If you want to make the best pies, you will need a recipe for all-butter pie dough and a few tools, tips and tricks to help you achieve a gorgeous flaky pie crust every time!
Ingredients to make pie dough
All pie doughs are made with a very short, simple list of ingredients: butter, flour, salt, and cold water. Yes, it's that easy. But still, you may encounter some variations in the ingredients list:
- Some may add vinegar (or other acids) or alcohol to their pie crusts in order to reduce gluten formation and avoid forming an elastic dough that will shrink back as you roll it out or as the pie bakes, but I have found over the years, that you can avoid using these extra ingredients if you master the technique.
- You can add a little sugar to your pie dough, which helps with browning and adds a little flavour, but sugar is optional, and as a rule, I don't. Your pie will probably have plenty sugar in it and anyways, pies take so long to bake in the oven, getting the crust to brown isn't a problem.
- Some will add an egg yolk to pie doughs, which adds richness and also helps tenderize the dough. Again, you don't have to.
- You might come across recipes that incorporate cream cheese, which adds a ton of flavour and moisture, leading to a more tender crust that is easy to roll out (these cinnamon rugelach are made with a cream cheese dough)
I like to keep my pie doughs as simple as possible, so most of the time, I stick to butter, flour, salt, and water, and it works great!
Opinions will vary on what are the best tools to make perfect pie dough. I like to use my food processor because I'm lazy and it's so easy. Others prefer to make it by hand. Besides needing a rolling pin to roll out the dough and a pie plate to bake the pie, to make the dough, you will need:
- If you use a food processor, all you need is a food processor, and a kitchen scale or measuring cups
- If you want to make pie dough by hand, you will need a big bowl, a kitchen scale or measuring cups, and a fork
- If you want to use a pastry cutter, you will need a big bowl, a kitchen scale or measuring cups, a pastry cutter, and a fork
- If you want to use your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, you also can, and then you'll need a scale or measuring cups
Steps to make the dough
Mise-en-place: weigh out all your ingredients and gather your tools
Before you get started making your pie dough, like with any recipe, it's important to gather all your ingredients, measure them out, and get out all the tools you need. This way, you know before you start if you are missing something so that you can adjust your strategy (or go to the store, if need be). Professionals call this "mise-en-place".
To measure baking ingredients, I prefer to use a kitchen scale (like this scale from OXO) to weigh out the ingredients, but measuring cups work fine too.
Cut the butter into the flour
The first step to make any pie dough is to combine the butter and the flour in a way to form a mixture that resembles a coarse crumble. To do this, you have options
- Use your fingertips and your hands: combine the dry ingredients in a big bowl with the cubes of butter and use your fingertips and the palms of your hands to work the butter into the flour until it resembles a coarse crumble.
- Use a pastry cutter: the pastry cutter allows you to slice through the butter, slowly working it into the flour, without warming it up too much like your hands would. This means more distinct pieces of butter and a more flaky crust.
- Use two knives: this works in the same way as the pastry cutter and you use two knives to cut through the butter surrounded with flour.
- Use a food processor: this is the easiest method and using the "pulse" button, you combine the butter with the dry ingredients. In all cases the results are the same, but with the food processor, there's a risk you over-process the butter and flour which will lead to a more granular texture pie crust than a flaky pie crust. That's okay too!
- Use a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment: this is another super easy method to form a crumbly mixture.
Add the water
The second step to make pie dough is to add water to the coarse crumble mixture of flour and butter. The goal is to hydrate the flour, which will help bind the ingredients together. Many pastry chefs recommend using as little water as possible, but this causes the dough to crack as it rolls and makes it very delicate. I prefer to use a little more water than some do because this resulting pie dough is easier to handle and rolls out beautifully.
To incorporate the water, you can use the following tools:
- a fork or a special pastry fork: if you started your dough in a bowl with your hands or a pastry cutter, at this stage, you'll want to switch to a fork to incorporate the water. You may also want to use your hands towards the end to help shape the mixture into disks of dough before wrapping in plastic wrap and chilling. You can use any fork you have, but a "blending fork" like this one on Amazon is a little larger and designed for this task.
- the food processor or stand mixer: if you started your dough in the food processor, or in your stand mixer, then you might as well finish it there too. It's so easy! Again, pulsing as you add the water to the machine, via the feeding tube at the top, is the easiest way with a food processor. I pulse the dough until it forms a ball. Then you can easily shape the dough into a disk (or two for double crust recipes) before wrapping in plastic wrap and chilling. Do the same in the mixer, mixing just until the dough comes together. Don't knead the dough!
Chilling freshly made pie dough is important
Once the pie dough is made, you have to chill it. Chilling is necessary for a few reasons:
- to cool down the butter, allowing it to solidify again. This is especially important in the summer when our kitchens are hotter. As you work the dough, the butter will inevitably heat up, and if you aren't careful, all those tiny bits of butter in the dough will melt into the flour. You will lose the flakiness you worked so hard to build up. For this reason you have to chill the dough.
