7 Pie Dough Tips from a Professional Baker
There's something undeniably special about showing up to a party with a homemade pie. This multi-faceted dessert wears many costumes: A lattice or a crumble topping; a gooey fruit filling or a milky custard. We firmly believe that pie is appropriate for every occasion—especially when it's made from scratch. But making a pie entirely from scratch is no small feat.
Let me be honest here. When I first started working as a professional baker, pie had me stumped. I could crank out hundreds of cookies without batting an eyelash; I could whip up perfectly amber caramels and fluffy sheets of marshmallow, no problem. But pie perplexed me. When it comes to a pie, there are so many components to consider: The crust, the filling, the topping. Each element requires love and care. Striking the perfect balance of a golden-brown crust and a well-set filling seemed downright impossible. Nonetheless, I dove in head-first. After my first Thanksgiving pie bake-a-ton, when I cranked out hundreds of pumpkin and pecan pies, I realized that all it took to master the art of pie was a little practice (and some serious elbow grease).
If you've always dreamed of baking pie but find yourself intimidated by the process, now is the time to dive in head-first. I'm bringing you a pie-baking tip sheet that will guide you along your journey. Today, I'm focusing on one of the notoriously finicky elements of baking pie from scratch: pie dough. Pastry chefs and home cooks across the country all have their own techniques and tricks that they swear by; I'm here to provide a solid foundation to help you succeed at making homemade pie dough.
Keep It Cold
Our perfect pie dough is supple, smooth, and spotted with creamy bits of butter, which will melt in the oven and provide that glorious crisp, flaky texture. The operative phrase being: Melt in the oven, not before. If your butter melts during the mixing or rolling process—before the pie crust hits the oven—you won't achieve those flaky layers we're looking for in this buttery pastry. With this goal in mind, the cardinal rule of pie crusts is to keep things as cold as possible. The colder your pie dough, the less likely the butter is to melt or leach out of the dough before baking.
One of the main challenges of making pie dough from scratch is keeping all the ingredients cold, especially if you're working in a warmer climate. And you better believe that after baking through the summertime in Alabama, I've developed a few tricks to keeping my pie dough ingredients cold. In short: Use your fridge.
When I'm making pie dough, particularly on a warm day, I'll put every component of my mise en place in the fridge. Yes, even the flour. Chilling your flour will slow down the process of the butter melting as you work it. When preparing to make pie dough, I'll typically start by cubing my butter, which I'll immediately store in the fridge (or, on hot days, the freezer) while I measure out the dry ingredients. I'll then stash the bowl of flour, sugar, and salt in the fridge for 5 to 10 minutes while the butter finishes chilling. Resist the temptation to get started right away—let all the ingredients chill through.
When handling your pie dough, use a delicate touch. Our goal here is to toss all the ingredients together until just combined, not to mash them into a homogenous lump. Each baker takes their own approach when it comes to incorporating the butter into the dry ingredients. You can smear, snap, or crumble the butter in—my personal favorite method is to pinch the butter into the flour until it is evenly distributed in pea-sized pieces.
If you handle the pie dough for too long, you risk the heat in your hands melting the butter in the crust. For this reason, some bakers prefer to use a pastry cutter or pulse all the ingredients in the food processor. When making pie dough, I like to use my hands—over time, you develop a sense of what the dough feels like at each stage, something you just can't get from a machine.
Our ideal pie crust is super buttery and flaky—in order to achieve this texture, it's key to mix your ingredients until just combined. Overworking the pie dough will develop gluten, resulting in a tough, mealy pie crust.
After incorporating your butter, most recipes call for you to add ice water to the dough. At this point, you'll only want to handle the dough until it just starts to come together. Kneading the dough too much might create a pretty homogenous, shiny mass, but you're actually secretly sabotaging your pie by working the butter in and destroying any flakiness. Some chunks of butter are good! They'll melt in the oven and create those coveted flaky layers in your pie crust.
After all the ingredients have been incorporated, your pie dough might look dry or slightly crumbly. That's okay! Resist the temptation to continue mixing. A rest in the fridge will give the dough time to further hydrate.
Give It Time
When making pie dough from scratch, at least one hour and up to an overnight rest in the fridge is crucial. This resting period is important for a number of reasons:
- If you were to roll out your pie dough directly after mixing, it would warm too quickly and become sticky. A rest in the fridge keeps your pie dough nice and cold, making it easier to work with.
- A resting period in the fridge will allow the wet ingredients to further hydrate the flour, resulting in a smooth, pliable dough.
Keep It Rolling
When rolling out your pie dough, keep it constantly moving. Leaving your pie round in the same spot on the table as you roll it is a recipe for a sticky, torn mess. Use flour liberally and slide an offset spatula underneath your pie dough to shift it around on the table between rolling. I even like to flip my pie dough mid-rolling so the side that was touching the table now faces up. Keeping your pie dough moving while rolling will allow you to transfer it to the pie dish with ease.
Pro Tip: Once rolled out and set in the pie dish, poke the bottom of the pie crust all over with a fork. This discourages any air bubbles from forming while baking, which can totally warp your smooth pie base.
Freeze Before Baking
Continuing with the "keep it cold" theme, give your pie crust a rest in the freezer before baking. This final step really seals in the pattern of the crimp and keeps everything nice and cool. You can even store a ready-to-bake pie crust in the freezer to get a jumpstart on holiday prep (or for everyday pie emergencies).
To Blind Bake, or Not to Blind Bake?
Certain pie recipes will call for you to blind bake the pie crust. Pie dough—a flaky, buttery pastry—has the natural propensity to puff and bubble in the oven. Weighing it down with pie weights helps the shell keep its shape and prevents any air pockets from forming. This step is necessary when baking pies with particularly juicy fillings, such as apple or blueberry, or in a pie with a no-bake filling.