Oooh, Your Pie Crust! It’s So….Wee!

9 Jan
You won't ever need to buy crust again.

You won't ever need to buy crust again.

Brave Will, from Recipe Play boldly asked a question yesterday.  Here it is:  “Why does my pastry always, ALWAYS shrink so much when I’m pre-baking it? It always shrinks down below the sides. Drive me nuts!”

Can you feel the frustration?  I can, and I’m with you, Will.  Spending time and sweat on making a crust only to see it make like a Shrinky-Dink in the oven is most disheartening, to say the least.  This whole shrinkage phenomenon needs to be addressed.  And let me just say to you, Will–it’s not just you.  The shrinkage problem plagues many folks.  Let’s all take the first step towards healing and full-sized crusts together.

Pie crust.  I wish I could make reverb happen when I write that.  :: PpIeEe CcRrUuSsTt:: There!  Pie crust strikes fear into the heart of even the most intrepid bakers.  Let me tell you a story.  At one of the restaurants I worked in, it fell to the pastry department to make the pate brisee for the savory tarts.  Four ingredients.  How hard could it possibly be?  Let me tell you: I struggled with that dough and even sheepishly asked for a Brisee In-service so I could figure out what I was doing wrong.  More than once, my what-I-thought-was-lovely-brisee ended up as not much more than a disc of cracker in the bottom of the small tart pans.  It took me longer to master this stupid dough than it did to master fudge, toffee, burnt caramel buttercream and lemon sabayon.

I confess this to you so you will know that I’ve been there.

Do you guys remember gluten and what activates it?  Flour+water+agitation=gluten And how do we make a standard pie crust?  Flour+some fat+water+mixing.  This is just a recipe for tough, shrinking pie crust.  If you end up activating the gluten in your flour, and then you stretch your dough into your pie pan, the dough will shrink.  Simple as that.   If you don’t want to activate the gluten, there are two ways you can go:  Way 1–Coat all the flour particles with fat.  The fat will form a barrier between the flour and the water and keep gluten from forming.  There is a condom joke in there somewhere.  Please, tell it to yourselves.  Okay.  Way 2–Limit agitation of the flour and water.

Way 1 Analysis

If you coat the flour really well with fat, you will have a very short crust.  I don’t mean that in terms of height.  When folks talk about “shortening” and shortened doughs, cakes, etc, what they are talking about is the state of the gluten.  Coating flour with fat inhibits gluten formation.  It “shortens” the gluten strands.  Short gluten=tender.  Short gluten also=less structure.  This is why shortbread–made with sugar, butter and flour, is so crumbly.

While crumbly-ness can be desirable in a cookie–it even spawned a saying “That’s how the cookie crumbles”–it is less desirable for a crust that needs to be strong enough to hold a filling.  What you can do is work the fat into the flour so it resembles coarse corn meal with a few peas thrown in (in texture, not in color).  This will coat enough of the flour to allow tenderness but also allow enough gluten formation that the crust will be sturdy.  There are oil-based pie crust recipes out there.  Oil coats the flour very effectively, so that kind of crust will treat you right and stay the correct size for you.  I prefer some flakes, so I go the solid fat (butter) route.

Way 2 Analysis

This is all about the mixing method.  Actually, don’t think “mix,” think another, less mixy word. Combine, maybe.  Or commingle or unite.  It’s basically using The Biscuit Method with a lot less liquid.  Here’s what you do–I do it by hand so I can feel the dough.  You can use a food processor if you want:

  • Rub together fat and flour until it resembles the above-mentioned cornmeal and pea mixture.
  • Sprinkle in a tablespoon or so of ice water.  Here’s where it gets interesting.  Sprinkle the water evenly over the flour mixture, and then toss the flour and the water together.  Kind of like when you mixed water with sand to get the perfect sand castle consistency.  You guys did that, right?
  • Continue doing the sprinkle/toss method.  After each incorporation, squeeze a wee handful of the flour.  If it sticks together and doesn’t crumble apart when you open your hand, it’s ready.  When the dough is ready, it will still mostly look like crumbly flour.  If you add enough water that it looks like your idea of “dough” it will be too much.
  • Once your dough is ready, sort of compact it into a disc in the bottom of the big bowl in which you’ve been working.  I do this by just pushing down and pulling any flour crumbles that might have migrated up the sides of the bowl into the center.
  • Here’s where my method differs from others.  Most recipes tell you to refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes-2 hours before rolling.  I immediately roll the compacted puck of dough between two pieces of parchment paper, and then put the sheet of dough, parchment and all, into the fridge.  While the dough is in the fridge, the flour will c0ntinue to hydrate, and your dough will be beautiful when you’re ready to bake.  (If you’re going to bake on some other day, go ahead and freeze your sheet o’ dough).

Basic Pate Brisee

  • 10 oz. all purpose flour
  • 8 oz. cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • heavy pinch of salt
  • heavy pinch of sugar (optional–assists browning and will absorb some water)
  • ice water–2-4 tablespoons

Here’s what you do:  Whisk together flour, salt and sugar (if using).

Rub in the butter by hand.   Do this by pinching the cubes of butter together with the flour.  Continue pinching and making smaller pieces of butter while smearing a little of the butter into the flour.  The smearing part will add to tenderness by coating the flour really well.  The pinching part makes sure you have some larger pieces of butter for flakiness.  Do this kind of quickly so the butter doesn’t warm up and start melting into the flour.  If things start getting warm, throw the whole deal into the fridge or even the freezer for a few minutes to cool things back down.

