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How to Improve Your Pie Crust Recipe

A voice teacher and storyteller, Teddi's cooking relatives included a great aunt brought to Boston by the family she worked for in Britain.

Pie crust needs a good vegetable shortening, a sufficient amount of salt—but not too much—and enough liquid added slowly. Getting the proportions of the ingredients right is important. Whether the filling is fruit, meat, fish, cheese, or vegetables, the good crust is the culinary frame for a great filling. (It can also improve a middling one, though it cannot do anything for a terrible one.)

But in recent years, vegetable shortenings have subtly changed as health worries over trans fats rose. The consistency of vegetable shortening got a little softer, as food manufacturers pulled out the trans fats. This affects the pie dough’s texture and taste and may affect, to a small degree, the amount of dough a recipe can render. I finally realized the change in the shortening was the reason my infallible pie crust was failing a bit. It was still pretty good, but not quite right. It was time to make adjustments in the recipe.

Pie crust has a light, subtle flavor. We don’t want to subtract from that. To work, the proportions of the ingredients, particularly the flour-to-fat ratio, must be correct. After a few experiments, I finally adjusted the flour-to-fat ratio back to where it needed to be, and upped the salt and liquid slightly—but not by much. You, too, can experiment with your old, favorite pie crust recipes. But for now, below find my recipe for pie crust and, below that, a recipe for an apple pie—flavorful, but not over sweet.

The crust recipe is for a standard size pie plate, not a deep dish one. The amount of dough rendered can be used in a deep dish, but it will just fit with no extra to give a nice edging. For that, the recipe would have to be enlarged proportionately.

Equipment You'll Need

  • 9-inch pie plate
  • Rolling pin
  • Medium-sized bowl
  • Measuring cups
  • Measuring spoons
  • Fork
  • Whisk (optional)
  • Pastry blender (optional)

Ingredients

  • 2 3/8 cups (10 1/2 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 2/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons vegetable shortening
  • 4 tablespoons cold water, have extra cold water to add if needed
  • 2 tablespoons cold vinegar

Instructions

  1. Measure the 4 tablespoons of water and 2 of vinegar into a cup and place the cup in the refrigerator. Put a second cup of water in the refrigerator in case more liquid is needed. You can throw the cups in the freezer for just a few minutes to speed the chilling process.
  2. Never sift flour to make the dough for pie crust, but stir it lightly with a fork or whisk before measuring. Flour tends to compact as it sits in its bag or can. To measure, gently scoop the flour into a measuring cup (don’t pack it in). Then draw a finger or knife across the top of the cup to level it.
  3. With a whisk or a fork, combine the flour and the salt in a bowl. Add the vegetable shortening. Cut the shortening into the flour with a pastry blender, a fork, or even hands. Generally, I will start with the fork and then work the mixture with my fingers. The goal is to end up with a bowl of flour-shortening bits that somewhat resemble pieces of rice or cornmeal.
  4. Next, little by little, add the water-vinegar mixture to the flour-shortening mixture, stirring with a fork, as you put the shortening bits back together into a cohesive ball. With each additional spoonful, add it to a dry spot. At some point, you will have to use your hands to bring the mixture together to form the ball. It will feel a little wet. If the water-vinegar mixture has not provided enough liquid—that is, if the dough is not holding together—add the extra water set aside, a few drops at a time.
  5. Leave the ball of dough in the bowl or wrap it in wax paper, then throw it into the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes, firming it up. Once in the fridge, you can devote those 30 minutes—or so—to preparing the filling. However, the dough can stay in longer if need be, even overnight.
  6. (Note: This dough, when rolled out, is more fragile than some heavier pie crusts, but its lightness makes for a better flavor. As it is rolled out, an edge may split a bit. That can be sealed back together. But, if this dough [or any dough] is really falling apart, it doesn’t have enough liquid. Put the dough back in a bowl and mix in a little more water. Put it back in the refrigerator for a while. When ready, start again.)
  7. Once you are ready to work with the dough, spread out a pastry cloth or a sheet of wax or parchment paper. (From here on out, I’ll just use the term wax paper.) Lightly sprinkle it with flour and rub some flour on the rolling pin.
tips-what-is-pie-without-good-piecrust-improve-the-recipe-before-adding-the-apples
tips-what-is-pie-without-good-piecrust-improve-the-recipe-before-adding-the-apples
In order, the photos illustrate: the shortening bits; pushing the bits into a ball; and the formed ball.

In order, the photos illustrate: the shortening bits; pushing the bits into a ball; and the formed ball.

Rolling Out the Dough

For a two-crust pie, divide the ball of dough into slightly unequal halves. You can roll out both the bottom and top crust first. Or, just roll out the bottom crust and wait to roll out the top crust until after the filling is in the pie plate. The smaller of the two halves will be the bottom crust, and the larger will be the top crust. (If making a one-crust pie, divide the ball and keep the other half for something else.)

