Perfect Pie Crust by Hand

Making pie is so nervewracking!

Considering how many people practically recoil in fear at the idea of making pie dough, it’s a wonder how the phrase “as easy as pie”–became such a cliché.  We all know what the perfect crust should be.  Shatteringly flaky, buttery, gently browned and crisp, setting off whatever delicious filling it is cradling.  We all fear what our efforts will result in:  a crust that is limp, soggy, greasy, undercooked or burnt (and if we’re really lucky we’ll manage part charred, part raw!)

I’ve actually gotten fairly comfortable making pie dough, but though I don’t have The Fear, my dough has rarely wowed me.  It’s been fine, I think, and what’s more, I’ve always managed to roll out the dough without too many tears (that’s tears, in dough, and tears, from your eyes).  But…  

I’ve been making my dough in the food processor, which is an unintimidating, almost foolproof method.  (Almost, because I have on occasion not used truly ice-cold water and ended up with dough sludge on the bottom of the mixing unit).  You pulse the flour/sugar/salt mixture together with the butter until you get something resembling cornmeal, then you trickle in ice-cold water until the mixture forms a ball.  Chill, roll, bake, eat.  Simple enough.

I recently found Deb’s (you know, that Deb at Smitten Kitchen) series of posts on pie crust, and was convinced to attempt my next pie crust the old-fashioned way:  no food processor, but just a pastry cutter, spatula, and bowl.  (Deb rightly points out that if you think this sounds like a lot more work, consider the fact that you don’t have to wash your food processor.  As someone who finds soaping up all those pieces incredibly annoying, I must admit that this alone was probably enough to convince me to try her method).

But Deb also points out that making dough by hand also results in a flakier crust.  Yes, of course it does–isn’t that always the way with making things by hand?  I’m might be rolling my eyes a little as I say this, but am also nodding along penitently.  I should have known better as I even took a baking class two years ago where we made crust by hand, and it’s that amazing pie crust that I’ve never been able to replicate. Duh. 

The reason “by hand” is better is as follows:  when you’ve managed to break down your butter to the ideal texture, you don’t want to break it down any more when you add the water.  It’s the fineness of the butter that “makes or breaks” you on flakiness and tenderness.  If you add water in the food processor, those whirring blades continue to chop the butter more and more finely.  If you stir in the cold water with a rubber spatula or spoon, this doesn’t happen.  And a few irregularly streaky pieces only enhance the final product.

I’m not going to try to compete with the Smitten Kitchen tutorial, which I’ll link again to here.  (Bonus pie tips from Kate McDermott at the Kitchn here).  But let me tell you, I am sold.  You had guessed as much already, hadn’t you?  The method is easy, the dough was a delight to roll out, and the final crust was perfectly flaky.  And no annoying food processor parts.

I’ve humbly included a few of my process photos (note how you can actually see the streaks of butter; it’s a good thing!), followed by a few (very important) tips of my own.

–Use a big heavy bowl that you aren’t afraid to bang away at with your pastry cutter.  You’ll want to work fast, and you can’t work fast if you’re working gingerly.

–I usually mix over the divider in my sink (there’s a little platform at the corner where my bowl fits perfectly) so at least some of the inevitable clouds of flour settle in the basin.  I like to think it speeds cleanup.  Again, you need to mix quickly and you can’t do this if you are worried about making a mess.  (Not that it makes that much of a mess anyway, but half of my reticence in the kitchen is psychological). 

–It’s been said a million times before, but cold cold cold.  For insurance I throw the butter in the freezer when I’m getting ready.  I don’t use it completely frozen, but I figure taking the temperature down a few degrees can only help.  Similarly, I have made the mistake of thinking the cold water out of the fridge water dispenser is “ice cold.”  It’s not.  Switch to the ice dispenser option, then add cold water.  Then put it in the fridge for 10 minutes.  Now you may proceed.

There’s still several months of fruit left just begging to be made into delicious pies.  And if you really think it’s still too hard to make a good pie crust, let me show you one last photo:  it really is “as easy as pie.”  (OK, OK, my 3 year old did not roll out the pie dough.  But he helped, or thought he was helping.  And he’s a way cuter model than me).


29 thoughts on “Perfect Pie Crust by Hand

  1. And it’s made with real butter, rather than partially hydrogenated mono-poly-saturated-trans-whatever. (Though next time I’m making mine with butter and lard!)

  2. As a child, I used to have the task of cutting the butter for pie dough with a fork, scraping the edge of the stick. It was not an enviable task, I might add. But I’ve always noticed, as well, that my pie dough has been good but not sublime. Herewith is my problem. I will take note, right here, right now!

  3. Ha! When I saw your post title, I was planning to comment, “The only time I’ve made perfect pie crust by hand is when I followed Deb’s tutorial.” =) And then I read the same words from you! I think I hate cutting in butter more than I hate washing my food processor, but I have successfully combined the two methods on occasion: use food processor through butter step and then drizzle in the water and stir by hand. Love the pics of your little cutie!

