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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Pie Crust - VICTORY!

For many years I have avoided making pies. I haven't even tried to make a pie since I left home at the age of 17. Why? Because I was completely and utterly convinced that I could not make a decent pie crust to save my life, having been told this for years by my mother. So, much as I love pies, and despite the hundreds of pies I'd made while living at home (pies which, upon further investigation, it turns out NO ONE in the family ever complained about except my mother), I haven't tried to make a pie in 35 years.

Until now.

The first pie wasn't all that good, but you know what?


What more could anyone want for the first pie in 35 years?

So I tried again.

This time the crust was pretty darn good.

In reality, I think any pie crust recipe would be fine, but here's the one I was using. Here's the original source.

I have found the suggested measurements for a single 9" pie crust is not enough. I use 1 ½ cups of the pie crust mix and 2 T of water.

Pie Crust Mix:
  • 6 c All Purpose Flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 ⅓ c shortening (I used all regular Crisco, though the recipe calls for half regular and half butter flavored)
  1. Use a fork or whisk to stir the salt and flour together in a mixing bowl.
  2. Using a pastry blender, cut the shortening into the flour until you have a mealy mixture with particles varying up to about pea size. It won't be perfectly uniform, and that's fine. You just don't want big lumps or too many tiny crumbs.
  3. The original directions say to cut the shortening in half at a time. I didn't do that and it came out fine, but it might be advantageous to go ahead and do it that way.
Store this mixture in the refrigerator. I'm told this can be held in the fridge for up to 3 months. I've had some in there for about a month now and it's still fine. I'm using a gallon size Ziploc freezer bag; typical plastic baggies are not heavy duty enough for this type of long term storage and the extra handling. In addition, the lighter weight plastic baggies may also tend to allow the pie dough mixture to pick up odors and flavors from other things stored in the fridge if its going to be in there for more than a week or so. A plastic tub or other container would be the safest storage option, but the Freezer style Ziploc has been adequate for me so far.

To make pie dough, use 2 T of ice cold water to 1 C of the pie dough mix. Add the water a little bit at a time - if the dough is too dry, it won't hold together. If it's too wet, it will stick to EVERYTHING. In either case you will end up over-handling the dough, which will make the pie crust tough instead of tender and flaky.

Stir with a fork until the dough just begins to hold together. Be careful about adding water a little bit at a time until you've achieved this.

Suggested measurements:
9" double crust - 2 c dough mix plus 4 T ice cold water
10" double crust - 4 C dough mix plus 8 T ice cold water
9" single crust - 1 ½ cups dough crust mix and 2 T of water.

The only one of these I've tried is the 9" single crust so I can't vouch for the accuracy of the double crust measurements. The original directions called for 1 ¼ c of dough mix and 2 T of water for a 9" single crust. I found this to be insufficient to fit into a 9" pie pan. It also made a very wet dough - I had to add a fair amount of flour the first time when I followed these directions. The extra handling contributed to the crust being only OK instead of pretty good. Increasing the dough mix to 1 ½ cups brought the dry to wet ratio closer to being correct.


This is the other area (besides getting the wet to dry ratio right) where things can get a little tricky. Over-handling is always the danger.

Pat the dough into a ball and wrap well with plastic wrap. Let rest and chill in the refrigerator for 30 mins to an hour.

Tape a piece of plastic wrap to the countertop or table (use masking tape). It needs to be at least as wide as the dough you want to roll out. I usually tape 2 pieces together from the underside. I used to use wax paper but a friend suggested using the plastic wrap, which actually works out better, I think. Wrinkles in the plastic will leave wrinkles in the underside of your dough, but in the end it won't matter. You should be able to stretch the plastic enough to eliminate most of that when you tape it down.

Dust this lightly with flour. Keep a small bowl of flour nearby so you can dust with more flour as needed.

Wrap a piece of plastic wrap around your rolling pin. I manage without any additional tape, but if this slips for you, you can wrap rubber bands or rolling pin rings around the ends of the rolling pin to help hold it on. I use the plastic the dough was wrapped in when it went into the fridge to chill.

A pastry cloth would probably be easier to set up, but harder to clean. Also I happen not to own one. This works OK for me. I've also seen it suggested that you use a gallon size ziplock bag, placing the ball of dough in the center of the bag, closing it up (squeeze all the air out), and rolling it out inside the bag. Then you cut the bag off.

Take the dough out of the fridge and place it on your lightly floured work surface. Flatten the dough into a disc, lift and flour the surface again. Roll out to about ¼" thick - there should be an inch or so of dough hanging over the edge of the pie pan. Roll out to about 13" in diameter to fit into a 9" pie pan, that'll give you enough overhang to form the edge.

There are a lot of ways to form the edges. I'll take some pictures next time I make a pie - this is easier to demonstrate than to describe.

About rolling pin rings: these can help you achieve a uniform thickness, but they're generally made for specific sizes of rolling pins. There are also guides (Perfection Strips) in the form of long strips that you lay on either side of your dough that will help to ensure a uniform thickness. These run about $10, but you should be able to easily make your own with craft materials or square doweling from a hardware store. Finally, there are adjustable rolling pins that come with ring inserts that you install on the ends of the rolling pins to create a gap between the rolling pin and your work surface. These vary in cost from about $20 up to over $100.

Personally I've found that it doesn't really matter that much - once I get enough diameter to fit it into the pie pan I'm good to go.

