How To Make A Perfect Pie Crust. Hint: It’s Easier Than You Think!

With peaches, plums, berries and apricots all in abundance right now, the heart of summer is the perfect time to make a pie. Pick a crust and pick a pie filling, and get baking!

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Strawberry rhubarb pie with a slice cut out
Strawberry-rhubarb pie. Photo, Erik Putz.

Here we are in the heart of summer with peaches, plums, berries and apricots all in abundance, and it’s the perfect time to get baking. And while there are many desserts to make with stone-fruit, there is something to be said for the classic pie, served with a dollop of melting vanilla ice cream.

In the past I have been (admittedly) guilty of hoping my mother or grandmother will arrive pie-in-hand for Sunday night dinners, relieving me of the embarrassment of a tough crust or soggy-bottomed pie. However, the time has come for me to be responsible for my own pie-making, and after lots and lots of practice, I’ve realized with a few simple tips, it can be both rewarding and impressive.

Picking a pie crust

The first thing you need to determine is what type of crust you want to make. The classic pie crust is a roll-out dough, formally called pâte brisée. This is an unsweetened dough, a mixture of flour, salt, a fat and a liquid. This dough is versatile and used for both sweet and savoury pies. An alternate method for this dough is adding sugar to a pâte brisée, resulting appropriately in a pâte sucrée. This is a lightly sweeter dough, and often a perfect fit for summer fruit pies.
Try it: Make a pâte sucrée from our perfect pastry — it is the ideal complement to our strawberry-rhubarb pie.

Pie variations

There are some variations to these traditional crusts — namely the fat used. All-butter crusts are divinely flavourful, but are the trickiest to manage as they can be the least elastic. They are a great alternative once you become a practiced pie-maker, but if you are just staring out, a great option is to do a 1 to 1 ratio of butter and vegetable shortening (or lard). The addition of shortening helps dough stand up a little better in the oven, with less shrinkage and a nice flakiness, while still having the butter flavour. Using only shortening will result in the flakiest of all crusts, but the taste will be very bland.

Water is often the liquid added to a dough recipe. Many recipes will also call for lemon juice, vinegar or buttermilk. These acids are ‘helpers,’ which weaken the gluten, making the dough slightly more elastic and help create a tender crust. Recipes that call for sour cream or cottage cheese will create a richer crust.

best ever coconut cream pie
Coconut cream pie. Photo, Roberto Caruso.

What’s the difference between using your hands vs. a food processor

Once you have decided what crust you are going to make, you have two options: make the crust by hand or by food processor.

Making pie dough by hand

Cut your chilled fat into small pieces. Combine all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Add fat, and, using your fingertips or a pastry blender, work the fat quickly into the flour until it is in small pea-sized pieces. You want to work as quickly as possible. The goal is to coat the fat with flour, not to blend it (as the butter softens it is more likely to blend with the flour). Add your cold liquid in small additions (the less you use the better) and gently work it into the mixture until the dough shows that it can hold together. Add only enough liquid to get it to this stage.

Making pie dough in a food processor

Whirl the dry ingredients to mix. Add fat, then pulse until crumbs form. While motor is running, pour liquid through spout in small additions. Continue whirling just until dough comes together. Add liquid only as needed. Dough should not be sticky.
Disclaimer: This is my preferred method — keeping hands off the dough is your best chance at keeping it cold…it’s also really easy!

Once your dough is made, separate it into two portions. Press each portion into a disc and wrap with plastic wrap. Chill for 45 minutes. Roll out on a lightly floured surface. If your dough begins to crack when rolling, or is showing signs of elasticity making it hard to roll, let it rest on your counter for a few moments, allowing it to warm up and relax a little, then try it again. From here, follow your recipe for baking and filling instructions.

Pre-baking your dough

If your recipe calls for you to pre-bake your pie dough, you must bake it fully before putting the filling in. Once you have added the filling, the base of the dough will not bake any more and will be soggy.

Press-in pie crusts

Still not convinced that pie dough is your thing? Try a press-in crust like in our classic lemon tart. This crust, commonly called a “shortbread crust,” is very soft and forgiving, with no rolling and overworking (it’s rich and yummy to boot.) Alternatively, you can try a pressed-in Graham cracker crust made with butter and cookies  — as in our white chocolate tart with berries.

How to blind-bake a pie shell

Originally published July 26th, 2012.