Basic Pastry for Pie Crust

Just a few ingredients, and a few minutes, and you have a much better pastry than you will ever find ready made.

In all the cooking classes I’ve held, the one technique that sparks absolute fear in many a heart is the idea of making pastry dough from scratch. Although it is one of those things that, once mastered, becomes almost second nature, some folks don’t even want to attempt it.

I’m not going to say it is easy at first, but if you follow the basics, you will succeed, most of the time. I qualify that because we all have bad baking days. Perhaps we are in a mood, or the humidity is really heavy, or the flour is old, or the gremlins had their way with all your ingredients the night before (I believe this is usually the cause). Once in a while, the dough will crack, or be too soft, or difficult in some other way.

Always a fix

The good news is that dough can be patched and glued in place, it can be fiddled with a bit before it gets tough (if you don’t overwork it at the beginning) and once it is filled, most mistakes disappear. It will still taste good! It’s still homemade pie.

Read the label on pre-made crusts. They are filled with preservatives and additives, lard too, so if you are feeding a vegetarian, this is good to know. You have control of your ingredients when you make your own, and the flavor is always superior.

Additionally, in the food processor, making pastry is pretty fast, probably quicker than sending someone to the store to buy a package of ready made! Really, just moments once you have gathered your handful of ingredients and chilled them.

A short(ening) note: This crust uses equal parts butter and shortening. My mother used equal parts butter and lard in her favorite crust, but I switched to shortening when I stopped eating red meat. In general, I do not like using shortening because it is loaded with trans fats. I found a trans-fat free shortening several years ago, but haven’t seen it since! This is discouraging. I tried solid coconut oil in this recipe and while the crust came out quite tasty, it melted down considerably and the fluting lost most of its definition. For a simple pie with no enhancements, this would work fine. You can, of course, use all butter, which is quite tasty, but also loses some of its structure. I make the choice pie by pie, but since I make pies rarely, and eat very slim slices, I opt for the shortening.

Pastry Crust

Makes two crusts

3 cups pastry or all-purpose flour

Pie weights
Canning jar of pie weights!

1 tsp. salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter, cubed

1/2 cup shortening (or use all butter)

1 tbsp. lemon juice or white vinegar

1/2 cup iced water, about

Cube the butter into 1/4″ pieces and place back in the refrigerator. Measure out the shortening and place it in the refrigerator as well.

Measure out more water than you need and add ice cubes to chill it.

In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, measure out the flour, and salt. Pulse so that everything is combined. This also lightens up the flour.

Add the chilled butter and oil and pulse quickly six or seven times. It will look like coarse sand with some big clumps of butter in it. This is what you want.

Measure out your water, don’t let any ice cubes sneak in, and add the lemon juice or vinegar. Drizzle almost all of it over the dough and pulse again, quickly, six or seven times. Open the top and take out a little clump, squeeze it, and if it sticks together easily your dough is ready, even if it still looks unmixed. If it falls apart, add the rest of the water and pulse once or twice. The dough will still look craggy and unmixed.

Pour the whole thing out on a lightly floured counter and very gently press the dough together, bringing up the loose sides. This keeps your warm fingers off the dough. You can also place this on a large sheet of plastic wrap, gather up the sides, and press the edges into the dough until it forms a disc.

Your dough will still have visible bits of butter throughout. You want this. As the dough heats up in the oven, the water in the butter creates steam which adds to the flakiness.

Wrap it up, and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. This is an important step. The gluten in the flour needs to relax, the flour needs to absorb the water, and the dough needs to chill out again. Chill for a half hour, but longer is fine too. If it is rock hard, take it out a few minutes before you plan to roll out. You can also freeze it at this step.

Lightly flour the board and rolling pin, and roll the dough out gently from the middle, turning it a quarter turn every couple of strokes. Do not roll over the outside edge or you will end up with really thin edges. If it sticks to the board, run a long strip of dental floss under it to loosen. You can also roll this out on the plastic with another sheet over the top which prevents the addition of any extra flour, which could toughen the whole thing.

Roll it up on your rolling pin to transfer to the pie plate, trying not to stretch the dough. Center it, and trim off any excess, leaving a little over hang. Roll this under, and crimp around the top any way you like, with the tines of a fork, or pressing the dough between your fingers to make an edge. You can also just roll it under, and leave it rustic.

Put the shell back in the refrigerator to firm up again and preheat your oven as directed in your recipe. This is another important step that helps keep the definition in the decorative edge.

Some recipes ask for a pre-baked shell, so you will have to “blind bake” it before filling. Blind baking prevents the pastry from bubbling up or cracking on the bottom. If you are blind baking the shell, you will need some pie weights or dried beans or rice on hand. The beans and rice should be saved for the next pie-making adventure, and cannot be cooked and served. My mixture of several types of beans and a few ceramic weights have been reused for over 20 years! I keep them in an old canning jar on the kitchen shelf.

blind baking with weights
Using an large piece of parchment means easy extraction when it’s time to get these hot beans out of the pie crust!

Crumple up a sheet of parchment paper (to make it more pliable), enough to allow a substantial overhang for easy removal, and place it in your shell. Add the weights and bake as the recipe directs, usually 15 to 20 minutes. Then you will remove the parchment and weights and continue to bake the shell, usually until lightly browned.

The Pastry Rules to keep the gremlins away – more information here

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