Basic ingredients: Basic flaky pie crusts are generally made with all-purpose flour, butter, salt, sugar, and water. There are tons of variations. Some cooks favor all-purpose flour mixed with cake flour, for example, for a crust that is less likely to shrink. Egg yolks or cream are sometimes added to the dough make the crust more delicate. And adding shortening, lard, or cream cheese to the butter can help ensure a flaky crust.
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll stick with a basic formula that produces a flaky, tender, nicely browned, and all-around delicious crust. For an 8- or 9-inch single crust pie, I use 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 teaspoon table salt, 1 teaspoon granulated sugar together, 4 ounces of butter (or 3 ounces butter with 1 ounces lard or shortening), and 3 to 4 tablespoons ice water.
Start with very cold fat: Whatever fat you choose, cut it into small pieces (roughly 1/2-inch cubes) and put them in the freezer until they are very hard. It also helps to chill metal mixing bowls and utensils.
My favorite fat choices:
3 parts butter with 1 part leaf lard: Ideally rendered leaf lard, purchased at a farmers’ market.
All-butter: Plugra or other European-style butter
3 parts butter with 1 part pure vegetable shortening: such as Spectrum Organic all-vegetable shortening
Work quickly to combine fat and flour: To achieve a tender and flaky crust, you need flour that is coated with fat (this keeps the gluten formation under control, ensuring the tender part of the equation) and small chunks of solid fat which, when they melt in the oven, create steam and form flaky layers.
The trick is in cutting the butter into the flour-sugar-salt mixture quickly. A chilled stand mixer and paddle attachment needs about a minute on medium-low speed. Eight 1-second pulses should do it on a food processor. If you are also using lard or shortening, add them in a little more than halfway into the mixing process. You can also use a bench scraper on a cold work surface.
The largest chunks of fat should look roughly like nickels (they’ll be flat in a stand mixer) or peas (in the food processor).
Add just enough ice water: Drizzle in 3/4 of the total water you might need (in my single crust formula, that’s 3 tablespoons out of 4) and pulse the processor a few times or run the stand mixer for on medium speed for a minute or so. If you are working by hand, make a well in the middle of the mixture for the water and use your hands and the bench scraper to quickly incorporate the water.
If there's still a lot of dry flour, add another teaspoon or so of water and continue blending just until the dough begins to come together. Turn the dough onto a work surface and bring it together to form a disk.
Rest dough: This is what the dough should pretty much look like. Cover the dough in plastic and chill for at least an hour, preferably several hours. The rest will relax the gluten, make the dough easier to work with, and ensure less shrinkage when you bake the crust.
Roll dough from center outward: If you are making an all-butter crust, it helps to let the dough sit at room temperature for a few minutes to soften just a bit before rolling.
My favorite way to roll dough is to use two well-floured silicone liners. Whatever you do, make sure your surface is clean, dry, and cool. Start from the middle of the disk and roll outward in every direction: north, south, east, west, northeast, southwest, etc. Check the dough often to make sure it's not sticking and dust it lightly as needed. Flip the dough once or twice to make sure the dough is rolled evenly and is not sticking on the bottom. When you have a large round that's about 1/8-inch thick, you’re ready to transfer it to your pan.
Transfer dough gently to pie pan: The easiest way I have found to transfer the dough to the pan is to fold half of the dough over the rolling pin with the aid of the bottom silicone liner. Gently unroll the dough into the pan, allowing the dough to drape down into the base of the pan.
Without pulling or stretching the dough, position the dough against the surface of the pie pan.
Trim away excess dough so that you have about ½ inch hanging over the edge. Tuck the overhang under, so the dough is flush with the edge of the pie pan. If you have any cracks, patch them with a piece of scrap dough.
Crimp and chill: If the dough has gotten a little soft, put it in the freezer for a few minutes before crimping the edges.
Kitchen shears make a quick decorative edge. You can also use the tines of a fork, or your fingers to pinch a pattern onto the edge of the pie.
Once you’ve made your fancy edging, give it a final chill in the fridge for 30 minutes or so.
Blind bake, fill, or freeze: Pre-bake the dough. "Blind baking" is necessary for pies that will be filled with pre-cooked ingredients, like a custard cream filling. It also helps prevent the crust from getting soggy from very wet fillings like pumpkin pie and quiche. Prick the dough with a fork to prevent excessive bubbling up of the crust. Line the dough with aluminum foil, fill it with a layer of uncooked rice, beans, or ceramic pie weights and bake at 400°F for about 10 minutes. Remove the foil and weights and continue baking until the crust is deeply golden; about 15 minutes more. (Save the rice or beans for future pie-baking.) When the crust comes out of the oven, you can seal the crust to prevent leaking and maintain crispness by brushing on egg yolk (and returning to the oven another minute to set), melted chocolate, or fruit preserves.
Fill and Bake: You can also fill the pie with a fruit filling, add a lattice, crumb topping, or top layer of pie crust dough and bake it.
Or, freeze the uncooked crust and save it for another day.
The result: Crispy, delicate, and light layers—the flaky pie crust we've all been searching for.