The Moment of Truth: Pie-Crust

Fresh Pie: Pie in the Woods

So, with a name like “Pie in the Woods”, I should probably talk about pie, right?

I have been sitting on this post for various reasons, to wit:

  • Lack of a good anecdote to post with the story: I’m using this list as an anecdote substitute.
  • Sub-par photos: I don’t have good luck with cameras, and thus don’t want to spend a lot of money. That, coupled with bad lighting, my lack of photo-editing knowledge, and my lack of tripod (last night I took a picture by setting the 10 second timer and then holding the camera in place under my chin!) leads to less than stellar photos.  With the help of my friend, Sir Photoshop, things have gotten a bit better, but I’m not too happy with my pie-crust photos.
  • Not only is the recipe involved (not hard, just tedious to explain), but there is also a lot of science behind pie-crust that I wanted to include because I’m a geek.  This made this a very long post to write, and since I’m lazy I kept putting it off.
  • Fear of judgement: My Fairy-Pie Mother reads this blog, and she’ll know what I get wrong.

So that’s why you haven’t seen this recipe yet.  But I now have three completed recipes in the pipeline that I can’t post because they all involve pie-crust (only one is a traditional pie – this crust just lends itself to several of my recipes) and I want to get the ball rolling.  So here it is!

How a Pie-Crust Works

Much of this info comes from Cookwise by Shirley O. Corriher, and from “Pies From Paradise”, an essay in Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man who Ate Everything

The first step to understanding pie-crust is understanding gluten.  Wheat flour (and some flours made from other grains) contains two proteins – glutenin and gliadin – which connect with each other and water to form gluten.  Stirring and kneading increases gluten formation and bonding, leading to large elastic sheets.  Gluten is essential for yeasted-breads – the gluten catches the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast and stretches, resulting in millions of tiny bubbles surrounded by a firm-membranes of gluten – the wonderful chewy/airiness of bread.  However, chewy is not something we want in pie-crust.  Pie-crust should be tender, flaky, and airy.  Gluten takes care of the airy, but how do we get the others?

Diagram of Glutenin and Gliadin forming Gluten: Pie in the Woods

The answer is fat.  The much-maligned molecule is essential to good food.  It makes food taste richer.  It brings out flavor.  It satisfies your hunger like nothing else.  It’s necessary for the absorption of some vitamins.  And in pastry, it creates the texture; fat inhibits the formation of gluten, leading to tenderness, and layers of fat between dough create flakiness.

When making pie-crust you start by adding the fat, usually in two parts.  The first half of the fat is for tenderness: the fat coats most of the flour so that when you add the water minimal gluten is formed, and what is formed will be discrete, not big long sheets like in bread dough.  The second half of the fat is for flakiness: pastry dough is not homogeneous, large morsels of fat are left in the dough.  When the pastry is baked, the solid fats melt making a gap between the dough layers that is expanded by steam from the water in the dough.

Have a piece of pie: Pie in the Woods

You may think that all this means you should completely coat the flour in fat and just add enough water to create the steam needed to puff the pastry – this is not the case.  Jeffrey Steingarten writes of an attempt to create a pie-crust with zero gluten.  He combined the flour and 1/2 the shortening for his crust in a food-proccesor, and processed it like crazy before adding the rest of the fat with a pastry-cutter.  It worked, with greasy, crumbly, un-tasty results.  The problem was that without gluten no layers of dough were formed to be separated by the morsels of fat, there were just small granules of cooked dough.  So, while you don’t want too much gluten, you do need some.

We’ve gone through the structure of pie-crust, but we haven’t discussed flavor.  A traditional pie-crust is made with lard, which is often extolled as leading to the best texture and taste.  Obviously, this isn’t an option for me (although, turns out that lard isn’t that bad for you).  So then you are left with vegetable shortening and butter as fat options.  Shortening is a pure fat and so behaves more like lard in the texture-department, but it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of taste.  Butter adds some delicious flavoring, but it contains water which leads to gluten-formation and can screw up your texture.  A way to combat this is to use cold butter – warm butter may melt and soak through the flour creating extra gluten, and preventing the formation of separate layers of crust.  This recipe is half shortening, half butter, this way you get the added flavor of butter, but still have the lovely flaky-tender texture of shortening. Now onto the recipe!

Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens by my Fairy-Pie Mother

If you’ve never made pie-crust, I highly recommend that you find a family member or friend who has, and learn from them.  There’s an art to making a pie-crust, and there are a number of things (the look, the texture, the handling) that don’t translate well into words.

