Wednesday, September 14, 2011
How to make the perfect pie crust
This pie crust novice learned that patience, practice - and channeling Grandma - can lead to baking success.
Food writer Lindsey Nair
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By the time I came along, my grandmother had made so many pies that she barely measured ingredients, deftly cut in the shortening and knew by touch when just enough ice water had been dribbled into the bowl to make the dough come together.
As a result, she could whip up a homemade pie in a flash with goodies such as rhubarb cut from the yard or wild blueberries plucked from bushes across the road.
I wish I could say I sat with her and watched, listening, as she passed along tips collected over time. I wish I could say I inherited the pie pastry gene and have been carrying on her traditions since we lost her in 2006.
I've been buying pre-made, boxed pie crusts for years, and the only pie-making tip I can remember from my grandma is how to perfectly crimp the edges of the crust using just a thumb and two index fingers. So boy, I can crimp a beautiful pre-made crust.
Maybe I was intimidated by the thought of trying to measure up to grandma. But guilt, shame and feelings of inadequacy recently prodded me to do what she would've told me to do: At least try.
Everyone has an opinion
Before taking to the kitchen, I talked to everyone from professional chefs to home cooks and found that everybody seems to make pie crusts in slightly different ways.
Some use butter, some prefer shortening. Some use a combination of the two, while a few swear by old-school lard as the best fat for pastry.
According to Jeff Bland, a chef for US Foodservice, butter crusts taste better but shortening crusts are often flakier. Billie Raper, executive chef for Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, said lard makes a nice crust but can turn funny-tasting sooner than a butter crust.
We both agreed that no pie ought to sit around long enough to turn funny-tasting anyway.
Virtually everybody I talked to said the water must be ice cold. Some even said the fat itself should be as cold as possible. The temperature matters because you don't want the fat to become too soft; little bits of fat studding the crust result in pockets when they melt in the oven, and that's what creates the desired flakiness. Elise Bauer, who created the successful blog Simply Recipes, says she cuts butter into pieces and puts them in the freezer as soon as she thinks about making a pie.
Some work in the fat by hand, some use a pastry cutter, some advise using a food processor and others say a stand mixer is the ticket. Some say to work in the fat until you have pea-sized crumbles, but I've also seen recipes that describe the look as split-pea sized, or grainy like cornmeal. To me, there's a big difference between pea-sized and cornmeal-like.
Some recipes call for half a cup of cold water added in two stages. Some call for four to six tablespoons, added one tablespoon at a time. The amounts of flour and fat also vary by recipe, and some will even call for an egg.
The geniuses at Cook's Illustrated advise adding vodka to the crust, and although it sounds odd, they say the alcohol prevents gluten formation, which can make a crust tough. The flavor of the alcohol burns off when the pie is baked.
Another hint came from Lisa Helmick of Botetourt County, who makes and sells pies through her home-based business, The Pie Lady. Helmick's grandmother-in-law taught her to use a spoonful of vinegar to make the dough more pliable.
Finally, a number of folks said it's imperative that the dough be refrigerated for a time before it is rolled out. How much time varies from 20 minutes to at least an hour, depending upon the source.
Helmick said it took her six months to a year to perfect her crust.
"And sometimes," she said, "I feel like I do everything right and it still comes out wrong."
Helmick's very first attempt was a strawberry pie she made for her sister and brother-in-law years ago. When they tasted the first bite, it was obvious something was wrong, she said. Alas, she had forgotten to bake the crust before adding the fresh berries.
I was so grateful to Helmick for telling me that story. It made me feel a heck of a lot better.
Three pies, three ways
On a recent evening, I came home with a bag of all-purpose flour, a can of shortening, two pounds of butter and a mess of apples. For the next four hours, I proceeded to completely destroy my kitchen.
My plan was to make three pies using the pastry cutter method: one with butter, one with shortening and one with a combination of the two. At some point during the flour-clouded frenzy, I vaguely recall my husband shaking his head and saying, "You don't do anything halfway, do you?"
My first crust - the all-butter crust - turned out best. It rolled out nicely, transferred to the pan in one piece, baked up flaky and had a distinctly buttery flavor.
The other two crusts seemed to come together well, but when it came time to roll them out and lift them from counter to pan, the crust began to crack and fall apart.
After some cursing and banging around, I wrestled one of them into the pan. And then, I'm ashamed to say, I lost my red-headed temper and lobbed the other one into the trash can. But even though it wasn't the prettiest pie, the one that made it into the oven - the butter and shortening combo - was entirely edible and even earned a few compliments from my (perhaps overly polite) colleagues.
The mad scientist in me wants to draw concrete conclusions from the experiment. But with cooking, and particularly baking, too many variables often make that impossible.
Was it the shortening that turned out a crumbly crust? I doubt it, given that many pie makers have repeatedly had great success with shortening. Was my fat too warm? Did I not cut it in enough, or did I cut it in too much? Did I add too much or not enough water? Did I work the dough too much?
The only way to answer those questions will be to make pie after pie until I get it right and can exactly duplicate the winning method. And while my grandmother always used shortening, perhaps I'll end up being an all-butter gal. Pie crusts seem to be one of those recipes that just have to feel right to the baker.
A good tip
Lest you feel intimidated by this uncertainty, allow me to share perhaps the best tip I came across during this research, the one that taught me how to turn a crumbly crust into a perfectly presentable and tasty crust.
While poking around the Internet, I ran across a question on Yahoo.com from a kindred spirit whose pie crust kept falling apart.
The best answer came from a reader who suggested chilling the dough, then rolling it out between two floured sheets of wax paper. When the dough is the right size, the top sheet of wax paper is peeled away, the crust is flipped into the pie pan, and the other sheet is peeled off. I tried this, and it indeed worked beautifully.
If you've used the correct ingredients, the worst that could happen is your crust could be crumbly, brittle or tough when the pie is cut and served. But unless you plan to enter the pie in a contest, you'll still get points for the flavor of the finished product. Throw a scoop of ice cream on that puppy and you'll hear no complaints.
A good pie crust is worth perfecting, but until you do, your friends and family will still love you for trying - just like my dear grandmother would still love me even though it took me 35 years to try.
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Don't want to make your own pie? Check out the Rockbridge Pie Festival on Saturday. For more details, visit the Fridge Magnet blog at blogs.roanoke.com/fridgemagnet.