How to Make a Flaky Pie Crust

Some very interesting reactions to the below post on making cherry pie. Several comments on the sour cherries, but also quite a few questions about the crust. How do you get it so flaky? The answer is fairly straightforward: leave some large-ish pieces of fat in the dough. The logical follow-up question is: what good does that do? For that we need to back up a little.

The American pie crust is a schizophrenic creation. As Alton Brown once observed on his groundbreaking food science show Good Eats, Americans demand that their pie crusts be both tender AND flaky, which is something of a contradiction in terms. Flakiness partly a product of dryness, but also of a heterogenous dough mixture, with large, unevenly distributed fat pockets of varying sizes that roll out into layers as the crust is shaped. When the crust bakes up, the fat melts, leaving hundreds of tiny strata that cause the finished crust to break into flakes when it’s cut (or chewed). Laminated doughs, like croissant or Danish dough, are created specifically to exaggerate this fat-layer-induced flaking effect.

Tenderness is an entirely different animal. Tenderness is a factor of moisture and of a homogenous dough mixture, where very small, fairly uniform fat pockets are evenly distributed. This even distribution of small fat pockets creates a uniform crumb with a lattice-like structure that’s flexible, yielding and ultimately quite soft and crumbly in the mouth. Layer cakes are a more perfect example of this idea, especially box cakes which contain emulsifiers that help ensure that the fat granules remain as small and evenly spread as possible.

Finding a way to reconcile these two warring textures is the task of the pie maker. I’ll say first off that, at least in my experience, tenderness tends to happen on its own. It’s flakiness that’s the trick, though not a difficult trick to pull off.

The key is in the fat rubbing stage, or the “cutting in” stage if you prefer, the point where the baker incorporates the cold fat into the flour to unite the two. I do that step by hand. Which is to say I literally squeeze the cold fat pieces with my fingers to break them up as I toss them with the flour. It’s a slightly risky operation as it’s easy to take it too far, i.e. by allowing the fat to melt on the fingers, or by rubbing so much that the pieces become too small. I remedy this by storing my pie flour in the freezer so it’s good and cold when I start the rubbing-in process. I also set a timer so I don’t forget to stop rubbing. I find that after about three minutes I still have several dozen fat pieces in the mix that are about the size of large peas. That’s pretty much perfect.

So that’s one way to peel the onion, so to speak. The other way is to manually create your fat flakes. These days though, that’s too much effort for me. Over time I’ve found that if I handle a standard pie crust recipe well, it comes out every bit as flaky as the fussier “perfect” pie crust. Rest the dough according to instructions, paint a little egg wash on before baking, and you’re basically in pie making paradise.

And that’s really the long and the short of making a flaky crust.

6 thoughts on “How to Make a Flaky Pie Crust”

  1. Cream cheese? Why?

    I don’t do pies so much, but when I make tart dough (the recipe I use includes an egg, so it’s a different ball game) I have gone back to doing it with my hands. The food processor is convenient, but the hands do a much, much better job. I do like that plastic bag method, those flakes are amazing. I missed that post the first time around.

    1. Hey Chana!

      The cream cheese is basically an alternate fat, but one that makes the dough a little more plastic and rollable than it might otherwise be. Now me, I really dislike cream cheese, so my version of this recipe omits it in favor of lard, but I see where she’s going technically. It’s a clever innovation.

      Regarding hands and tart crust, I generally use a food processor, but only because I think it doesn’t a better job of distributing fat through the dough. The classical method of making tart crust involves smearing the dough on a work surface to ensure there are no large pockets of fat (flakes are much discouraged by the French). It’s very time consuming and rather messy, so I generally favor the machine.

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

    2. I put my egg vinegar water mix in the freezer for a bit along with my mixing bowl, the flour mixed with a pastry knife, resting in the fridge 30 min on the counter for 10 then lay the dough between 2 plastic sheets for a perfect roll each time

    1. Hey Nancy!

      Yes that technique is similar to Rose Levy Beranbaum’s (the basis for my “Perfect Pie Crust”). Which is to say it involves fashioning your own fat “flakes” as you mix. Thanks for sharing that!

      Cheers,

      -Joe

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