Saturday, December 7, 2013

Simple Pie Crust

Pie crust can be intimidating. All the warnings and specific instructions that recipes provide can be overwhelming. To some extent the worry is justified because making the ideal crust takes practice, while many of us make pies a handful of times per year at most. But don't worry, though making a perfect crust takes practice, making a very good one is within everyone's reach.

To me, the single most important piece of advice for making a great pie crust is to use butter. Though its texture may make it slightly harder to work with than vegetable shortening (e.g. Crisco), its flavor is incomparably better.

The crust's next most important attribute is its texture. American pie crusts are designed to be simultaneously flaky and tender. Most advice related to making a pie crust—like keeping the all the ingredients very cold, using little water, leaving some chunks of butter, and not overworking the dough—has to do with achieving these two goals. In order to understand why this advice is important, we need to investigate the science of flour, water, and fat.

When water and wheat flour are combined, gluten and gliadin, two proteins found in the flour, uncoil and join together to form a big stretchy protein mesh called gluten. Gluten is an essential component of bread, providing its structure, like the firm chewiness of French bread. In pastries like pie crust, fat is worked into the dough to interrupt sections of this mesh, effectively shortening the gluten strands and thus tenderizing the end product1. When the dough is rolled out, larger chunks of fat are flattened into layers embedded in the water/flour dough, creating flakes in the finished crust. Making a tender and flaky pie crust is all about managing gluten and fat. To quickly summarize the reasoning behind standard crust-making wisdom:

  • Add little water → minimizes gluten development
  • Keep some large chunks of fat → produces large layers of fat and dough, creating flakes
  • Keep dough cold → minimizes gluten development, keeps fat in solid layers, creating flakes
  • Work the dough briefly → minimizes gluten development, helps keep dough cold

Just try to follow this advice, and your crust will come out awesome. Even if you add too much water (which often happens) or overwork the dough, the result may not be perfect, but will still be fairly tender, and will (most importantly) taste great.

Simple Pie Crust

barely adapted from Tartine's Flaky Tart Dough

1 tspSalt
  1. Dissolve salt in water, refrigerate to keep cold.
⅔ cupWater, very cold
3 cups + 2 tbspAll-purpose flour
  1. Combine flour and cubed butter in a bowl, cut together into large crumbs with a pastry blender or 2 knives.
  2. Add water mixture and stir with a fork until dough begins to come together. Add a bit more water if needed.
  3. Divide dough into disks, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate until needed.
1 cup + 5 tbspUnsalted butter, very cold

Combine the salt and water and stir to dissolve. Refrigerate to keep cold until needed. Cut the butter into cubes and add to the flour in a medium-sized bowl. Now, using a pastry blender2 or two butter knives, cut the butter into the flour until it has the texture of large crumbs, but still retains some pea-sized chunks of butter.

Drizzle in the water mixture, and toss with a fork to wet the flour and begin forming a dough. If the dough is still too dry to come together, add water bit by bit until it does, being careful not to add too much water. There should still be some visible chunks of butter, which will later create the flaky layers in our crust. Divide the dough into disks sized for your pie recipe, then wrap in plastic and refrigerate until needed. Ideally you should let it rest in the fridge for at least a few hours to allow the butter to firm back up.

  1. This is where the term shortening (in reference to a baking fat) actually comes from. 

  2. A pastry blender's an awesome tool for cutting fat into flour for things like pie dcrust, biscuits, and even flour tortillas. Plus, they make you feel like you're wielding brass knuckles or something. If you're in the market for a pastry blender, make sure to find one with sturdy construction, with solid-looking (not 'wire') blades and a handle that won't spin in place. More this, less this

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