Pie crust 101: Taking your crust to the next level

Noelle Carter
Los Angeles Times

When I tell people I grew up in a family of pie bakers, it’s easy to imagine I’m bragging. My mother’s pies are legendary — rich, velvety custard fillings or mounded fruit pies, each cradled in an ornately decorated crust, golden and with the most delicate layers. And don’t get me started on my grandmother; in her day, she was known as the “Pie Baker of Villa Park,” a small suburb west of Chicago.

When I went to start baking my own pies, I didn’t think much about it. Pie-making was something my family took for granted. But then I sliced into that first homemade pie — it was pumpkin, brought to a work potluck — and found to my horror not a perfect take-for-granted pie, but a bubble of raw dough beneath the layer of filling. There are some mistakes not even a truckload of whipped cream can cover.

A dozen or so years later, a career change, several restaurant and catering jobs and a few hundred pies later, my skills have improved — though they still don’t quite match those of my mother or grandmother. But I’ve learned a lot and continue to pick up tips. Recently, I spoke with some experts and tested more than a dozen combinations of fats, flours, ingredients and tricks. Here are my results:

Choosing the right fat

Passionate pie bakers tend to have a religious zeal about what type of fat goes into their crusts, and not without good reason.

“Fats and shortenings are absolutely critical to pies,” says Ernest Miller, research and development chef at Coast Packing Co., a major supplier of animal fats and shortenings for cooking, baking and frying based in Vernon, California. The type of fat determines flavor and can influence the final texture and color of the crust. Bakers tend to use one of three kinds — butter, shortening or lard — or a combination. But which, and why?

Lard is among the most traditional of kitchen fats, once made from heritage pigs specifically bred for their fat.

“In certain points in our history, lard was actually more expensive than pork,” says Miller. Never mind the cost of butter. “You wouldn’t be using butter for baking unless you were wealthy.”

Miller notes that shortening, with the introduction of Crisco in 1911, was created to mimic the effects of lard, but at a fraction of the price.

“An all-Crisco crust will give you the best border,” notes Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Pie and Pastry Bible,” “but I don’t use shortening, because there’s no flavor.”

As people began shunning shortening for health reasons, bakers looked for alternatives such as butter, even oil. Over the years, I’ve taken to making my crust using a ratio of two-thirds butter to one-third shortening. I’ve found, particularly when I keep the fats cold until the crust goes in the oven, I get some of the benefits of shortening in my detailed borders, along with the flavor of butter. (For savory pies, I’ll usually substitute shortening for lard, or even bacon, goose or duck fat, which lends great savory flavor and rich coloring to the crust.)

Although my grandmother and mother preferred shortening, they would often brush the formed crust with butter, and occasionally dust with sugar, before baking, for added flavor and color.

And lard is making a comeback. Occasionally, you can find lard from heritage pigs, such as Manga-litza, as well as from specific parts of the animal, such as leaf lard, which is valued by bakers for its delicate flavor.

Coast Packing is currently testing a treated lard and tallow blend, not yet on the market, that mimics leaf lard; in my tests, I could barely tell the difference from the real thing.

Flour, other ingredients

Fat and its ratio to other ingredients, particularly flour, is integral to a great pie.

“I think too little fat is not a pie crust,” says Los Angeles baker and pie specialist Nicole Rucker, a past winner of KCRW-FM’s Good Food Pie Contest. “Once you remove a certain amount of fat, you’re forming more of a bread or biscuit dough.”

When it comes to flour, some experts swear by all-purpose, others by lower-protein pastry flour and still others by a host of custom blends, all in the name of making a tender-but-flaky crust.

If she’s using all-purpose flour, Beranbaum finds that adding a touch of sugar works to tenderize the dough, mimicking the results she normally gets using pastry flour. (This is a trick she’ll be adding to her new book on baking basics, due out next year.)

Rucker also uses the sugar trick in her dough, though she goes an extra step by dissolving the sugar in water before she adds it, ensuring that it’s evenly absorbed by the flour and making for a uniformly tender crust.

Another trick is adding apple cider vinegar, which also helps to tenderize or “shorten” the crust. (You might smell it as you make and roll out the dough, but the vinegar will evaporate as the pie bakes and shouldn’t affect the taste of the crust.)