- to relax the dough. Mixing the dough and working it will inevitably develop the gluten network in the flour, leading to a more elastic pie dough. This is the opposite of what you want. Resting the dough in the refrigerator allows it to relax so that it is easier to roll. You don't want a stretchy dough because it may spring back as the crust bakes, leading to shrinkage.
- to properly hydrate the dough. Chilling and resting allows the water to migrate throughout the dough, very slowly, hydrating the flour, which will make it easier to roll out and help make the pie more tender.
Not only is it important to chill the dough before rolling it out, it's also important to chill the dough after rolling it out. If your kitchen is cool, you can roll out the dough and line your pan with it. You may even be able to proceed with filling and topping with your second crust for double crust pies. But before you pop it into the oven, you will need to chill the unbaked pie again.
This second chill is necessary for two reasons:
- to relax the dough again. The dough has been through a lot at this point with rolling it out, shaping it and pressing it. It needs to chill to relax so that it doesn't spring back or shrink in the oven.
- to cool down the butter again. After so much manipulation and if your kitchen is warm, your butter may have warmed up. Warm butter will melt faster as the crust bakes, which means that your pie crust may lose its shape. Any crimping you may have done will bake away and disappear if your pie dough isn't properly chilled.
Other important tools
The rolling pin makes all the difference
I can honestly say I have tried all the rolling pin types out there: the straight/skinny pins, the French rolling pins, and even rolling pins with handles that spin. I absolutely HATED the one with the spinning handles (yes, capitals are necessary to describe the extent of my hatred). I used to have a pretty pink KitchenAid rolling pin. It was cute, but I hated it. It just felt clumsy, flimsier, and less efficient. Sorry, KitchenAid, I still love you and your other products, just not that rolling pin. My experience with that rolling pin also taught me that I hate rolling pins made out of plastic or silicone. The dough sweats/sticks extra with these materials. No good. I love rolling out pastries and doughs with my mom's French rolling pin, which she didn't love so much, so we traded. It's wood, and I think it's perfect (like these).
In terms of how large a disk of rolled out pie dough you need, this depends on the type of pie, the size of the pie plate, and if you are rolling a bottom or top crust. Here are a few measurements to get you started:
- for a single crust pie baked in a 9-inch pie plate, roll dough to 12–13 inches to accommodate the depth and rim
- for a double crust pie baked in a 9-inch pie plate, roll the bottom dough to 12–13 inches to accommodate the depth and rim and roll the top dough to at least 14 inches in diameter to accommodate bulky fillings (like if you are making an apple pie
- for a tart baked in a fluted 9-inch tart pan, roll dough to 12 to 13 inches
Not all pie plates are created equal
Ceramic pie plates are always gorgeous but if you are a novice baker, it's really hard to see what's going on behind the plate. I definitely recommend clear glass pie plates so that you can monitor the crust as your pie bakes (I usually favour brands like Pyrex or Anchor).
Glass definitely takes the guess-work out of knowing when a pie is baked properly. However, nowadays, I prefer baking pies in metal pie plates because these will promote browning. Metal pie plates heat up faster and are better conductors of heat, bringing tons of heat to the bottom of the crust, to the area underneath where it's hardest to bake properly.
When buying a metal pie plate, opt for aluminum, with a darker matte finish. These will transfer the most heat to the bottom crust of your pies, helping them bake properly underneath.
To brush off excess flour or brush on glaze
I like pastry brushes with hair-like bristles (whether natural or synthetic) and NOT silicone. Again, I know silicone is easier to wash and care for, but I don't like the way silicone bristles brush on glaze because it's hard to achieve a thin even layer with thick silicone bristles. Opt for old-school pastry brushes.
To blind-bake the pie crust
Now this tool is entirely optional because you might not even need to blind bake your crust before adding in your filling. And again, you have options! You can use/reuse a bunch of dried beans or even rice, or you can buy a set of pie weights. The difference is pie weights can be washed, and beans/rice, not so much. Another option is using granulated sugar.
My secret weapon, a.k.a. how to avoid the dreaded soggy bottom
It's simple, you probably have one already, and, if you've been read some of my pie recipes, you might know what it is: a cookie sheet. Yes, that's right, to avoid a soggy bottom you use your cookie sheet like you would a pizza stone: put it in the oven before you set it to preheat, then by the time your pie is ready to bake, your cookie sheet is preheated and it will help cook the bottom of the pie, which is the hardest part for the oven heat to reach. Make sure before hand that your cookie sheet is large enough to accommodate the pie plate (I use a rimless sheet like this one). So there you have it, the (more than) 5 essential tools that I think you should have on hand when you are making a pie. Am I missing any or do you have a favourite? Let me know in the comments section below!
For decorative finishes on pies
- Cookie cutters that you can use to punch out decorative elements for the top pie crust. A mixed set like this one on Amazon is very versatile both for pies and also for making cookies, especially window cookies like these grapefruit coconut cookies or these jam-filled shortbread cookies.
- Pie crust cutters, like a giant cookie cutter but for the top crust of a pie, like the cutters from Nordic Ware on Amazon, which I used for this maple apple pie.
