There are few things in this world better than a flaky, buttery, pie crust covered in a rich, sweet filling. It’s a little crunchy, a little chewy, and just melts in your mouth as you savor the delicious taste. Pastries are intimidating to many people because the dough has to have just the right proportions of ingredients and then it has to be mixed just enough to evenly distribute the fat and liquid into the flour, but not so much that it becomes tough. And once you have all of the ingredients together, you still have to make sure the crust is baked properly for the type of filling it will hold. To demystify the pastry making process, today we’re talking about the pie dough making process, from the fats that can be used to working the dough properly and baking the crust.
Most traditional pie crusts are made from flour, fat, and liquid. For the fat, butter or shortening, or a combination of the two, is the most common. Shortening by itself can be used fairly easily to make flaky pie pastry. It maintains a similar consistency at a larger range of temperatures than butter and is very easy to mix into flour. The problem with shortening is that it doesn’t have the appealing flavor that butter does and it doesn’t offer the melt-in-your-mouth texture that butter does. It can also leave a waxy taste in your mouth, which you really don’t want in a pie. Butter, on the other hand, imparts a luscious flavor to pie crusts but it’s harder to work with. It needs to be pretty cold when being mixed into the flour, but it’s hard to work with when it’s cold. It can be worth the extra effort, though, for the flavor and the texture when you’re biting into a delicious piece of pie. If too much time is spent integrating the fat and flour together, the gluten will become too developed, resulting in a tough chewy texture. In order to achieve the optimum texture and consistency, many pastry makers (including The Sugar Vine) will often use a combination of shortening and butter. This allows some of the fat to be evenly integrated into the flour, and other pieces to remain slightly larger. When these pieces melt during cooking, a hole will form, which creates that flaky texture we all love so much.
Liquid in pie dough also requires a careful balancing act. You need enough liquid to moisten the dough and bring it together into a cohesive ball, but too much liquid can make the dough too wet, which leads to too much gluten formation. Many different liquids can be used, from cold water to apple cider vinegar to vodka.
Rolling out the pie dough is another opportunity for gluten to form. A lot of handling while you’re rolling out the dough or stretching the dough to make it fit the pan can result in too much gluten and a tough crust. Stretching the dough to fit the pan also results in a cooked crust that looks shrunken because the heat makes the dough contract back to where it was before it was stretched.
It’s also not always easy to tell when a pie crust is cooked. A pre-baked crust, used for meringues and other cooked fillings, is a little easier because you can see and touch the bottom crust. Fruit pies are a little harder to check for doneness because the crust is cooking at the same time as a filling. It takes a lot of pies for a baker to become comfortable and consistent in determining when the pie is perfectly cooked.
All the effort is worth it, though, when you bite into a perfectly flavored, flaky piece of pie. Whether you like it hot or cold, a la mode or not, pie is truly the perfect dessert.
It might not seem like it yet, but Thanksgiving and Christmas are right around the corner. Contact The Sugar Vine today to place your holiday pie order!