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There is nothing as comforting and heart-warming as a slice of pie, complete with a tender, delicious filling and crisp, flaky pastry. But even the best bakers struggle to consistently create the perfect pie crust like grandma used to make.
What’s the secret to making pie crust flaky?
To make pie crust flaky, keep the kitchen, ingredients, equipment, and hands cool; use a combination of butter and shortening; use water and vodka as the liquid; use organic, unbleached, all-purpose flour; work lightly with the flour-butter mixture and when binding the dough, and preheat the oven.
Somehow my grandmother always managed to get the chemistry between flour, salt, water, and fat magically right, creating the perfect pie crust: firm and crisp, yet tender and flaky at the same time.
Disappointingly, my pie sometimes ends up tough or even breadlike and chewy. What did grandma know that I don’t about flaky pie crust?
What Makes a Pie Crust Flaky?
When we talk about pie crust, we usually mean shortcrust pastry, called pâte brisée in the baking business. Shortcrust pastry is made of flour, salt, fat, and water.
You usually begin by cutting or crumbling the fat into the flour, creating a pile of buttery “sand,” then adding enough water to create a soft dough.
The fat is the fantastic ingredient that creates the magical flakiness in the dough – which could be butter, shortening, lard, or even cream cheese. The fat has two jobs in making the pastry flaky.
The one function of the fat is to coat the flour and prevent it from absorbing moisture and developing gluten. Gluten is the stretchy, web-like protein molecule that forms when flour is moistened and handled (like when you knead bread).
Gluten is perfect for creating the airy, springy structure of bread, but it’s not what you need for crisp pastry. You want to avoid the gluten in the flour developing too much and making a tough, chewy pastry.
Another function of fat is to create air. Rubbing or cutting the fat into the flour leaves discernable pieces of fat, which melt away during baking – and leave little air pockets in the dough. The air pockets fill up with steam, expand, and lift the layers of pastry.
The flaky crust is therefore made up of layers of dough separated by air. The larger the pieces of fat, and the more layers of fat, the larger the air pockets and the flakier the crust.
The chemistry of shortcrust pastry is simple. But what can you do to ensure the pasty comes out flaky?
Flaky Pastry Rule 1: Keep It Cool
All pastry is best made in the chilliest working conditions and with the coldest ingredients possible.
Keep The Kitchen Cool
If possible, try not to make pastry when it’s a sweltering day or if you’re busy doing a lot of baking and your kitchen is hot. Work with cool hands, a marble rolling pin, and preferably on a marble pastry board.
Keep The Ingredients Cool
You’ll also have a better chance of creating flakier pastry if you use chilled ingredients.
It is vital to keep your ingredients as cool as possible, particularly your fats, whether butter or shortening. Keep your butter in the freezer for as long as possible and other kinds of shortening in the fridge until the last minute.
If your fats start melting before they get in the oven, the flour begins absorbing the fat, and the pastry will be greasy and tough because there will be no air pockets to make the pastry light and flaky.
Keeping your fats icy cold also prevents you from overworking the dough, especially if you are rubbing or cutting in the fat by hand. We’ll talk about this some more in a minute.
It sounds a bit extreme to chill your flour in the refrigerator, but this is a good idea on a hot day.
One approach that British cookery writer (and all-around bombshell) Nigella Lawson suggests in her magnificently titled How To Be A Domestic Goddess is to put the measured flour in a shallow bowl, add your cold, diced fats, and stir gently to coat the fats. Then put the whole bowl into the deep freeze, uncovered. Let is rest there for 10 minutes to ensure that the ingredients are cold.
Measure out the amount of liquid you need (some recipes will use egg yolk or even orange juice), and put it in the fridge. Most recipes will use iced water to mix the dough.
If you’re using a cold filling, keep it in the fridge until you’re ready to fill the pie crust.
Rest The Dough In The Freezer
Once you have made your dough, gently shape it into disks and refrigerate it for at least two hours. You can rest the pastry dough in the fridge for up to five days or freeze it for up to six months.
There are three reasons for refrigerating the dough:
- The gluten relaxes, which will prevent your crust from shrinking during the baking process.
- The fat firms up, making the dough easier to roll out and work with.
- Moisture permeates the dough, intensifying the flavor and texture.
Chill The Baking Pan
Chilling your pie dish or baking pan also helps to keep your pie crust cool and helps the crust retain its shape and size while baking.
Flaky Pastry Rule 2: Use A Combination of Butter and Shortening
Pastry recipes differ in the kinds of shortening they suggest for the ultimate in flaky pastry.
Some bakers swear by butter because of its rich, unmistakable flavor. All-butter crusts are light textured and very flaky because of the high amount of water in butter, but this does make the dough very soft and difficult to handle (butter is 80% fat, compared to shortening or lard at 100%).
As the crust bakes and the butter melts, the water in the butter evaporates as steam, creating light flakes. However, this pastry tends to puff out of shape while baking, so don’t use it for pies with fluted or plaited crusts.
Those in the shortening camp (that’s you, Crisco fans) urge you to use vegetable fat because of its high melting point and ability to tenderize flour, which imparts fluttery lightness.
It’s easy to work into the flour, but you don’t run the risk of it melting while you’re working. However, shortening doesn’t have a lot of flavor, and an all-shortening crust can be bland.
Then some suggest lard (rendered animal fat) especially for savory pies and covered fruit pies – the pastry melts in your mouth. Like vegetable shortening, lard has a higher melting point than butter.