- Multi-cutter for lattice work or crinkled lattice work—the cutter can be adjustable like this one on Amazon
- Elaborate rolling cutter for more intricate patterns like this one on Amazon.
Troubleshooting for pies and tarts
Pies and tarts are made from very simple ingredients and so few, but often times, the simpler the ingredient list, the more things can go wrong! Here's a run down of what can go wrong and what to do differently next time.
Pie dough is too dry and cracks
A lot of people are afraid to add water when they make their pie dough, but not enough pie dough can mean the dough will be too dry and too delicate. You need water to glue the dough together. Don't drown your dough in water, but don't add so little that it falls apart.
Pie dough is too wet
If you were a little generous with the water, your dough will be tacky or sticky, or damp. Make sure to roll it out with enough flour to balance out that water. Your dough may end up a little more firm and crispy/cracker-like when baked. It may shrink more as the water evaporates.
Use less water next time: you want to use enough that the dough can hold its shape when squeezed together, but not so much that the dough becomes gluey or gummy.
Pie dough is too elastic to roll
If you have kneaded the dough when you were making it, or if you overworked the dough in any way, chances are gluten has developed in the dough. Gluten is a network of proteins that forms in the presence of water and with some kneading. Next time, don't work the pie dough as much, and certainly don't knead it! This time, try chilling the dough for more time or letting the dough rest. This will help relax the gluten enough to roll it out.
Note that if you have a pie dough that is elastic, it will probably shrink as the pie bakes. This can be a problem if you are blind baking and the dough shrinks so much that the sides end up shorter.
Pie dough shrinks as it bakes
Pie dough will shrink as it bakes. A certain amount of loss is normal as water evaporates, butter melts... the pie will shift to a certain extent, but the change is small. If you are baking a pie, blind-baking a single pie crust or a tart shell and you notice your pie dough has receded, most of the time, this means your technique of lining the pan with the rolled out dough needs adjusting. In French, this step is called "fonçage." When you are transferring the rolled out pie dough to the pan, here's what you should NEVER do:
- never pull or stretch the dough to fit the pan: that pulling and stretching will inevitably shrink back at some point, furthermore, if you've pulled the dough taught to stretch the dough to fill the edges, you most certainly have air pockets underneath, in the bottom corners of the pan. As the butter melts, your dough will shrink as it bakes to settle into those gaps. Your dough may have a collapsed or fallen appearance because of this. NEVER pull or stretch pie dough. If your dough doesn't seem to fit the pie plate you are using, change courses: use a smaller pan or make a galette, like this apple galette or these easy raspberry galettes.
Pie crust is raw, under-baked or gooey on the bottom
There is nothing worse than a pie crust that is raw on the bottom. There are a few steps you can take to ensure that your pies are properly baked, even on the bottom:
- use a metal pie plate, preferably made of aluminum and with a darker finish
- use a pie plate with holes—the holes allow hot air to circulate on the bottom
- bake your pies on the bottom of the oven or the bottom rack
- preheat a baking steel or pizza stone on the bottom rack of your oven and place your pies directly on these to bake.
Pie crust is burned or over-baked
In the grand scheme of things, I'd rather have a pie crust that's over-baked than a pie crust that's under-baked. The truth is that it is extremely hard to get a pie to cook through to the middle without having the edges brown excessively. In order to achieve the perfect bake, you may have to wrap the edges with foil to protect them and insulate the edges from the heat so that they don't burn. Another option is to invest in a reusable pie shield on Amazon, which you can place around the edge of the pie to guard it from the heat. Pie shields can be made of silicone which is a poor heat conductor so the silicone shield protects the edges of the pie and stops them from heating up so quickly.
Pie crust doesn't hold crimping or elaborate cut-outs
If you want to do any elaborate shaping, crimping, or pie designs on your top crust, it's important to chill the pie very well before baking. Chilling cools the butter down significantly and cold butter is takes longer to melt in the oven. The delayed melting means that the crust has a chance to set before the butter melts. If the butter melts before the crust sets, the pie will lose its shape and any imprints or details. Always chill your pies thoroughly before baking.
Another step to ensure your pie crusts hold their shape must be taken when making the dough: work the butter into the flour more before adding the cold water. This will create a more sandy, less flaky pie crust, which is perfect for holding cut shapes and imprints.
Easy dough for all-butter pie crust made in food processor
- 312 grams (2½ cups) bleached all-purpose flour
- 15 mL (1 tablespoon) granulated sugar
- 5 mL (1 teaspoon) Diamond Crystal fine kosher salt
- 173 grams (¾ cup) unsalted butter cut into cubes, very cold
- 100 mL (7 tablespoon) water
- In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Add the cold butter and pulse to form a coarse crumble.Add the water and pulse it in, then let the food processor run just until the dough comes together. I bought my Cuisinart Food Processor on Amazon.
- Divide the dough in two and transfer both pieces to your work surface. Shape each piece into a disk. Wrap both in plastic wrap and chill for 1 hour.