Beautiful, Flaky Pie Crust the Old-Fashioned Way

Serious Eats

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Video: Serious Eats]

Americans have been crafting the best pies in the world for over 200 years, even going so far as to equate pastries and patriotism—"as American as apple pie" (a dessert that requires not one crust but two). Yet somehow we've come to think of it as a particularly daunting task, as if 19th-century grandmas weren't cranking out wonderfully flaky pies without electricity, air conditioning, or even convenient sticks of butter.

With those considerable advantages, making pastries is easier than ever. While Kenji goes full modern with a food processor for his Easy Pie Dough, my approach is decidedly low-tech. It's simple, it's reliable, and it produces a strong but pliable dough that bakes into an extra-flaky crust.

Before jumping into the nitty-gritty of my technique, you must unlearn what you have learned from other recipes. We've been warned about the "evils" of gluten so many times that some bakers have a deep-seated fear of overworking the dough. That's a crummy mindset to carry into the kitchen, because fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering. Pretty much sums things up, huh? We're so afraid of gluten, we'll do just about anything to avoid it, but then we find ourselves angry at doughs that rip and tear, and we hate our crusts as they slump out of shape in the oven.

To transcend that suffering, we have to realize that gluten isn't the enemy of our dough. (If it were, we'd have all switched to a gluten-free recipe by now.) To paraphrase an old friend, my ally is gluten, and a powerful ally it is. It's the force that gives pastry its power, that binds a crust together. It strengthens dough so that we can wield it with confidence, knowing it won't fall apart in our hands.

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With gluten on our side, pie dough should feel as comfortable as a worn leather jacket, flexible and soft but strong. Sure, the dark side of gluten is that it can make a pie crust tough, but that's where love butter comes in. It brings balance to the force, so pie dough turns out tender and crisp. In culinary school, I learned that a 1:1 ratio of flour to butter by weight is ideal. That may seem like more than you're used to, but it's a tried-and-true pastry formula that improves the flexibility of the dough.

It also keeps the bottom crust from turning soggy, as the butter has a slight waterproofing effect on the dough, preventing it from absorbing a juicy filling. That means that even the bottom crust of a cherry pie will be flaky and crisp, no par-baking required.

Happily, the technique for getting the crust extra flaky is actually pretty fun, at least if you're the sort of person who likes to pop bubble wrap and make paper planes, because it all boils down to smashing and folding. Here's the deal: Cut up some cold butter, toss it with flour, and squish each cube flat. That's it; no "coarse meal" or "pea-sized bits" to try to judge by eye. No guesswork when it comes to adding the water, either—the amount you add will always be exactly 50% of the flour by weight. Once it's incorporated, knead until the dough forms a lumpy ball; the butter itself will work as a binder while simultaneously keeping the gluten from becoming dangerously powerful.

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Once all the floury bits have been absorbed, plop the dough onto a well-floured surface and sprinkle more flour on top. Seriously, have at it! Any excess flour can be brushed off later on, so there's absolutely no reason to scrape by with the bare minimum. Use as much flour as you need to feel 100% confident as you roll.

On that note, choose whatever type of rolling pin feels most comfortable in your hands. Like a finely crafted lightsaber, it's an expression of your own personal style. I've got a soft spot for this tapered French pin, which lets me feel every bump in the dough, but some prefer the smooth action of an American pin or the fixed handles of a Shaker-style.

However you choose to arm yourself, aim to roll the dough just a little bigger than a sheet of notebook paper, keeping it well floured on either side as you go.

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Bring each 10-inch side toward the middle, close both sides together like a menu, then fold the whole thing in half (top to bottom). Unlike with a fancy puff pastry or croissant dough, this sort of folding isn't about precision—it's about throwing in a few quick and dirty layers that will be thinned and lengthened as you roll out the top and bottom crusts. For that modicum of effort, you'll be rewarded with massive layers that make everyone go ooooh and ahhhh.

As soon as you've folded it up, the dough is ready to rock and roll—no waiting or refrigeration needed. In fact, unless your kitchen is unreasonably warm (which means your rolling surface is warm, too), it's better to tackle the procedure all in one go. When you refrigerate a block of dough, rolling it out later on will soften the chilled butter and "awaken" the gluten, requiring that it be chilled and relaxed again. If it's not, the softened butter will melt too fast, making the crust greasy and dense. What's worse, the unrelaxed gluten will turn to the dark side and cause our crust to shrink.

Cut the folded dough in two pieces for the top and bottom crusts. Yeah, they'll be kinda square, but don't worry about the logistics of trying to make things perfectly round. So long as you roll the dough until it's roughly 14 inches across, you can just sling it over a pie plate and trim it to size.

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And yes, I said sling. This dough is a joy to handle, wonderfully easy to pick up without any of the "tricks" so many other recipes suggest to prevent weakling doughs from stretching, ripping, or tearing. Thanks to an ample supply of butter, you don't have to worry about cracks as you fold and shape the dough. It easily conforms to the curves of the pie plate, and curls over nicely to form the border of the crust.

Roll the remaining dough into a 9- by 15-inch rectangle. It's the perfect size and shape to yield plenty of strips for a lattice-top pie, but it's also big enough that you can cover the whole pie in one solid sheet, with enough extra dough for decorative cutouts, too. Whatever your plan, don't cut those pieces yet, or they'll shrink as the dough relaxes. Instead, transfer the dough to a parchment-lined baking sheet or cutting board so it can lie flat.

Cover both portions of dough with plastic, and refrigerate at least two hours and up to 24; any longer and it's better off frozen in carbonite. As I mentioned before, refrigeration isn't strictly about relaxing the gluten; it's about chilling the butter to help preserve all those leafy sheets.

I mean, seriously, check out this pie. Could it be any more flaky or crisp? You can even see where the crust browned along the bottom as well.

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If I could impart one final piece of crusty wisdom, it would be to remind you that my pie dough should never, ever feel sticky or wet. If it does, chances are the ambient heat in your kitchen is causing the butter to soften too fast (more on the importance of dough temperature here). It's also worth taking a look at how different pie plates, whether aluminum, ceramic, or glass, can affect the texture of your crust (full write-up with photos here).

Know that you have the power to make a perfect pie. Do. Or do not. There is no try.