    • @Abby and @Julia: I know what you mean about cutting in the butter. At least for me, using a big heavy bowl that I’m not afraid to really pound that pastry cutter into makes a big difference. @Abby, your combined method makes sense, but then I’d have even more bowls to clean! It’s all about what you find least annoying, I guess 😉

  4. I am that person you describe! I am a baker’s daughter on one side and a huge family of sisters who think nothing of having a pie bake-off on the other and always found pie crust intimidating. I will have to give this a try. Thanks!

    • I hope it works for you. The food processor method isn’t bad too as confidence builder, and Smitten Kitchen explains how to do that as well, as does Mark Bittman and Nick Malgieri (and I am sure many others). But I think that this isn’t so hard either!

  5. Your pie dough looks great! And your sous chef is cuter than 10 buttons. The Modern Baker has built my confidence in pastry crusts to the point that I might actually try making pie dough by hand again. In the past, my attempts have ranged from less than stellar to unmitigated disaster. I’ll check out Deb’s recipe and give it a try.

  6. I also make my doughs in a food processor and since I bought one a couple of years ago this function emboldened me to try for example yeast leavened cakes. However, I usually don’t make my own pie crust, I simply buy it already rolled out… I always buy and make the French style, very thinly rolled out dough (I don’t make puff pastry on my own though…) and when I make my own it’s usually to include for example ground almonds.
    Your pie dough looks easy and perfect! I should add it to the list of the doughs I make. I love the last picture 🙂 Your son looks very proud of himself! (And he should be).

  7. Hi Sissi! I think that the food processor or stand mixer is definitely a must for those kinds of cakes you say–or really wet doughs like pannetone (which I happen to love). We’ve made puff pastry in the food processor with the Modern Baker challenge. I think it’s going to be a while before I try THAT one by hand. Love the idea for an addition of ground almonds!

  8. I’ve never made a pie from scratch, so I completely admire you for this undertaking. I like to make dough in the food processor to keep everything nice and cold and fast (I just hate having to clean the food processor when I’m done though).
    *kisses* HH
    p.s. where do u get one of those cute mini chefs? I could use one

    • Well, as I mentioned I even took a class two years ago where we made it by hand and even then I was too chicken to try it. But I just made another pie this weekend (peach!) and there’s no going back for me…Thanks for visiting (and I never mind hearing my mini-chef is cute too! ;-))

  9. oh. my. god. your son is adorable! you should have just let everyone believe that he indeed rolled out the perfect dough ; )

    i am a big fan of doing things by hand too. i have a pink kitchenaid that i have not used in years. scratch that. i made an all rye bread not too long ago that would have sucked me in like quicksand had i tried it by hand, other than that, i like to feel what im working with. it helps me understand the ingredients. hence, my love affair with tartine bread.

    i love that you brought up the ‘easy as pie’ question. yeah, why ARE we afraid??

    great writing too sara!

    – frankie

    blogAuthor of:

    • I’m with you on doing things by hand. I do however mix most of my dough in the stand mixer (other than Tartine bread of course!) simply because I want to have my hands free for #1 and #2 getting into mischief! I do love kneading by hand and seeing the dough transform as you work it though, and I’ll probably go back to by hand in a few years time. You’ll have to get out your stand mixer when we hit the brioche section of Tartine bread though!

  10. I love your first sentence. I never really thought about that… perhaps the whole thing is it’s as easy as eating pie! I haven’t made pie dough by hand in a while because it’s just so much easier in the food processor, but I agree that you get better results by hand.

  11. You’ve inspiring me, Sara. I always make my pie crust in the food processor, but I’m always open to finding a better way. You make it sound easy (as pie?)
    I seem to come across you all over the blogsphere this week. I visited Honest Cooking for the first time, clicked somewhere random, and there was your recipe for Sardine and Fennel Pasta. Then I was catching up on Food52 and saw you won a prize. Awesome! Great job!

    • Hey Betsy, we should have a Lex-Win pie crust bakeoff! Also, I am completely unaware that I won a prize on food52. Are you sure it was me? That’s so funny; I promise I’m not virtually stalking you!

      • It was you, right? And, I definitely wasn’t stalking you, but you just kept popping up. I get very excited when I see people I “know” elsewhere on the internet. Makes it a small world, in a weird sort of way. Since we’re near neighbors, maybe we should have a bakeoff, though I think you are a better baker than I am.

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  13. I love making my own dough. I remember when I first attempted making dough I was terrified at how difficult the process would be but it really is simple. I’ve recently become lazy at making the dough in my food processor but you’re right, why wash up all those bits from the food processor when I can be washing one bowl and end up with a better quality pie dough? This time of year, with all the great fruits available, is the perfect time to go back to handmade (literally) pie dough.

    • Thanks for visiting Val! I think there’s something psychological about it all too…using a machine seems easier, but when you factor in the cleanup….Though, i suppose it all comes down to what is most annoying. Hope you enjoy your summer pies!

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