xoFOOD: How To Make Summer Pies With Perfect Crusts

As easy as it is to pick up some Sara Lee from the store, it’s even easier to make a good crust at home. It just takes a little science.
Publish date:
July 19, 2014
xoFood, weekend, pie, cobbler, peach pie, blueberry cobbler, easy as pie, How-To

There are some things in life that you want to be tough -- like the crotch of your favorite jeans and Channing Tatum’s abs. Pie crust is not one of those things.

Pies should be tender and flaky, brimming with the juiciest fruits and creamiest custards. Too often they’re chewy, dense, and rubbery -- or, even worse, store bought and loaded with synthetic fats and dough conditioners.

As easy as it is to pick up some Sara Lee from the store, it’s even easier to make a good crust at home. It just takes a little science.

Gluten is more than the stuff in bread that empowers your co-worker to speak WAY too freely about their bathroom habits. On a molecular level, it’s comprised of two distinct proteins: gliadin and glutenin. Normally they are kept separated by a layer of starch -- like my thighs when I wear a dress and it’s hotter than 43°.

When starch is dissolved by water, gliadin and glutenin latch on to each other to form a sticky, stretchy rope. If these ropes move around (think: kneading bread), they connect to each other, making a big elastic gluten network.

This network is what provides structure to baked goods. It’s responsible for the chewy crumb and crackly exterior on your favorite baguette -- and it’s what makes a tough, sad, crusty crust.

To minimize the gluten production you need to control two things: the fat and the type of liquid you use.

Coating your crust’s flour in fat keeps the protective starch barrier from washing away -- and it keeps whatever strands of gluten that do form from sticking together. This process is sometimes called “cutting in fat” and is traditionally done by hand.

Manually cutting in your fat can be a huge counter-productive pain. The heat from your hands starts melting the fat before it fully coats the flour granules and the kneading motion damages the protective starch.

Switching to a fork or pastry cutter is a good upgrade, but often creates a less consistent texture, leaving big globs of fat and uncoated flour behind in its wake. The most efficient way to cut in your fat is a food processor. Results are consistent, clean up is quick, and you don’t end up tits-deep in flour.

Choosing the right fat for your crust is important, too. While you certainly could go vegan and sub vegetable shortening, butter is my #1 Pie Crust Draft Pick. Unlike most fats, butter naturally contains a good deal of water. This helps to soften the starch in the flour without washing it away, and gently pulls the rest of the recipe's liquids -- giving you the tenderest crust around.

Plus: butter tastes delicious.

The final key to a perfect pie crust is being picky about your liquids. Liquid is important because it provides hydration to the flour, helping the dough become pliable and creating a tender crust.

But it can cause damage to the water-soluble starch barrier you've been working so hard to protect. Swapping half of the water for hard alcohol keeps the starch in place -- since alcohol is, well, alcohol and not water -- and adds an extra kick of flavor.

Fruit Pie Filling

You will need:

  • 2 ½ pounds stone fruit, berries, or pome (any fruit in these families will work and feel free to mix and match)
  • ½ - ¾ cup sugar (brown or granulated is fine)
  • ¼ cup tapioca flour (substitute corn starch if you must, but it won’t be quite as satiny smooth)
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp of flavoring (think cinnamon, ground or crystallized ginger, citrus zest, vanilla bean, and cardamom)
  • 2 tbsp liquid (bourbon, citrus juice, and liqueurs are all great choices)

1. Wash your fruit thoroughly and peel whatever needs peeling. If there are seeds or stones, make sure those get discarded.

2. Slice your fruit so pieces are no thicker than ½ inch and toss with the sugar, tapioca flour, salt, and your flavorings and liquids. (The amount of sugar you should use depends entirely on the sweetness of the fruit and your personal preference: more sugar if it’s less sweet, less sugar if it’s more sweet.)