Place the slightly smaller ball on the wax paper. Flour your hands lightly, then flatten the ball with the heel of your hand. Next, roll from the middle of the ball, constantly changing the direction in which you roll, so that the circle is roughly even all around. One way to do it is to keep rotating the paper an eighth to a quarter turn, then just roll towards yourself. You are aiming for the dough to be about an 1/8-inch thick and about 1 inch in diameter larger than the top rim of the pie plate.

One way to roll out the dough is to roll it between two sheets of floured wax paper.

One way to roll out the dough is to roll it between two sheets of floured wax paper.

There are several ways to transfer the rolled out dough to the pie plate.

You may gently roll the dough onto the rolling pin, place one edge, crust side down and paper side up, on the edge of the pie plate and then unroll it. Or, gently lift the wax paper off the counter and place it on the pie plate.

You may gently roll the dough onto the rolling pin, place one edge, crust side down and paper side up, on the edge of the pie plate and then unroll it. Or, gently lift the wax paper off the counter and place it on the pie plate.

My favorite way for a bottom crust is to place the pie plate, topside down, upon the rolled out crust. That is the easiest way to center it. Then flip it over. Here I have used a glass plate for ease of seeing what to do.

My favorite way for a bottom crust is to place the pie plate, topside down, upon the rolled out crust. That is the easiest way to center it. Then flip it over. Here I have used a glass plate for ease of seeing what to do.

Now carefully peel off the paper. (Here we have parchment.)  Bring together any torn edges and seal them. Moistened fingers help. Then, lightly press the dough into the bottom edges of the pie plate.

Now carefully peel off the paper. (Here we have parchment.) Bring together any torn edges and seal them. Moistened fingers help. Then, lightly press the dough into the bottom edges of the pie plate.

Finishing Up the Pie

Once you’ve added the filling, if you have not already done so, roll out the top crust in the same manner as you did the bottom crust. Before you actually place the top crust on, you can moisten the edges of the bottom crust first to aid in the sealing process. Drape the top crust over the filling.

Ideally, you want the outside edges of the dough to evenly overhang the edge of the pie plate. But despite best efforts to roll out and center the crust properly, there may be a need to take a bit of excess from one section and press it onto a skimpy edge elsewhere.

While trying to line up the edges of the dough, with a knife or scissors, you can trim off any excess to be used elsewhere.

Now seal the edges of the two crusts together. Holding the edges together, you can roll them inward towards the plate. Or, you can tuck the edge of the top crust under the bottom crust. With a fork, prick the top crust to create steam vents.

Now, if you would like to try this crust with a filling of your own, go to it. If you would like to try my take on the apple filling, see below.

Ingredients for Apple Pie Filling

  • 6 apples, approximately 5 1/2 to 6 cups, once cut up
  • 3 tablespoons of white sugar
  • 3 tablespoons of brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/8 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • Pinch or two of clove
  • 2 teaspoons vinegar
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Occasionally, I see apple pie recipes that specifically call for tart or sour apples and then load up on more sugar than other recipes that don’t mention tartness. Rather than using just one type, I tend to use a blend of apple varieties, each adding its own quality to the final flavor. Try a blend of your own favorites.

Some recipes will add a little flour for thickening, so there is no liquid in the bottom of the pan. I don’t mind the liquid. It is quite tasty, and it will disappear once the pie is cold.

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Instructions for Apple Pie Filling

  1. Preheat the oven to 450° F.
  2. Peel and slice the apples and set them aside.
  3. Roll out the bottom crust (as described above) and place it into the pie plate. Put the apples in the pie plate. Mix together the white and the brown sugar, and then stir the spices into the sugar mixture. Pour the sugar mixture over the apples going all around the pie plate. Sprinkle the vinegar over the apples. Dot the apples with butter.
  4. Roll out the top crust and place it on top. Prick the crust several times with a fork. Sometimes the edges can brown too quickly. Covering the edges with strips of aluminum foil can protect them. Just remove the foil about 3/4 of the way through the baking process.
  5. The pie is now ready for the oven. Make sure the oven is at 450° F. Place the pie on the bottom rack of the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, then move it up to the middle of the oven and reduce the heat to 350° F. Check your pie periodically during this time. When it is done, your piecrust should be a warm, medium golden brown. Depending on your oven, that might take an hour or so.
  6. When the pie is done, place it on a rack to cool.
  7. One variation of this pie is to add nuts, preferably walnuts. A second variation would be to add a second fruit.
  8. Now eat it hot or eat it cold. Eat it with ice cream or whipped cream—or not. Enjoy.

Bibliography

  • Nichols, Nell, B., ed. Farm Journal’s Complete PIE Cookbook. Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York. 1965.
  • Purdy, Susan G. The Perfect Pie. Broadway Books. New York. 2000.

© 2018 Teddi DiCanio

Comments

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on February 28, 2018:

Great article about making pie!

Your tips are very helpful. Your pictures and instructions are Well written and detailed. I really liked the way, you presented this so beautifully, step by step.

Thanks for sharing this wonderful article!