For many home cooks, pie crust is intimidating. Baking authorities debate the merits of butter and shortening, secret ingredients like vodka and vinegar, and a myriad of techniques. Some even use margarine. Gross. But for my money—and my pies—basic is best. I use good butter, add a bit of whole wheat flour for a hint of nuttiness (you can skip this & just use all purpose if you don’t have any in your pantry), a hefty pinch of kosher salt, and just a smattering of sugar. And that’s all you need. What’s so intimidating about that?
*Insert “You can do it! Rah rah!” cheering here*
There are two keys to creating a tender, flaky crust; the first is keeping things cold. Use cold butter and ice water; you can even chill the bowl you’ll be using. I like to use a pastry blender, as show in the picture above, to work my dough. You can get a good one for around 10 bucks, and they are also a great tool to have around when you desperately need guac, but have unripe avocados. If you don’t have one of these nifty gadgets, you can use two forks or a fork and a knife to break down the butter, or even your hands (this is when cold hands come in, well, handy!).
The second key is visible pieces of butter in your final dough; during baking, these bits of butter melt into the dough, creating steam, which forms layers in the dough that makes for flaky crust. It’s like magic. But it’s actually science.
Rich Butter Pie Crust
Minimally adapted from smittenkitchen.com; makes enough dough for two single crust pies or one double crust pie
2 cups all purpose flour + flour for dusting counter to prevent sticking
1/2 cup white whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 heaping teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, very cold.
- Fill a measuring cup with about a cup of cold water and add a few ice cubes, and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together flours, sugar, and salt.
- Cut butter into small cubes. To prevent all the butter from sticking together, sprinkle half the cubes over flour mixture and stir to coat butter pieces in flour; repeat with remaining half. Using your pastry blender, a fork, or your hands, work the butter into the flour mixture, cutting the butter into smaller pieces and blending them evenly into the flour. When most of the butter bits are about the size of peas, STOP. Your mix will look lumpy and rough, and that is a good thing. Remember how we want visible bits of butter? Like this uber clear example via awful phone photo:
- Scrape any dough stuck to your pastry blender, forks, or hands back into the bowl. Drizzle about a 1/4 cup of ice water over the flour/butter mix and stir with a rubber spatula. Keep adding water, about a tablespoon at a time, and gathering the dough together with your spatula. Focus your drizzles on dry areas. When the dough just comes together to form a sticky, mostly even ball, divide the dough into two portions. Scoop each portion onto a large sheet of plastic wrap; flatten each dough ball into a thick disk with the palm of your hand and wrap ‘em up.
- Chill dough for at least an hour before rolling it out (two is better). Dough will keep in the fridge for up to a week and in the freezer for at least a month; if not baking that day, wrap in additional layers of plastic to preserve freshness.
- To prepare your pie shell, remove pie dough from the freezer to thaw, if frozen. If not, take your pie dough out of the fridge just a few minutes before rolling it out to let it soften slightly. Dust a clean, flat work surface (like your kitchen counter, say) with a layer of flour. Unwrap dough on floured surface and dust with a bit more flour. With a rolling pin (I prefer a French!), roll the dough out slowly, rotating the dough to create a large circle. I like my pie crust to be about a 1/4 inch thick. To transfer the dough to your pie dish easily, gently fold one half over the other, then lift it into your pan and unfold. Now you’re ready to fill it and top it or par-bake your shell for a pudding or custard pie! You can also make a galette!
Don’t have a pie dish? Dude, no worries. Make a rectangular pie!
Or a square pie! It’s all good.
And all delicious.