didn’t add anymore water and it was good – ask my husband and neighbors. I suppose the flour and such can absorb moisture from the air too.

    1. Oh it definitely can, and usually does! The moisture content of flour can vary greatly, which is why it’s always a good idea to start slow as you did!

      Thanks, Sophie!

      – Joe

  5. Per Susan’s comments, I found that learning the fraisage technique, which produces an extremely forgiving dough to roll out, was my gateway to working towards pie dough, which like you I think of combining both crumble and flake (as opposed to the extremely flaky layered crust produced by fraisage). In researching fraisage, I found that it is used in “rough puff” recipes providing a simpler substitute for puff pastry–does that sound familiar to you?

    My big breakthrough in making a successful regular pie dough was basically what you emphasize about adding sufficient water. Fearful of adding too much water in the past, I was ending up with overly crumbly dry mixtures that led to overhandling in the rolling out stage.

    Another related breakthrough was not being afraid to use plenty of flour during rolling: I no longer had to scrape off dough stuck to rolling pin/surface which had also been contributing to the overhandling problem!

    I’ve now settled on a process in which I do sort of half and half fraisage and simply pressing the mixture together to form the disc of dough for chilling. I do a little more fraisage for doughs destined to form single crust tarts/galettes. I especially like fraisage for bringing together the drier portion of the mixture that I often find is left after adding the water.

    1. Well said, Lisa. And indeed I have heard of rough puff. Me, I tend not to like half measures where laminated dough it concerned, so I confess I’ve never tried it. But I’m with you the rest of the way. Making good pie dough is all about finding the system that works best for you. So many “rules” have been established in the last couple decades that aspiring pie bakers are giving up in droves, or so says I. I hope we pie lovers can help demystify it a little bit!

      Thanks for a great comment!

      – Joe

  6. I do the Cook’s Illustrated trick of using vodka in place of some of the water. It allows me to use more liquid while inhibiting gluten development, and the booze cooks away in the oven.

    I too was trying to roll out a rock of dough until you said “warm it up, ya dodo” years ago. I may not have the quote exactly correct there but it was a lightbulb moment for me when I read that.

    1. I don’t remember calling you a dodo, Laura, but I’m not ruling it out completely.

      And yes, a lot of people love that technique. I’ve done it a time or two and while I still think water is just fine, I know some folks swear by it.

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  7. I have never been that picky about fruit pies, I am more than satisfied with the store bought dough. I prefer focusing on what goes into the pie, Once away from the Iowa farm Grandma-in-laws I have never heard anyone rave about crust when eating a great pie. I’d fuss a lot to get great filling but crust? Not so much.

    Now pastie dough, thats different, you want it tough so it can handle the load while being toted down the mine shaft.

  8. If you started to discuss pie crusts – I have had a question for a long time regarding resting and refrigerating crust after rolling. In winter, I like to put my pie crusts out on the balcony if temperature is freezing, and it becomes firm and stiff in a matter of minutes. I can’t remember seeing tips in any recipe to put prepared crust into freezer rather than refrigerator for resting after it has been rolled into pie pan. Are there any circumstances that make long refrigerating better than short freezing? Or recipe writers just don’t have handy balconies and freezing temperatures outside that often? 🙂

  9. What about pie birds, Joe? Do they do anything better/different that a plain vent cut with a knife? I have one that was purchased as a souvenir. It’s adorable and looks great on my what-not shelf, but I never remember to use it.

    1. Hey Linda!

      Those things are fun, actually. But no, they do no better than vents, and should always be supplemented with at least a few small vents closer to the outside edge, just to ensure you’re letting all the steam out.

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  10. About pie birds…My ex’s Mother used to make a 5-6 inch narrow cone out of aluminum foil and place it in the center of the filling and through the top crust for especially juicy fruit pies. It allowed the juices an avenue to bubble up without overflowing onto the outside edges of crust. It worked really well to keep the crust looking beautiful. The only problem was it allowed the dough to stretch and dome, leaving a large hollow below the top crust. She didn’t cut additional steam vents on top. I suppose you could fill the completely cooled pie with whipped cream before serving it, but otherwise, it just sort of collapsed upon cutting. Sure made for a tempting uncut pie!

    1. Hey Susan!

      Yep, that’s the down side of those, the doming you get around the perimeter from built up steam. Still I understand a combo approach can work nicely!

      Cheers and thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

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