When combining the ingredients, it’s important to keep them cold — particularly your fat. If the fat, especially butter, softens and begins to melt, the flour will absorb it, creating a tough dough. I actually take the extra step of chilling everything — fat, flour, water, vinegar — even the bowl and food processor blades.

And though some purists may argue, making pie dough in a food processor is wonderfully simple and easy. Just be sure not to over-process it; use the pulse feature and your dough will be tender, as if mixed by hand.

Rolling out the dough

After you’ve made the dough, flatten it into a disk, cover and chill it before you roll it out.

To keep the dough even, work the rolling pin in the center of the dough and don’t roll all the way to the edges. You’ll have greater control over the thickness of the dough if you keep the pin toward the center — the closer you get to the rim, the more likely you are to roll the pin off the edges, flattening them and making the dough uneven. Rotate the dough a quarter-turn each time you roll.

To keep the dough from sticking and absorbing too much flour, roll it between lightly floured sheets of plastic wrap or parchment or wax paper.

After you’ve formed the crust, chill it. I freeze my formed crusts for 20 to 30 minutes, which allows the crust to hold its shape and any designs while it bakes.

Blind-baking, par-baking and finishing the pie

Blind-baking, or par-baking, a crust is common when you’re using a filling that doesn’t need to be baked or when the crust needs to bake longer than the filling, such as with pumpkin and other custard pies. (Both flaky pie and short tart crusts need to be weighted before baking so the pastry doesn’t puff on the bottom or slip on the sides.)

To blind-bake a crust, line the chilled dough with parchment or a large coffee filter, then fill it with weights. If you don’t have store-bought ceramic or metal weights, use dried rice or beans.

Finally, watch the pie as it bakes. Most ovens heat from the bottom, so adjust the pie if necessary, moving up or down in the oven as needed. And cover the top or edges of the crust with foil if they’re browning too much.

Flaky Pie Dough

From Noelle Carter. The simple syrup step is inspired by Nicole Rucker.

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup water

2 1/4 teaspoons cider vinegar

2 1/4 cups (9.6 ounces) bleached all-purpose flour, chilled

Generous 1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons cold shortening or lard

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Ice water, if needed

Egg white, for brushing a par- or blind-baked shell

In a small bowl, combine the sugar with the water, stirring until the sugar is dissolved to form a simple syrup. Stir the cider vinegar in with the syrup. Cover and refrigerate until well-chilled.

To make the dough using a food processor, pulse together the flour and salt until thoroughly combined. Add the shortening and pulse until incorporated (the dough will resemble moist sand). Add the butter and pulse just until the butter is reduced to pea-size pieces. Sprinkle the syrup over the mixture and pulse a few times until incorporated. Remove the crumbly mixture to a large bowl and very gently press or knead the mixture until it comes together to form a dough, adding additional ice water, a tablespoon at a time, if needed. Mold the dough into a disk roughly 6 inches in diameter. Cover the disk tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 1 hour.

To make the dough by hand, whisk together the flour and salt in a large bowl. Add the shortening and incorporate using a pastry cutter or fork (the dough will resemble moist sand). Cut in the butter just until it is reduced to pea-size pieces. Sprinkle the syrup over the mixture, and stir together just until incorporated. Gently press or knead the mixture until it comes together to form a dough, adding additional ice water, a tablespoon at a time, if needed. Mold the dough into a disk roughly 6 inches in diameter. Cover the disk tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 1 hour.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a large round roughly 1/8-inch thick. Place in the baking dish or pan, trimming any excess that extends more than 1 inch from the sides of the dish and crimping the edges as desired. (One trick I use is to roll out the dough onto floured parchment or wax paper, invert and center the pie dish over the dough and then flip the dough into the dish.) Use any extra dough to make a decorative border (brush the edges of the unbaked crust with water or egg white before pressing any cutouts or other decorations) or save it for later use: Form the dough into a disk, cover tightly and refrigerate until needed. Freeze the formed shell for 20 to 30 minutes before filling and baking.

If par-baking (or blind-baking) the crust, line the frozen shell with parchment and fill with pie weights. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, then remove the weights and parchment, prick the sides and bottom a few times with a fork and bake until the crust bottom is dry and lightly colored, an additional 10 to 15 minutes (longer if fully baking the shell). To “waterproof” a par-baked crust, cool the crust for several minutes, then brush the bottom and sides of the crust with egg white before filling.

