How to Make a Flaky Gluten-Free Crust for All Your Favorite Pies

20160608-gluten-free-pie-crust-vicky-wasik-7.jpg

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I've said before that gluten is like the Force, an element that permeates a dough, binds it all together. Sure, it can be corrupted into something wickedly tough, but when used for good, it makes doughs supple and strong. Given the power of that "force," it's tempting to think that a gluten-free dough is inherently disadvantaged. But if my Old-Fashioned Flaky Pie Dough is a Jedi knight, then the gluten-free version is Han Solo: scrappy, resourceful, and easy to freeze.

First, a quick recap on the role of gluten in a traditional pie crust. Gluten is a protein matrix that forms when two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, are mixed together with water. It's what gives bread or pastry its structure. American pie crusts get their uniquely flaky texture via layers of gluten-strengthened dough, separated by layers of fat and steam. Some gluten in a pie crust is a good thing, but too much can turn it tough, and too little can cause it to crumble. So how do you make a great, flaky pie crust with enough structure to stand up to the oven, but without any gluten at all?

Well, gluten isn't the only "force" in the galaxy. Where sheer tenacity makes Han Solo a force to contend with, my pie dough draws on the strength of xanthan gum, a by-product of bacterial fermentation. Though slimy in its natural state, when it's dried and ground into a powder, xanthan can serve as a binder in gluten-free doughs.

Like any force, it can be abused. Too much xanthan makes pie crust gummy and gross, but just the right amount will dramatically improve the strength and plasticity of a gluten-free dough. That means it won't crumble apart in your hands, making it suitable for even a lattice-top pie.

20160608-gluten-free-pie-crust-vicky-wasik-10.jpg

Along with xanthan, I use the same gluten-free flours found in my angel food cake—white rice flour, cornstarch, tapioca starch, and coconut flour. Though the proportions are different, the overall logic is the same: A diversified blend lets me tap into the strengths of each flour while avoiding their respective weaknesses (more on that here).

Thanks to white rice flour, cornstarch, and tapioca, the overall mix has a relatively neutral flavor profile, but with a touch of coconut flour to evoke the toasty flavors wheat flour develops in the oven. Together, these flours and starches are about as absorbent as all-purpose flour, so the blend hydrates in a similar way, allowing me to use the same proportion of butter and water found in my "regular" crust.

That's important, because a rich, well-hydrated dough isn't thirsty enough to soak up moisture from the filling, a quality that keeps the under-crust crisp despite all kinds of juicy fruits piled on top—no par-baking needed. It's golden brown and crisp on the very bottom, neither soggy nor mushy but baked through and through.

20160608-gluten-free-pie-crust-vicky-wasik-11.jpg

The technique is identical to the one for my gluten-based dough, with the butter cubed and roughly mashed in, then kneaded up with a bit of water. It's rolled and folded the same way, too. You may notice the dough cracks along each crease; don't worry, she'll hold together.

After that, the dough is divided in half, for two pies or one double-crusted affair. It's important to remember that rolling is about gently encouraging the dough to spread out, not steamrolling it across the counter. Take your time, and use a light touch with the pin and a heavy hand with cornstarch as you roll.

Gluten-free dough has inherently less elastic structure than standard dough, which makes picking it up in one piece difficult (unless you use, you know, the force). But that's okay. Some of the best things in the universe are, like the Millennium Falcon, cobbled together in patchwork pieces. Xanthan provides enough strength to make the dough easy to handle in sections, while butter ensures that each piece melds seamlessly into the next.

20160608-gluten-free-pie-crust-collage-vicky-wasik-6.jpg

After rolling the second piece, chill the dough for two hours. Not to relax the gluten, of course, but to restore the butter's plasticity. This makes the dough much easier to handle, whether you need to cover the whole pie in a solid sheet or cut individual strips for lattice.

20160608-gluten-free-pie-crust-vicky-wasik-5.jpg

Once you've laid down all the vertical columns of dough, per the directions in my Lattice 101 lesson, weaving is more about lifting the strips than folding them back. You can do it all by yourself, cradling each strip of dough in your palm and letting its length rest on your arm, or with a helper so you can hold each strip with both hands.

Alternatively, there's nothing wrong with using shorter strips of dough, because either way, lattice is only the illusion of weaving. There's no such thing as a "cheat." Each row can be made up of short strips tucked under the adjacent columns; no harm, no foul.

20160608-gluten-free-pie-crust-vicky-wasik-6.jpg

You can give it an egg wash or leave it unvarnished, because the dough bakes up beautifully golden and crisp regardless. It's the perfect foundation for my Ultimate Cherry Pie, but you'll find that it easily adapts to your favorite family recipes as well. You won't even have to tell them it's gluten-free, because it's just a darn good crust. No disclaimers required.

Don't everybody thank me at once.