Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Perfect Piecrust, Perfect Pie!

Originally published on

At the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts, considerable attention has been paid this November to the desserts of Thanksgiving, and most notably, to the quest for the perfect pie. We all have strong opinions on the best kinds of pie fillings, but today we want to talk about the often forgotten ‘underlying’ concern, which is, of course, the piecrust. Everyone should know that perfect pie begins with perfect piecrust.

Piecrusts for Thanksgiving are often made with flaky dough, but custard piecrusts, or pies which will release a lot of liquid during baking, can be made with mealy dough. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on flaky dough. A flaky piecrust can be perfected if one follows three basic rules: The use of a cold element, minimal handling and weighted baking.

A Cold Element

If you ever come upon a piecrust recipe that does not recommend the use of cold element, then you know immediately that your piecrust will not be flaky. The cold element can be presented in several ways, and are all equally effective: A cold fat such as refrigerated margarine can be cut into the flour, cold water can be added to a shortening mixture, or piecrust dough can be refrigerated or even frozen and thawed only enough to shape prior to baking. A combination of the above approaches is also common.

The cold element is important because when a piecrust is placed in the oven, the aim is to have that cold fat melt at the same quick rate throughout, leaving small pockets in the dough that bursts in our mouths at the slightest provocation. We recognize this texture as flakiness.

Minimal Handling

As you incorporate your piecrust mixture, it is important to rub the fat into the flour by hand or by using a food processor’s pulse button. In addition to the cold element, the flakiness of the crust is also affected by the size of the pieces of fat in the dough. The larger the pieces of fat, the flakier your dough will be. The aim is to have the largest pieces of fat possible while still achieving a dough-like result. The size of the fat particles for the flakiest dough will be the size of peas or hazelnuts, and the smoother your dough is, the more mealy it will become. It is very easy to miss this and to keep incorporating your ingredients like one does with bread or cookie dough, but if you are going for flaky pie crust, you should try to be as “hands-off” as possible. The bottom line is that the less you handle the dough, the flakier it will be.

Weighted Baking

There are some kinds of pie recipes that indicate you should pre-bake the pie crust, meaning that the crust should be baked first, without the filling added. These are the recipes to make, because the recipes are likely written by people who have done this a thousand times before and are experts. Don’t be afraid to take an extra half hour for this step; it’s well worth it because the crust becomes a delicious pastry all by itself, and does not get soggy later when the filling is baked in it.

The method that we recommend at CKCA for pie baking is what is known as “baking blind,” which means that the pie crusts are rolled out, placed and shaped in the pie pan, covered with a layer of parchment paper or foil, and then weighed down with dry rice or beans. As the pie dough bakes, the weight of the rice or beans prevents the crusts from rising too much during its initial baking. Weighted baking is recommended only for the first 15 minutes of baking, and then the crust should be taken out, and the weighted element removed. Then, the crust should be brushed with an egg wash, and returned to the oven for an additional 10 to fifteen minutes until golden, light and flaky.

Here's a great recipe to put this piecrust to use!

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