Once you’ve got your flour mixture to a nice consistency, do the sprinkle/toss method from above.  Resist the urge to add extra water.  Once the dough (which will still look like flour crumbles) holds together when you squeeze it, you’re there.  The whole “stop the processor when the dough comes together in a ball” makes us want to add too much water.  If the dough is coming together in a ball, it’s too wet.  Remember, the flour hasn’t even had a chance to fully hydrate yet.  Also, there’ s water in that thar butter.  It takes a strong person to walk away, but I know you can do it.

Putting the dough in the pan can be a bit of a struggle, too.  When you’re ready to bake, take your dough disc out of the refrigerator, peel off the parchment from one side, and put that side down over your pie pan.  Peel off the other piece of parchment.  Your dough will likely be a bit stiff.  Let it sit there until it starts to slump down into the pan a little.  Now, from the edges of the dough, shift the dough down into the pan.  Try not to stretch it, just sort of push from the edges until the dough is mostly laying flat in the pan.  If you stretch it, your dough will punish you by snapping back and shrinking.  So, be gentle and place it.  No stretching.  Now you can press it into the corners and up the sides.  Use a piece of excess dough to help you do this–that way, if you have long nails, you won’t poke holes in the corners of your crust.

At this point, you can cut the dough off level with the top of the pie plate, or you can cut it with a half inch-inch to spare so you can make some sort of decorative edge.  With a wee knife, poke little slits all over the bottom of the dough to let steam escape.  In case you were wondering, a fork will make big holes, and your filling could leak out.  Bummer.  Put your poked-crust-filled pie pan in the freezer.

When it’s time to bake, take the pie pan out of the freezer.  Line the pan with Saran Wrap or other heavy duty plastic wrap.  You can also use magical Release foil, crumpled-then-uncrumpled parchment paper, or a really big coffee filter.  Fill to the top with dried beans.  If you have pie weights, go for it, but there’s no need to run out and buy new.

Throw your poked-bean-filled crust into the oven and bake at 350 degrees until the edges and sides look dull and set, about 10-15 minutes.  Remove from the oven, carefully remove your vessel of beans, brush the bottom of the crust with some egg wash (1 egg whisked together with 1-2 teaspoons of water), carefully press down any bubbles on the bottom of the crust (you shouldn’t have any, but just in case) and put the pie shell back in the oven until the bottom is set and lightish gold.  Take into consideration whether your crust will go back in the oven with some filling in it.  If so, underbake it some.  If not, make sure it’s fully baked.

And there you have it.  I hope this has helped Will and all you other folks out there who have felt bested by :: PpIiEe CcRrUuSsTt:: Let there be pie!

PS  Make a ton of dough, roll it in pie or tart sized circles between parchment and freeze the lot.  Now you’ll have pie crust at hand whenever you need it.

PPS You can reuse your pie weight beans almost indefinitely.  I like to use dried chickpeas, because they are small and don’t smell funny in the oven.

18 Responses to “Oooh, Your Pie Crust! It’s So….Wee!”

  1. HoneyB January 10, 2009 at 3:06 am #

    Congrats on making the FFF list! 🙂

  2. Daily Spud January 10, 2009 at 3:21 am #

    FFFantastically informative post 🙂 This will improve my pastry efforts no end!

  3. wbsullivan January 10, 2009 at 4:07 am #

    Wow, I feel so honored! This is amazing. Thank you for taking the time to go into such detail. I indeed practice many of the no-nos in this post (too much water, stretching the dough when it’s in the pie tin, etc. I kind of want to record this and play it on my ipod while I’m making the dough – kind of like those language lessons where you have to repeat after the instructor.


    • onlinepastrychef January 10, 2009 at 4:13 am #

      Hi, Will.

      I’m so pleased I could help. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s no point in explaining something half-way. I know your next crust–and everyone else’s will turn out perfectly! Have fun in the kitchen with your Recipe Play!

  4. Chris January 10, 2009 at 8:12 am #

    Thanks for an incredibly informative post! I hope that over time I can internalize these tips and consistently make a fantastic crust 🙂

  5. Elle March 30, 2009 at 8:36 am #

    Wonderful information! I’ll have to give this a go.

  6. Jessica April 1, 2009 at 12:02 pm #

    Thank you for the creation of this post! I found your blog just this morning and it’s simply smashing. I’ve only attempted pie crust once and was shocked at my failure. You bring me renewed hope for bragging rights!

  7. aoifemc May 6, 2009 at 7:01 am #

    Hi Pastry Chef
    I had a major pastry fail yesterday and the daily spud pointed me in the direction of this post. I think I can see where I went wrong with my pastry. I’ll definitely be trying it again and will be using this post as a source!!

  8. domesticfeminist September 15, 2009 at 2:32 pm #

    wow that’s a great explanation of how to make pie crust…I have never tried rolling immediately and will perhaps have to give it a whirl, although I am terribly afraid of sticky dough mixing with rolling pins.

    • onlinepastrychef September 15, 2009 at 2:33 pm #

      Rolling between parchment will keep your pin from meeting a sticky, doughy end! 🙂


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