Don’t get stressed out.  Yes, you could screw it up.  But there are a number of ways to fix mistakes, and if you do end up with an unusable crust it’s not hard to start over again (and if you put sugar in the bad dough, you can make shortbread!).

Don’t overwork the dough.  All pie-crust recipes say this.  As stated above the way that pastry works is by having large morsels of unmixed fat.  If your dough looks like dough before you’ve added the water, you have over-worked it.  Try again.

I roll out the crust between two pieces of wax paper.  No this does not look very elegant, but dang-it, it works, and takes out a lot of the stress.  

Since we measure ingredients by volume and not weight in this country, HOW you measure the flour is important.  (Our measurement system is largely due to the popularity of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, which advocated measuring by volume because it was more scientific than some other methods at the time – i.e. “a piece of butter the size of an egg”) .  When I measure flour I stir it up with a fork, then gently scoop up the flour and shake the excess off until it’s basically level.


For a Single-Crust Pie:
1 1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup cold butter
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
4 to 5 Tbsp ice water

For a Double-Crust Pie:
2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup cold butter
1/3 cup vegetable shortening
5 to 7 Tbsp ice water


This is a really good video to watch that uses a similar method to this recipe, so that you can see how the dough should look at various stages.

Make the Crust

In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt.  Using a pastry-cutter, cut in the butter until the mixture is very crumbly, similar to cornmeal.  (Be sure to start with the butter, starting with the shortening can lead to over-worked dough).  Cut in the shortening until the mixture resembles small peas.

Cut in the butter until it resembles coarse crumbs: Pie in the Woods

Cut in the rest of the shortening until it looks like small peas: Pie in the Woods


Sprinkle 1 Tbsp of ice water over a portion of the flour mixture and gently stir it with a fork. Repeat with 4 more Tbsp of water, each time adding the water to a dry section of dough.  If the dough still looks dry, add a bit more water (in winter I find that I always use the full 7 Tbsp, but in summer when it’s humid and the butter is warm 6 is usually enough).  At this point, if you squeeze the dough it should hold together.

The finished dough should hold loosely together: Pie in the Woods

If making a single-crust pie gather all the dough together and wrap it in cling-wrap, then flatten it into a disk and place in the fridge for 30 minutes. (If making a double-crust pie divide the dough in half first).

Roll out the Dough

Put a few drops of water on your counter so that the wax paper will stick.  Put down the first sheet of wax paper, sprinkle it with flour, and put your dough-disk in the center.  Sprinkle with more flour and place the second sheet on top.  (If the dough looks very dry at this point, sprinkle with a small amount of water, it it looks quite wet, sprinkle with more flour).

Roll out the dough, starting in the center and then rolling in multiple directions – like the spokes of a wheel.  The goal is a rough circle.

Checking to see if the dough is rolled out enough: Pie in the Woods

Assembling the Pie

Once your dough circle is large enough (check by placing your pie-pan upside down on the crust, there should be a 1- 2 inch border), peel off the top layer of wax paper.  Pick up the dough and turn it over into your pie pan, peel the 2nd layer of wax paper off.

The dough should hang over the edge of the pan by half an inch.  If it doesn’t, patch the dough with pieces from where it overhangs a lot.  Be sure to really press the new pieces in so that they stick.

Put your filling in the pie. If you have a top crust, roll it out as you did for the bottom crust, and turn it over onto the pie.

Peeling the Wax paper off the pie crust: Pie in the Woods

Trim your pie-crust edges to approximately 1/2 inch, and fold them under (this makes a neater edge).  Flute the edges (ask someone or watch the video starting about 13 min).

Before the pie goes into the oven cover the edges in strips of tin-foil so they won’t burn, and if you have a top crust cut in several vents for steam.

Cover the edges in tin foil to prevent them from burning: Pie in the Woods


2 thoughts on “The Moment of Truth: Pie-Crust

  1. I’m exhausted just reading this. But as the actual Fairy Pie mother, I would like to say – Ultra Violet makes great pies (there will be no judging here!) and it’s really not that hard. Everyone makes a big deal about it, but my advice is just go ahead and make pie crusts. Don’t stress it. And don’t buy a pie crust. They are just not as good. And don’t over work the crust so that it looks like shortbread dough. I never have, but I have found that men do! If you sing a little to yourself while you make the crust, it will go better. And when we say ice water, we mean water with ice cubes in it!

  2. Pingback: Cooking In My Scottie Dogs « The Great Dorset Vegetable Experiment

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