A delicious homemade pie is a welcome site any time of the year, be it filled with summer stone fruits, savory eggs and veggies or fall pumpkin. However, when the holidays hit, this age-old treat is even more on trend. You’ve probably got a few secret family recipes in your arsenal, but if not, the internet abounds with mouth-watering ideas. There are also plenty of suggestions for how to make that crust look seriously Instagram-worthy. Although the fillings are often simple enough, there’s one mighty player behind all of these recipes that can make or break your holiday dessert, and that is the formidable pie crust. Fortunately for you, we’ve put together a guide full of secrets to help you become the master of the crust in no time. Read through for the full scoop and then get yourself to the kitchen to give it a shot.
1. Understand the process. Let’s revisit the basics. A classic pie dough recipe calls for blending flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl and then incorporating cold chunks of butter into the dry mix. A little bit of cold water brings it all together to form the dough.
2. Start with the right ingredients. Pie dough is mainly composed of butter and flour. That means all of your flavor will come from (you guessed it!) butter and flour. Now is the time to splurge on that high-quality European style butter. Not only do they sound fancy, but European butters actually have a higher fat content and result in a richer flavor. If European butter isn’t possible, aim for one made by a brand with grass-fed or pasture-raised cows, and always choose unsalted. Flour is also a key player, so make sure yours is fresh (as in, do not reach for that drugstore mini bag you’ve had hiding in the pantry for three years) and use all-purpose or pastry flour, a lighter blend that results in a more tender crust.
3. Choose the right pan. There are lots of cutesy decorative pans on the market, but the experts always agree: Standard glass or aluminum is king. They’re sturdy, conduct heat well and allow for the crust to crisp while cooking the filling throughout. Look for the standard 9-inch size or you’ll have to adapt your recipe to fit. If those aren’t convincing enough reasons, these pans are also inexpensive and widely available. Your local hardware store may even stock them.
4. Don’t overwork your butter. The perfect dough should be smooth with visible pieces and streaks of butter marbled throughout. When that dough hits the heat of the oven, the butter will create pockets of steam. This steam “lifts” the dough and results in those perfect flakes you see in a great pie crust. To accomplish this, when incorporating the butter into the dry ingredients, don’t mix it so much that you get a homogenous texture. You should be aiming for a crumbly mix with pieces of butter the size of peas or small pebbles. Keep this in mind as you mix in your cold water.
5. Keep your ingredients cold. Keeping your butter intact is the key to creating those steam pockets (aka major flake action) we mentioned earlier. If your butter gets too warm, it will melt before it cooks, resulting in a greasy crust. To aid this process, work quickly and use cold ingredients. Measure out your butter, cut it into chunks ahead of time and chill it again before using. Make sure your water is also ice cold. If you live in a warm climate or your kitchen is simply hot, you may also find it helpful to chill your dry ingredients prior to using. Lastly, if you’re mixing your dough by hand, work quickly so your body heat doesn’t start to melt the butter.
6. Use the right amount of water. Adding too much water is a common mistake, but it results in a soggy, wet dough that is difficult to roll out. Add your water one tablespoon at a time just until your dough comes together when you squeeze it with the palm of your hand. You should be able to press it into a solid mass.
7. Let your dough relax. Chill out, seriously. After you mix your dough, gather it into one or two flat discs (depending on if you mixed enough for a single or double crust) and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Chill it in the refrigerator for at least one hour or up to two days. This allows the water and butter to hydrate your dry ingredients and for gluten structures to form, so your dough will be perfectly moist and pliable when it comes time to roll it out. You can also freeze your dough like this for up to 30 days.
8. Watch your flour. It’s time to roll out your dough. Using a little flour helps prevent your dough from sticking to itself or to the surface you’re rolling on. Using a lot of flour makes for a very dry and frustrating crust. Use the lightest dusting and go with the “less is more” mindset.
9. Roll with purpose. When you’re rolling out the dough, check to ensure the dough is always “moving.” That means when you go over it with a rolling pin the dough spreads and is getting thinner. Roll a couple of times, slide your hands under the bottom of the dough to make sure it isn’t sticking to the surface, check if you need another flour dusting and roll again.
10. Set your crust. Because the crust is mostly made of butter, it can start to melt when it hits the heat of the oven, so you want to bake it quickly before it actually does that. Chill the pie for 10-20 minutes before it goes into the oven to harden the shape of the crust into place. Preheat your oven to 400°F and bake your pie at this higher temperature for the first 15 minutes or so, then lower the temp to your recipe’s recommended level for the rest of the bake time. If your crust begins to brown too much before the rest of the pie is cooked, you can tent it with aluminum foil. If your recipe calls for you to blind bake your crust, only follow this step for the first bake and use the directed temperature for the second bake.
Ready to get baking? Check out our own recipe for the Ultimate Pumpkin Pie and try making your own pie crust rather than buying one this year!
What is your favorite holiday pie? Tell us in the comments below.