Baking times depend on what you fill the pie with, but here are a few tips:
  1. Verify the actual operating temperature of your oven with an oven thermometer and adjust your settings accordingly.
  2. Preheat the oven according to the recipe instructions.
  3. If you are using a Pyrex pie plate, you might want to reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees. Personally, I have found that this matters when you're talking about cakes, but I have seen no difference with pies. YMMV.
  4. Some recipes suggest chilling the pie dough after you've rolled it out and put it in the pie pan. If you're using a pyrex or ceramic pie pan, I would not suggest doing this. You increase the risk of shattering the pan when you put the cold pie pan in the hot preheated oven. A metal pan would be ok.
  5. Place a cookie sheet or piece of foil under the pie pan to catch any overflow.
  6. Often the top of the pie bakes much faster than the bottom. One way to deal with this is to shield the top with a pie crust shield or a piece of foil. Or if you have a baking stone, put the pie plate on the stone with a piece of foil underneath to catch any filling overflow. For a pyrex or ceramic plate, let it heat up in the oven for 10 minutes or so on the rack before placing it on the hot stone so it won't fracture. The hot stone will help the bottom crust brown up faster.
  7. If you are baking a fruit filled pie with a top crust, sometimes the bubbling filling can make a real mess of your top crust, even if you've cut steam vents into the top crust. Making a lattice top is one way to avoid this, or get a pie bird - this is a little ceramic vent in the shape of a bird or other critter which allows the steam to vent out of the pie without making the filling boil over.
  8. If you are making a fruit filled pie, pre-cook the filling partially so you can drain off the liquid, cook that down, and add back to the pie when you fill it. This helps to avoid a soggy bottom on your pie while retaining the full flavor of the filling.

Why I Prefer a Pyrex (glass) Pie Plate
  1. I can see the bottom crust and know when it's done.
  2. You can cut the pie in a glass plate without scarring up the surface
  3. Ease of cleaning - glass is as close to durable non-stick as we are likely to get for the foreseeable future.
  4. Glass is a poor conductor of heat. Oddly enough, this has the opposite effect one might expect; because it conducts heat poorly, heat is more evenly distributed, resulting in a more evenly baked filling and better browning of the crust. Metal pans often develop hot spots, leaving fillings underdone in the center and causing uneven baking.
  5. I have NEVER experienced pie crust sticking in a glass pie plate.
  6. They're cheap and durable. Unlike metal pans, they don't stain, dent, or ding. You can break one, but I never have.

Gadget Review - Pastry Blender

A pastry blender is a fairly simple gadget, but one that has more uses than just for making pie crust. I use mine for
  • pie dough
  • biscuits
  • streusel or other "crumble" toppings
  • mashing potatoes, yams, squash, or bananas
  • breaking up cooked ground meat (say hamburger you want to use for taco filling)
  • chopping up eggs for tuna or chicken salad
  • flaking tuna or other canned meat
It's an easy tool to use. For pie dough, biscuits, and streusel/crumble toppings, thoroughly mix the dry ingredients together with a fork. If using butter, cut it into pats of about tablespoon size. Shortening is typically much softer but would still benefit from being cut into smaller pieces instead of one big glob.

Use the pastry blender to blend the shortening/butter into the flour mixture by "cutting" it in - press the pastry blender down through the mixture to cut up the pieces of fat and mix them with the flour.

For either pie dough or biscuits, you don't want to overmix. Most directions say to cut the shortening in until it's a "course meal" with "pea sized" lumps of shortening, but in reality, you will get better results if you don't expect uniform size particles. Some will be larger than pea size, some smaller. It is the variation in the size of the shortening pieces which, when rolled out, will create the flakiness of the dough. When those pieces melt, it creates steam that helps to separate the dough into the multitude of layers that make biscuits or pie dough so tender and delicious.

There are basically two types of pastry blenders.

Wire Type
First let's look at the wire type. I don't care for this one, as the wires tend to bend, tangle, or spread out too much in use.

The wire type is also not very useful for much other than making dough - it does a poor job of breaking up meat for tacos or mashing vegetable or bananas.

Wire Type
This type is more stable and has more versatility than the wire types. A good one makes short work of cutting through cold butter and easily handles other tasks such as mashing vegetables or mincing cooked ground meat. However, as for any tool, quality varies widely, and there are styles other than the "traditional" bladed configuration shown to the left.

Wire Type
This style has blades that go further up toward the handle. The advantage is that they don't clog up as quickly as the "traditional" style tends to. The taller profile provides more leverage and more clearance between your knuckles and the dough. I don't currently own one of these, but I would like to have one to see if it works out as well in fact as it looks like it should in theory.

UPDATED 12-23-2011: I have since acquired one of these, and it does seem to do a better job, mixing pastry dough with less clogging of the blade. It also seems to mash potatoes and meat (for tacos and the like) with a bit less muss, fuss, and bother. However, I'm not sure that it's enough of an improvement over a well-designed blade with the shorter handle that I would run out and replace the older design, knowing what I know now. It probably would be a better choice if you don't already have a decent pastry blender. It costs a bit more than the shorter handled version; probably worth it if you don't have one already; if you do, meh, not so much.

Wire TypeOne of the issues to consider when looking for a bladed pastry blender is how far apart the blades are. If they're too close together, it will clog and will make the meal for dough too small. If they're too far apart, as these are, you will end up chasing big clumps of shortening and flour all around the bowl.

Wire Type
Finally, there is this style. This pastry blender is inconvenient to use and not very effective. The blades are flat instead of curved, which makes it difficult to use when you need to deal with the curved sides of a mixing bowl. It's also pretty expensive - $20 and up. I don't have one of these, but in this case I'm unlikely to buy one to try it out.