The Pie Crust Chronicles

Sharon November 21st, 2011

Despite the fact that I’m somewhat famous for my association with pie ;-) , piecrust has always intimidated me a little bit.  I’ve made some truly dreadful crusts over the years (most hideously the first time I tried a coconut oil crust from a loathsome recipe that not only tasted bad but crumbled into dust).   I’ve also made some pretty decent ones, but I wanted a pie crust that was functional, could be used all the time, tasted good, but also was low input - no food processors (mostly because I don’t want to clean all the food processor parts just for pie dough), no running back and forth to the freezer to put the butter and flour in to keep them perfectly cold, etc… just the same basic tasty pie dough that has been filled with just about everything in human history - that thing that wrapped up pumpkin and pecans and mincemeat, bits of beef and onion for lunch and vegetables in broth for dinner pot-pie.  I wanted it easy, I wanted to be able to do it my sleep, and most of all, I didn’t want any vegetable shortening or lard in it - vegetable shortening because the stuff is gross, lard because I keep kosher. (Once years ago we stopped at an Amish farmstand and bought an elderberry pie, and I was filled with passionate admiration for the crust and went back to ask the woman who made it how she did it - her recipe began with “render your lard” and I realized that sadly some heights might be denied to me - I’ve come to terms with it, since suet makes a fine crust for meat pies.)

Thanksgiving is the season of pies - and of pie-related adventures.  The great virtue of pie is that you can put just about anything into it - parsnip pie is a family favorite, so is leftover chicken bits with root vegetables.  Sweet potato pie, of course is ubiquitous, and I make a not-very-sweet pumpkin pie my children love for breakfast (a Yankee, by definition, is someone who eats pie for breakfast).

My two favorite crusts are butter and suet.  The trick with the butter is to keep it as cold as possible (I do not fetishize this, however - the reality is that people have been making crusts in summer for a long, long time), and also not to try and perfectly mix it with the flour.  This was the bit I had to learn myself - what you want are small pieces of butter not fully combined, so that they can create that flaky quality.

Here’s a fabulous recipe for butter pie crust. While she is rightly concerned with temperature, this time of year that’s not too hard to achieve - just stick your ingredients outside if need be (remember not where the dog can get them ;-) )

Does beef fat (suet) crust sound disgusting to you?  It is actually really good - I got the idea from a New York Times article of a few years ago, and because we can’t use a butter crust with meat fillings or meat meals (mixing dairy and meat is not permitted in a kosher home) I really needed a good savory piecrust.  All suet is great for meat pies, but suet and coconut oil are really good for a nice pareve crust for a cherry or pumpkin pie.  I also like it in biscuits. Even kosher suet is quite inexpensive, and doesn’t have to be rendered to use it - none of the standing over a hot pot of lard business.

I think demystifying pie crust may join with learning to can in my most important kitchen moments - I hope some of you who are still intimidated find, in this season of pies, a happy ending dessert.


11 Responses to “The Pie Crust Chronicles”

  1. Robyn M. says:

    Only because I love you, I will pass along my very best secret weapon for pie crust making-vodka. No, not as in “drink it until you don’t notice how bad the crust is”, but as in an ingredient. I actually got this from Cook’s Illustrated (who certainly can err on the side of fetishizing things). You see, the big tension with pie crusts is getting them to come out tender and flaky at the same time. Flaky isn’t too hard (the non-fully-incorporated butter is the key), but tender is tricky, because the water wants to combine with the flour to make gluten, which makes things tough. That’s why all recipes say to add barely enough water to make it come together. But then it’s hard to roll out, and you end up overworking the dough, which makes-heyhey-gluten! And you’re right back to tough.

    BUT, vodka doesn’t make gluten when combined with flour! Woo hoo! So we keep some in our freezer (nice & cold), and substitute about half of the water for vodka in the recipe. You can then add a reasonable amount of liquid, making the dough more workable (and less stress-inducing), and gives the cook more wiggle room on adding water, while maintaining tenderness. The flavor bakes out, as does most of the alcohol (and really, we’re talking 2-3 TBSP of vodka for an entire pie). Works a treat!

  2. Brad K. says:

    Some years back I saw a Reader’s Digest ad for Mott’s applesauce. The ad claimed you can use unsweetened applesauce for shortening. I have used it in cookies a time or three; they cookies were great fresh, but over a day or three seemed to pick up moisture.

    Has anyone tried applesauce pie crust?


    I got my first graham cracker crumb pie crust to work pretty well, and the rest, too. I don’t think that would work with fried pies, but simple single-crust shells . .

    Blessed be!

  3. Susan in NJ says:

    My mom is the master of the lard pie crust; me I rely on a recipe that makes seven-eight crusts at a time - fool proof dough but again with lard. I’ve been wanting to try suet in that recipe. My meat farmer sells both excellent lard and suet.

  4. Karen says:

    I remember seeing something on pie making by Tasha Tudor that has stuck with me. It seems she was demonstrating making pie crust and her helper (interviewer?) was doing it right alongside her. Same environment, same ingredients, but he just couldn’t make the pie crust come out right. They finally figured that the main difference was that her hands were much colder than his. He put his hands in cold water just before working the dough and got much better results.

  5. Tegan says:

    omgomgomg I just learned this recently and it seems that no one really knows this. Freeze your butter (which I do anyway, since I buy it in bulk). GRATE your butter into the flour and stir to incorporate. Add enough cold water as you need. Et voilà, absolutely fabulous pie crust. Do it today, and I swear you’ll love it.

  6. Tegan says:

    Oh and I second Robyn’s statement of vodka or high-octane rum. I just usually go without since I’m a dab hand at pie crust. :-P

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  8. Denys Allen says:

    Are you doing an all purpose (white) flour pie crust? I usually do wheat, and this year did oat flour, freshly ground from oat groats, and half white flour using the butter recipe link. Oat flour tends to be sticky so I hope I can get this rolled out.

    Back to standing in the kitchen making the next recipe! Woo-hoo!

  9. Becca says:

    I love the hot-water piecrust technique. I use the recipe for Grandma’s hot-water piecrust here:
    but substitute coconut oil for the shortening and butter for the margarine.

  10. Denys Allen says:

    The butter crust recipe was fabulous both in the apple pie and the quiche for breakfast, even though I messed with it using the oat flour. Thanks for posting the information! We are going to add more meat and vegie pies to our menu rotation so I can teach the girls how to make crust.

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