3. Toss everything together, making sure each piece of fruit is well coated, and pour into your prepared pie plate.

All-Butter Pie Crust

This recipe makes one double-crust or two single-crust pies.

You will need:

You will also need:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour -- plus another half-ish cup for dusting your work surface
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 ½ sticks unsalted butter, chilled and cut into several pieces
  • ¼ cup bourbon, whiskey, or vodka
  • ¼ cup cold water
  • (optional) 2 tbsp heavy cream
  • (optional) 2 tbsp demerara sugar
  • A rolling pin
  • A 9-inch glass pie plate or any other oven-proof glass vessel that holds 5-6 cups

1. In your food processor, combine flour, salt, and sugar. Quickly work in the butter, piece by piece, with short pulses. You’ll know you’re done when the mixture looks like coarse sand and kind of stays together -- kind of like a crappy snowball -- when you squeeze it in your hand.

2. Transfer the butter and flour mixture into a large bowl. Pour in the bourbon and water, and fold together until the liquid seems evenly distributed and the dough seems chunky.

It’s important to know: This will not look like pie crust. It will look like terrifying garbage and that’s totally fine.

3. Split this dough evenly and shape into two tight discs. Wrap them both in plastic, and let them rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours. When the crust rests in the fridge, the moisture levels will balance and transform the garbage crumbles into a smooth pie crust. I promise.

4. When the 2 hours are up, remove the crust discs from the fridge and let them hang in a cool spot on your counter while you work on the filling. This will make things a little less cold and a little more pliable. While you’re at it, preheat your oven to 375°.

5. Once your filling is prepared, lightly flour a clean counter top and place one disc in the center.

Everything should be sticking together pretty firmly. If it’s not, use a flat hand to press on the sides and sort of smash it together, maintaining the disc shape.

6. Dust a bit of flour on the surface of the disk and use firm, even pressure to roll the crust into a ¼ inch thick circle that’s about 13” in diameter.

For a Free-Style Pie:

There really are no rules. Line the bottom of the pie plate (or, in my case, a favorite vintage pyrex baker) with the crust, reserve the excess dough to make a pretty pattern on of your filling.

Do you to the fullest.

For a Lattice Top Pie:

Transfer this crust into your pie plate, being sure to have it as centered as possible. Sometimes moving the crust is easier if you fold it into quarters first.

Smooth everything into the corners of the pie plate and make sure that crust runs all the way to the edge. If you have any gaps, you can pinch off excess dough and patch it together.

Making the lattice top starts exactly the same as the bottom crust: make a 13” diameter disc that’s ¼” thick. Using a knife or pizza cutter, cut the disc into 1” wide strips. You should get 10-12 good ones, with a few lumpy stragglers on the ends.

Add the filling to your pie plate and lay half of the strips on top about 1” apart. Be sure to use shorties on the sides and save longer strips for the center.

Flip the end of every other strip back onto itself, creating a 2 inch overlap, and place a short piece about an inch from the edge of the plate. Fold the first strips back down, so everything’s laying flat, and peel back every other piece from the other side of the pie.

Place another strip about 1” away from the first crisscrossing piece, and then fold the strips back down.

Peel up the other every-other pieces, lay down a new strip, and keep this doing madness until you’ve covered the entire pie.

Once the lattice is complete, trim off any dough that’s hanging over the edge and set it aside. Fold the edge of the crust over to the edge of the lattice and crimp it with your fingers or a fork.

This is more than just decorative: the crimping holds the lattice to the bottom crust so you can cut into the pie without everything falling to hell.

For All Pies:

If you want your crust to be shiny and sparkly, brush it with the heavy cream and sprinkle the demarara sugar.

Place your perfect pie on a baking sheet to any catch drips, and bake at 375°. Most pies take about 45 minutes but your mileage may vary.

You’ll know the pie is done when you can see that the bottom crust is starting to turn golden, looks dry, and has pulled away from the pie plate.

What summer pies are you obsessing over? Are you ready to tackle home-made pie crust?