There are approximately 53 pie recipes in the Joy of Cooking, the vast majority of which call for flaky pastry dough. You could go through life only making pies with crumb crusts, and...
Let Them Eat Pie: An Instructional Series
As a somewhat seasoned baker, I can look back on the past five years and say with great certainty that my Achilles heel, my physical albatross, has been pie dough. Many an attempt at pie-making has been thwarted by shrunken, greasy crusts. I have done my reading. I have practiced. I have been stoic and stalwart and persistent, and yet pie dough eluded me for so long that it is with a certain degree of pride that I can speak today of the proper means of making a pie crust as it is meant to be made.
Begin by preparing your ingredients. One of the tricks to perfect pie dough is cold ingredients. The colder the better. Store some flour in the freezer if you don't already. Have some butter in the freezer as well. If you forget ahead of time and want to try your hand at pie dough anyway, I say have no fear. Simply cut your butter into small cubes, place them on a plate, and freeze for 15 minutes. Another trick is to freeze whole sticks of butter and grate them into your flour, using a kitchen towel as a buffer between your hand and the stick of butter. This allows you to circumvent having to "cut in" the butter at all.
Use ice water to hydrate the dough. Mix the dough quickly and refrigerate it adequately before rolling it out (at least an hour). Refrigerate it again after rolling it out (30 minutes). These steps will help keep the butter solid.
This is necessary because butter has a low melting point, somewhere between 90˚F and 95˚F. Note that this is lower than your body temperature. This means that the more you handle the dough or the butter, the more likely it is to soften or even melt. I will stop just short of telling you to hold ice cubes in your hands before handling dough. It's a bit extreme and something I never do, but it illustrates just how easily butter transforms from solid to liquid. And once the butter melts, it will never be the same. You can't bring it back.
Having said all this, there's no need to be paranoid. When pressed, I make pie dough with room temperature flour and butter that has only been in the refrigerator, not the freezer. I get fine results this way. But the flakiest, most tender crusts require cold butter, flour, and water. This is one easy way to up your game in this regard.
To cut butter chunks into flour, you'll want to use a pastry blender. These are cheap little devices that allow you to efficiently cut the butter into smaller and smaller pieces without touching it with your hands. I've heard you can use two knives for this process, but I find this silly. If you'd like to make pie dough more often, invest in a pastry blender. Using two knives would take much longer and be much more awkward, giving the butter ample time to warm up, which is something to avoid.
Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly and fairly even-textured. The butter chunks should be the size of small peas. There will be a few larger chunks. This is fine. You may wish to cut in the butter using a food processor, which I find particularly nice. It takes about five seconds to have the butter fully incorporated into the flour, at which point you can remove the dough to a bowl and add the ice water.
Add the water a tablespoon at a time. For most single-crust pie dough recipes, 3 tablespoons of ice water just about does the trick. Double that amount for a double-crust pie dough. If the dough still seems too dry, add more ice water a teaspoon at a time. Dough can go from too dry to too wet really quickly, so it's best to be cautious with amounts.
When the dough has just come together in a rough ball (many recipes refer to this stage as being "shaggy," and it is just that--there will be shaggy bits of dough that hang off the ball of dough). Don't worry about this. At this point you just want to get the dough from mixing bowl to refrigerator as quickly as possible, handling the dough as little as possible. Flatten the ball of dough (if making a double-crust pie, divide the dough in half before flattening it) to about 1 inch thickness, wrap it snugly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
This initial rest allows the dough to hydrate and relax. Those shaggy bits and crumbly places in the dough? Those will disappear as the water you added works its way to every little grain of flour. You'll also have a much easier time rolling out the dough if you let it rest. Not to mention the fact that you want your butter flecks to firm up again before rolling. This ensures a flaky crust, which is what you want.
I also like to freeze pie dough. Whenever I make a batch, I double it and freeze the half I'm not using immediately. Wrap the dough in two layers of plastic wrap, then place it in a labeled plastic, zip-top freezer bag. The next time you're planning a menu and don't know what to cook, just take the dough out of the freezer to thaw overnight, and the battle is half-won.
Not that making pie is anything like battle. In fact, I like to think it's quite the opposite.
Look for the next post in this series on making pie--rolling the dough.
My Basic All-Butter Crust
Makes enough dough for one double-crust pie
This recipe is based on JOY's Deluxe Butter Pie Dough. The main difference is that I simply omit the shortening altogether. I find that using all butter yields the most flavorful crust, and if you treat the dough right, you won't lose much, if any, of the famed flakiness that shortening imparts.
Combine using a fork or a whisk in a medium bowl:
2 1/2 cups chilled all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Add and cut in, using a pastry blender (or use the food processor method discussed above), until the butter chunks are the size of small peas and the mixture looks mostly consistent:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, well-chilled and cut into cubes (alternately, you can freeze the sticks of butter and grate them on the large holes of a box grater into the flour)
Add by the tablespoon, stirring with a fork, until the dough comes together in a shaggy mass:
About 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons ice water
Divide the dough in half, handling it as little as possible, and shape each half into a disc about 1 inch thick. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to 3 days. You can also freeze the dough for up to a month.