On Pie Crust
Creating and baking a pie dish is a delightful journey of sensory experiences. As you work the dough, you become attuned to the fascinating transformation where fats and water meld with the flour, resulting in a crumb-like texture that’s both tactile and aromatic. With skillful hands, you mold this mixture into a soft, pliable dough, ready to embrace the pie dish. Then, as the pie bakes in the oven, the magic unfolds. The scent of toasted grains and the rich harmony of fats and sugars waft through the air. When you finally take a bite, you’re rewarded with a crust that’s a symphony of textures—delightfully flaky, irresistibly crispy—with a subtle, pleasant sweetness and a whisper of saltiness.
In a recent exploration of pie crusts, I came across a Washington Post article (shared by Rose Levy Beranbaum) that delves into the age-old debate surrounding what constitutes the “best” pie crust recipe. The article emphasizes that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, as the ideal crust depends on the baker’s preferences and experience. It delves into various key ingredients, such as flour, salt, fats like butter, water, sugar, eggs, baking powder, acid, and even alcohol, discussing how each component can impact the texture and flavor of the crust.
• Flour: The choice of flour significantly impacts texture. High protein content leads to tough crusts, while low protein yields tenderness. A recommendation is using a blend of 80% all-purpose and 20% whole-wheat flour, or even up to 40%, as suggested in Dan Lepard’s mince pie recipe
• Salt: Salt is essential for flavor and to prevent a bland outcome.
• Fats (butter, shortening, etc.): The choice of fat affects flavor, texture, and crust designs. My preferred option is butter.
• Water: Moisture content plays a crucial role in dough consistency and gluten development. Less water is better, and keeping it ice-cold is crucial. As Camari Mick explains, excessive water can result in a sticky dough, excess gluten development, and ultimately, a tough crust.
Nick Sharma, in his book “Flavour Equation,” highlights that many pie crusts also tend to absorb some moisture from the filling. This can be avoided by brushing the crust with egg white. If this is not enough for sweet pies, an effective alternative to prevent this absorption is to melt 3 tablespoons of white or dark bittersweet chocolate and apply it to the pie’s surface using a pastry brush, allowing it to set and harden before pouring in the custard and baking.
• Sugar: The addition of sugar interferes with gluten development and imparts sweetness. Striking the right balance is vital. For instance, Rose Levy Beranbaum recommends adding 1 tablespoon of sugar per single crust, while Mick suggests using granulated sugar or honey and incorporating spices to enhance the pie’s flavor.
• Eggs: Eggs contribute to browning and texture but can render the crust more crumbly.
• Baking powder: Baking powder enhances flakiness and counters shrinkage.
• Acid (vinegar): There is some debate on the effect of acid, as it can weaken gluten and enhance texture. It also provides protection against oxidation, particularly in professional settings.
• Alcohol (vodka, whisky or any liquor that contains 40% or above alcohol): Replacing some water with vodka aids in rolling out the dough and can lead to a less tough crust. It’s important to note that only the water component of vodka is active in gluten development.
In the end, the “best” pie crust is a matter of personal preference and practice. I look forward to experimenting with this new knowledge about ingredients to create my ideal pie crust next time.
Pictured here is my latest pumpkin pie using the short tart dough recipe from Cenk Somezsoy's book, "The Artful Baker." This pie features a delicate dough, also known as pâte sablée, which is simply pressed into the pan, eliminating the need to roll out the crust. The scrumptious filling is prepared by pureeing Halloween pumpkin carvings and blending them with milk, eggs, and aromatic spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. This recipe, a favorite of mine during this season.