If you want to try using lard, avoid the highly processed, hydrogenated lard you find in supermarkets and seek out better quality rendered lard from a butcher or farmer – you can order it online.
Another possible fat is cream cheese, which always seems to produce beautifully flaky pastry. Use half cream cheese, half butter in recipes where you want a tangier crust. Use cream as the liquid instead of water when binding the pastry.
However, after my years of trial and error, I find that the best pastry is made with a combination of fats: shortening or lard for flakiness and butter for flavor and lightness. Use slightly more butter than shortening for the most delectable pastry.
Flaky Pastry Rule 3: Use Good Quality Flour
Of course, you use the best ingredients you can afford when baking, especially when making pastry that uses so few ingredients. We’ve talked about the different fats you can use. But the flour is just as important.
My go-to is organic, unbleached, all-purpose flour with a high protein level. A high protein level in flour ensures that your baked goods rise well and stay fresh longer.
Flaky Pastry Rule 4: Use A Combination of Water and Vodka/Vinegar
Using water and vodka as the liquid component of your pastry may sound like a recipe dreamt up in a frat house. However, there is a method in this apparent madness.
The purpose of water in the pastry is to bind the flour and butter together, then evaporate in the oven, leaving a light, flaky pastry. However, mixing flour and water can start gluten developing – that stretchy protein that will leave your pastry chewy.
Being 40% alcohol, vodka doesn’t promote gluten formation, so the crust stays tender and delightful. The alcohol also bakes off more quickly than water, so this also limits the amount of water in your pastry.
If you’re not keen on using alcohol in your pastry, vinegar, preferably apple cider vinegar, is an alternative that works just as well. The vinegar retards gluten formation and also tenderizes the crust. However, you need to use only a couple of teaspoons of vinegar in your water.
You’ve probably heard of pastry that uses egg as a binder – yes, it makes a suitable binder and a more decadent crust, but using egg won’t influence how flaky the pastry ends up being.
Flaky Pastry Rule 5: Keep It Light
Another way of ensuring that your pasty stays light and flaky is to handle it as little as possible – keep your touch light and work the dough gently.
Underwork The Fat
One of the biggest mistakes inexperienced bakers make with pastry is overworking the dough. Handling your dough too much means that the fat starts melting. Melted fat in pastry leads to the flour absorbing the fat and the tiny air pockets never developing, so flakiness is never achieved, and you are left with dense, mealy pastry.
There are different ways of working in the fat – you can rub it in with your fingers, chop it in with a pastry blender, or cut it in with two knives, one in each hand, working in opposite directions.
Ideally, you should see flecks of fat in the dough even after working in the fat. Usually, recipes direct you to rub in the fat until the mixture resembles beach sand or cornmeal – in other words, it should be dry and powdery, not pasty or greasy.
It’s a good idea to err on the side of chunkiness to avoid overworking the dough – a few larger pieces of fat, the size of green peas, to ensure flakiness. On the other hand, don’t leave massive chunks of butter, or else they will melt during the baking process rather than evaporate, leaving you with butter leaking from the crust.
Light handling doesn’t mean that you can’t use a food processor to help you make the pastry. Our grandmas swore by making pastry by hand and by “touch.”
But there’s nothing wrong with using your food processor to cut the fat into the flour, so long as you watch the flour-butter consistency and don’t overprocess.
One way of checking that you’ve worked the butter in correctly is during the rolling out stage: when rolling your chilled dough into shape, you should still be able to see flecks and streaks of butter in the dough.
Bind The Dough Gently
The second stage when you need to work lightly and quickly is binding the dough. This is the step where you combine the butter-flour mixture with the liquid to create dough.
For flaky pastry, keep a balance between adding enough water to make the dough come together (and not collapse in a crumbly mess) and mixing gently enough to stop gluten from forming.
Unless you’re an experienced baker, please don’t use the food processor here as it tends not to distribute the liquid quickly and evenly. The dough needs an even amount of liquid to evaporate in the oven and expand the layers of pastry to create lightness.
It only takes a moment for the processor to create a mass of wet, sticky dough. Instead, dump your crumbs into a bowl and add the liquid slowly by hand.
The amount of water you need can vary, depending on the flour and fat used.
Add the water very, very slowly, a tablespoon at a time. As you add the water, use a fork or rubber spatula to press the mixture together lightly. Mix only enough so that it forms small balls when you press the dough in your fingers. You should be able to use your hands to form the shaggy-looking dough into a disk.
If the dough is too dry to do this, add more water. However, the dough should not be wet or soggy and not beaten or stirred like a batter, nor mashed like potatoes.
Once you’ve got a soft dough, divide it into two disks, wrap in plastic film, and pop them in the fridge for a couple of hours or days. Remember the benefits of keeping your dough cool.
Flaky Pastry Rule 6: Preheat The Oven
To avoid the fat in the pastry from melting and being absorbed by the flour, make sure that you preheat the oven so that it is hot when the pastry goes in – this will mean that the fats will melt and the water evaporates at the right time, and you will have flaky pastry.
Preheat a cookie sheet or baking tray in the oven to avoid a soggy bottom (that horror of all pie makers). Put your pie plate on this sizzling hot tray, which will help to bake your pie from the bottom, ensuring a crisp and flaky base. The baking tray will also catch any overflow from the filling, helping to keep your oven clean.
Our grandmas’ secrets to flaky pastry were to work in a chilly environment with cold ingredients and equipment; to use a combination of butter and shortening; to work lightly when combining the butter and flour, and when binding the dough, and always to put the dough in a preheated oven. Not quite magic, but with magical results!