Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Pie Revolution

I've made hundreds of pies in the last ten years since I won our local pie contest. Hundreds. For family, for clients, for friends, for pie classes...and I started a business that requires me to bake. A lot.

So I'm so excited to say that I have learned something new and important about pie making!

I love to learn new and important things!

I can make pretty good pie but there is something about my pies that has always bothered me and I didn't know how to fix it. Because I make a lot of pie and because I am lazy, I always use a food processor to make the pie dough. I have not found a good way to use a processor and not end up with dough that has had the fat to closely incorporated into the flour. In my Pie Crust 101 post I explain the importance of the proper composition of fat and flour in pie dough. Our grandmothers, who cut the fat and flour together by hand, did not have as much trouble with the fat getting too completely blended with the flour. The food processor, because it is so efficient and fast, makes short work of the process and it's easy to over-process the dough. I haven't been able to find a good and reliable way around it.

The trouble with having the fat too finely incorporated into the flour is that the dough ends up very "short" like a short bread, and the baked crust crumbles instead of flaking. Pie dough simply has to be flaky. The short crust was still delicious but it just wasn't a real traditional pie crust and that has always bothered me. But....I didn't know how to fix it. Except to cut the flour and fat by hand, which I'm too lazy to do. Especially when I'm making a wagon load of pie dough.

Then I read this blog post over at Serious Eats. It is a wonderful article about this very problem. I love scientific examinations of food and cooking (Cooks Illustrated! Yay!) and this article, written by a former CI food scientist, does a fantastic job of explaining what is happening with the pie dough in a food processor and the author proposes the way to make the crust flaky as it should be. I was somewhat skeptical but anxious to try it out.

And what is the celebration of America's independence without the iconic American dessert? Well, it's just not a complete American celebration! So since it was our holiday weekend I had a good excuse to make a pie and try out the recipe from the blog article.

For the fat in the recipe I used two thirds my best butter and one third my best lard. I was consternated by the amount of water the recipe called for since it made the dough very, very sticky! But I refrigerated the dough over night and made the pie with cold dough, still soft enough to roll because of the addition of lard.

Oh my heavens! The dough had a lovely satin texture that I've only seen in my dreams. It had the aroma of my grandmother's kitchen. Soft, satiny, moist but not wet, the dough rolled so easily and perfectly. I didn't need to use my parchment paper method, just a fine dusting of flour and... easy as pie... the dough was in the pie pan.  No sticking, no cracking, not too firm to manipulate as a cold butter dough can sometimes be. Divine.

You can imagine that I was very anxious to taste this pie and find out if the crust was indeed flaky and not crumbly.

It was. Perfectly flaky! Just like grandma's pie always was!

I learned something new about pie and I couldn't be happier! I think it will revolutionize my pie making from now on!

Try this recipe and see if you don't love that satiny dough too!


  1. Okay, so what's the food chemistry secret? The amount of water? The mixing method?

  2. You need to read the recipe. For the flakiness, it's not using all the flour at once. Only two thirds gets cut into the butter, then the other third gets sprinkled over and lightly pulsed in. That simple method creates the elusive flaky layers!

  3. Hey, Clayvessel - I just wanted to let you know, I made my first pie last night, and the crust turned out perfectly! I used this recipe you link to, but followed up with your method using the parchment paper for rolling - I didn't even know what things were supposed to look like, so I was nervous every step of the way.

    So, I wanted to thank you for helping me make such an amazing crust on my first try ever, and also let you know that I made a post about it and linked back to you. Credit where credit's due!

    Thanks again,


  4. Wahoo Willow! That's great! Thank you for commenting and telling me about it. I love to hear things like that about first pie success! I hope you make many more!

  5. Hi, Clayvessel
    I have been trying to make this recipe for a while and have not successfully achieved the pasty texture when processing the 2/3 flour, and butter. I get a fine powder with no bits of butter visable at all. Everything is weighed in grams. I thought it might be the kind of flour I have used (gold medal, and King Arthur all purpose) or is it because my flour and butter are cold or frozen so the butter isn't coating the flour and creating the pasty texture? I have white lily which is more of a pastry flour great for biscuits and cakes, but I don't know if this would help or make it worse.
    The other issue is that the dough doesn't come together after adding the water. It is very dry and crumbly and will not make a ball. I can't figure this out and I am determined to make a good crust. Any suggestions you have for me would be much appreciated. Patty

  6. Hi Patty,
    I am glad to hear that you are trying and that despite your difficulties that you are determined to press on and conquer this skill! You can do it! Thanks for asking for help.

    The flour you are using is fine. It could be that everything *is* too cold. There is too much emphasis on the *cold* these days, imo. The idea of cold is that the dough shouldn't be soft with the butter melting and absorbing the flour completely and getting sticky but it is not the answer to pie crust problems and I think it is creating more problems like those you describe. I've been hearing it a lot. The butter needs to be cold and firm but don't use it frozen unless it is a very hot summer day and will quickly warm up. The flour does not need to be cold. The water should be cold but skip the ice cubes that some recommend, unless, as I said, it is 90+ degrees in your kitchen.

    That said, if you are processing all but the last 1/5 of flour (not 1/3) the trick is to keep going! Keep processing and the flour and butter will start making a pasty dough. Keep going! Keep processing until it starts to happen. Don't let it become one ball but stop when it is large clumps. It will happen if you are patient and pulse it long enough. When it is in large clumps, dump it into a mixing bowl and sprinkle the rest of the flour over and toss to coat the clumps. Then add the water and lightly mix until the stickiness disappears and you can form the dough into two discs. I am confident that you can make this work.

    Let me know how it goes. I expect to hear that you have made a beautiful, delicious pie! (but if you have any more problems, let me know that too.)

  7. Also, if you are using the Serious Eats recipe, try using my recipe that is on the Pie 101 blog post. I like the SE recipe but think it is problematic for beginners. My recipe is better! ;-D

    1. Thanks for your quick response. I'm planning to make some dough tomorrow.
      If I understand correctly, you suggest I use your recipe which uses 4 TBL. less butter and a total of 4 TBL. water, but use the method from the SE recipe?

    2. P.S.
      Since my dough has been dry and crumbly, using less butter and water makes me wonder a bit, but I'll give it a shot. Hopefully using ingredients that aren't freezing cold will help the situation. Thanks again,

  8. Yes, pretty much. I think their recipe uses too much water and makes a very soft dough for a novice pie maker. My updated recipe and method is on the Pioneer Woman website "Pam's Pie Crust" (and in her new cookbook). But, yes, I think it sounds like everything was too cold when you were using it and you weren't processing it long enough. Good luck!


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