Makes enough for 1 (9-inch) single crust pie with extra dough for a decorative or lattice top.

Apple Pie

From Noelle Carter.

8 (or 6 large) tart apples, such as Granny Smith

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

3 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup raisins, rehydrated in rum, another liquor or juice

2 tablespoons cornstarch

Prepared flaky pie crust dough, chilled

Egg white and sugar for finishing the top crust

Peel and core the apples, and cut each into 8 slices. Cut each slice crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Stir in the apple slices, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt, and cook, stirring frequently, just until the apples start to soften, 3 to 4 minutes (the slices should still be crisp). Remove from heat and stir in the raisins and cornstarch. Spread the apple mixture onto a baking sheet to stop the cooking process and allow the apples to cool.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees, and fit a rack at the lowest part of the oven.

Remove the crust from the refrigerator and roughly divide into two pieces (figure on using about 2/3 for bottom crust). Wrap and refrigerate the smaller portion of dough while you roll out and fill the bottom crust.

On a well-floured board, roll the dough for the bottom crust to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. (It might help to roll the dough on a large sheet of floured parchment or wax paper. The dough then can be more easily lifted and inverted over the pie dish.)

Gently lift and center the dough over a 9-inch pie dish; if the dough cracks, simply press the crack together to seal, or patch with a little leftover dough. Ease the dough into the pie dish, making sure to remove any air bubbles from underneath the dough, and trim the edges, saving any scraps.

Fill the shell with the fruit filling, mounding the fruit in the center of the pie.

Roll out the top crust, cutting decorative cutouts or lattice strips if desired. Decorate the top of the pie, brushing egg white as needed to adhere the decorations or lattice. Sprinkle sugar over the decorations or lattice, avoiding the outer edge of the crust where the sugar is more likely to burn.

Bake the pie on the lowest rack of the oven until the crust is a rich, golden color and set, and the filling is bubbly throughout, about 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. If any part of the crust browns too quickly, tent with foil, and if the bottom crust browns too quickly, move the pie to a higher rack.

Cool the pie before serving.

Makes 1 (9-inch) pie with a decorative or lattice top.

Pumpkin Pie

From Noelle Carter.

1 frozen unbaked pie shell

1 egg white

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 3/4 cups, or 1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons maple syrup, preferably dark

3 eggs

1 1/3 cups half-and-half

Par-bake the crust: Heat the oven to 400 degrees, and fit a rack at the lowest part of the oven.

Line the frozen shell with parchment and fill with pie weights. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes, then remove the weights and parchment, prick the sides and bottom several times with a fork and bake until the crust bottom is dry and lightly colored, 10 to 15 minutes more. Set the crust on a rack to cool for several minutes. Brush the sides and bottom with egg white to seal the crust and set aside until the egg white is dried. Meanwhile, reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cloves and salt.

Whisk in the pumpkin until the sugar and spices are evenly incorporated, then whisk in the maple syrup. Whisk in the eggs, 1 at a time, until incorporated. Slowly whisk in the half-and-half.

Pour the filling into a prepared pie shell, filling it just until it reaches the rim of the crust (depending on the depth of the shell, you might have a little left over), and bake until the custard is set (the filling should barely jiggle when tapped), 40 to 50 minutes. If the outer rim of the crust darkens too much, tent with a ring of foil, and if the bottom crust browns too quickly, move the pie to a higher rack. Remove to a rack and cool to room temperature before serving.

Makes 1 (9-inch) pie.

A Primer on Fats

Butter adds flavor to a crust, along with color due to the milk solids in the fat. However, over-mixing the butter can make the crust tough and crunchy.

Shortening has a high melting point, which will give you a light and flaky crust and allow for creative decorations, but it lacks the flavor found with butter or lard.

Lard makes a light and flaky crust. Leaf lard and rendered caul fat (another fat preferred by many bakers) have the benefits of lard with less flavor, perfect for dessert pies.

Oil results in a crust that is generally more mealy in texture, though certain fruity oils, such as olive or some nuts, will lend flavor and coloring to the crust.

Noelle Carter