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Thanksgiving 101

Make Pie Dough Like a Pro

Preparing pie dough from scratch is one of baking's most gratifying endeavors--and, for many, one of the most intimidating. Yet mastering this craft is not only doable, albeit with a bit of practice-makes-perfect. Thanksgiving affords an excellent reason to brush up on the basics, and even less-than-perfect results will taste delicious. The best part of having pie-dough credentials? All the many wonderful pies you can bake and share, all year round.

Easy does it: pie dough from scratch Easy does it: pie dough from scratch

The Basics

Flour, salt, butter and water: It's near-magical how these four simple ingredients can be quickly transformed into a smooth, pliable dough that is the oh-so-delectable start for an endless variety of pies and tarts. When preparing pie dough (formally known as pate brisee), you should adopt a less-is-more attitude, as in the less you work the dough, the better (e.g. flakier) it will be. Similar to when making other "short" doughs (such as for biscuits and scones), use a light hand when making it. You still want to see bits of butter in the dough, since those are what will create the layers that are the hallmark of a pie crust well done.

Secrets to success

Do a little digging and you'll uncover differing opinions as to the best way to prepare pie dough: with butter, shortening, or a combination; by hand or in a food processor; even with vodka instead of water (for a concise overview of the role of each ingredient in pie dough, click here). Explore all of these options to discover what works best for you, but whichever method you choose to follow, you'll need to heed a few tried-and-true tenets for the best outcome.

Chill out: That goes for you, your ingredients and the finished dough, every step of the way (until baking, that is). 

  • Cut cold butter into pieces and then keep in the refrigerator until needed.
  • Some cooks like to keep flour in the freezer especially for using in making pie doughs, or you could just put the amount needed in the freezer for half an hour before using.
  • Your hands are not the best tool for working the butter into the flour mixture (too warm); use a pastry blender or two knives instead. 
  • Chill the dough well after it comes together and before rolling out, then chill as needed while working with the dough (and chill every step of the way when fitting into a pie tin, etc).

Go easy: When in doubt, stop! Avoid overworking or you'll end up with tough, rather than tender, dough.

  • Cutting the cold butter into pieces helps in getting them more evenly distributed faster.
  • You want to end up with visible butter pieces in the dough, anywhere from pea- to almond-sized pieces.
  • Add only as much ice-cold water as needed to get the mixture to hold together when pinched. 
  • If using a food processor, use the pulse function only, and leave the butter pieces slightly bigger before adding the water. And use a flexible spatula to mix in the ice water.

All-Butter Pie Dough Recipe

Many people prefer the taste, texture and golden-brown color of all-butter pie dough over those made with shortening, and that's what you'll find here. For a version from King Arthur Flour that uses shortening, click here.

  • 320 grams (approximately 2 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour 
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
  • 227 grams (approximately 1 cup) unsalted butter, cold, cut into pieces
  • 3.5 ml (approximately 1/4 cup) ice-cold water, plus more as needed

Steps

  1. Whisk together flour, salt, and sugar (if using) in a wide bowl. 

  2. Add butter and cut into flour mixture with a pastry blender or two table knives just until pea- to almond-sized pieces remain. 

  3. Drizzle ice water over mixture and stir to combine with a flexible spatula. If mixture doesn't hold together when pinched, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it does. Mixture will still be loose and crumbly.

  4. Divide dough in half and turn out each part onto a piece of plastic wrap. Using wrap, gather dough together into a ball, then flatten into a disk. 

  5. Wrap well in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 2 days. Wrapped dough can be frozen, in resealable plastic bags, for up to 3 months; thaw overnight in the refrigerator before using. 

Foolproof variation

Some pie crusts call for the addition of egg (whole or just the yolk), which will make the dough easier to roll out (and also more tender and less flaky; alas, there's always a compromise). Click here for a recipe with step-by-step instructions. Or try this variation with ground almonds.

Next up: Pie Crust Primer

 

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