If you haven’t yet mastered the art of making pie crust, you are not alone. We get questions and comments from people who love to bake, but are anxious about making their own pie crust. It is typically made from only four ingredients, so why all the fuss? Well, making pie crust is truly is a combination of art and science. It’s just as much about the technique of putting the ingredients together as it is about the ingredients. Once you get a feel for how it comes together, it’s really simple…and gratifying.
Plenty of recipes and support material describe how to make pie crust, so I thought I would take a different angle and talk about what typically goes wrong. My hope is to steer you in the right direction so you will enjoy success. Get ready to roll up your sleeves: The only sure way to get really good at baking pie crusts is to make a lot of pies. Believe me, your friends and family won’t mind.
Common problem #1: The dough is too crumbly to roll out!
After you cut the butter into the crust, the directions usually say something like this: Stir in enough cold water tossing with fork just until flour is moistened. There is a lot of good information hidden in those few words. There are two very important things to point out – “cold” water and “just until flour is moistened.” It’s important to use cold water to keep the butter cold. The butter should stay firm so it doesn’t soften and combine with the flour. Wondering why can’t you use a spoon? The trick here is to hydrate the flour with just enough water to get the dough to stick together. Tossing with a fork is a gentle way to incorporate the water without mashing it all together. You should be able to still see some of the chunks of butter. Each time you add water, use your hands to squeeze a chunk together. If it doesn’t hold together, you need to add a bit more water. If it sticks together easily, it is moist enough and you are ready to roll.
Common problem #2: The crust tears when I transfer it to the pie plate.
There are a few different techniques for transferring your delicate, perfectly rolled out pie crust to the pie pan without having it collapse back into a ball. Once again, keeping the dough cold is important. If the butter softens, the dough will be sticky and difficult to manage. Using a pastry cloth or a cutting board allows you the ability to place it into the refrigerator for a few minutes after rolling. Before you begin the transfer, dust a little flour lightly on the top of the crust. My favorite method is to fold the crust into quarters. Gently wedge a large spatula under one side of the crust and fold it in half. Then fold it in half again. Now your crust is one fourth the size and fits nicely on a spatula to transport to the pie pan and gently unfold. Another way is to roll the crust around a lightly floured rolling pin.
Common problem #3: My crust shrinks when I bake it!
If you haven’t detected a theme yet, let me point it out: it’s important to keep the dough chilled! Just before you bake the pie, refrigerate or freeze it for a few minutes to make sure the crust is well chilled. If you are baking the crust without filling (this is called baking it blind) a few things can help. Cover your crust with parchment paper and then fill with pie weights. If you have never heard of pie weights, or don’t have them, you can use dried beans or rice. The important part here is to fill it completely to the top of the crust so the sides don’t slump. If you don’t want to use pie weights, it will help to prick the crust with a fork several times on sides. This allows hot air to escape from under the crust and not puff it up.
Common problem #4: The edges of my crust are burnt!
OK, chilling the dough will not help here, but it is related to the temperature. To fully bake a fruit pie, it usually takes about 40 to 50 minutes. That’s a long time for a crust edge to be in the oven, especially when it is nicely fluted and standing on the edge of the pan. A few approaches will work here. Before baking, I usually cover the edge of the crust with strips of aluminum foil. A little trick is to use about an 18-inch piece of aluminum foil and fold it into quarters. With a scissors, cut a circle out of the center of the foil. Unfold and crimp it around the edge of the crust. This deflects the heat from the edge, but still allows top crust to get a nice golden brown. Another trick is to use a pie crust shield you can find at most kitchen retail stores. They are relatively cheap and do a pretty good job of protecting the edge.
Common problem #5: The crust is tough and not flaky.
Tough and flaky are two different things. Tough refers to the texture of the crust and flaky refers to the air pockets that form flaky layers in the crust. In both cases, the secret is to avoid overworking the dough. Here’s some background that might help. Gluten is a protein structure in wheat flours that is responsible for the elastic nature of bread dough – it’s the reason the dough springs back when you pull it. You knead bread dough to develop and stretch the gluten. In pie crust, you don’t want gluten to form so you don’t want to mix too much and overwork the dough. For tender pastry, cut the butter into the flour to the consistency of coarse meal. For a flaky crust, cut the butter so that chunks of butter about the size of peas remain. The little chunks of cold butter create the layers in the dough so that when the butter melts in the oven, it will make steam pockets. Your crust will end up with a wonderfully flaky texture.
Armed with these solutions, you’re well on your way to baking a showstopper pie. Speaking of showstoppers, it's fairy easy to add some pretty touches to your pie by creating Decorative Pie Crust Edges. Give them a try, and remember to have fun in the process – it’s all about practice!