Piecrust makes me cry. The recipe is simple: flour, salt, butter, and ice water. What could go wrong? A lot, it turns out.
A partial list of trouble includes: the dough is too crumbly; it tears when rolled out or lifted onto the pie plate; the crust shrinks in baking. Now it’s holiday season and I have a sense of dread.
Kay Benaroch of Harwich empathizes with pie anxiety. “People have seen their parents and grandparents make piecrust well, over and over again, and they make it look easy,” she says. “Julia Child made it look easy!” It wasn’t until Benaroch finished a Cambridge School of Culinary Arts professional program in her 40s, and began teaching at community programs, that she truly mastered piecrust.
Stella Parks has never had this problem. A resident of Kentucky, she writes the BraveTart column for the Serious Eats website, and is author of “BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts” cookbook released last August. The book includes a “No-Stress All-Butter Pastry Crust” featuring 1:1 flour-to-butter ratio by weight that she dubs “reliable and pliable.”
“I went to culinary school straight out of high school. You go to culinary school and they beat it into you,” Parks says about mastering piecrust. Also, “my mom was a legendary pie dough crust maker. I didn’t grow up being scared of pie dough.”
Piecrust has a long history. Its use with fruit stuffing dates to medieval England, where it was referred to as a tart, Parks writes in her book. The American iteration began incorporating elements of French pastry by the late 1700s. Yet finding a recipe for piecrust wasn’t always easy.
“I’ve read a lot of cookbooks and it’s not until recently that you get recipes for piecrust,” says Megan J. Elias, director of the Gastronomy Program at Boston University and author of “Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture” released last May. “This is especially true in community cookbooks from the end of the Civil War up to even yesterday. Women writing to other women assumed you knew not only a recipe for crust but which type of piecrust to use for which pie,” sweet or savory.
One person to bring science and precision to the matter was Fannie Farmer. Raised in Boston, Farmer trained as a cook and was a successful teacher. In 1896, she published “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.” By 1918, her book offered eight variations of “paste,” or pie dough. The late Marion Cunningham updated modern editions of the still-popular book — now dubbed “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.” The basic piecrust in the most recent 1996 edition is straightforward, but the brief directions lack nuance for an anxious baker.
The reason for piecrust failures is because success depends on more than just ingredients or mixing techniques. “The devil is in the details,” says Parks. Here are some tips for crust success provided by her and Benaroch.
Weigh the flour: Benaroch believes “leveling off is enough” but Parks argues this method requires experience. “Using volume measurements are so variable,” Parks says. “Even if you are scooping and packing down [the flour], you could be shooting yourself in the foot” by adding too little.
Check the ingredients: Parks prefers flour with low red wheat content, which is too strong for pastry. (Her favorites include Pillsbury and Gold Medal brands.) She also advocates the use of American-style butter; European butters have a higher fat content, which inhibits gluten formation. Pastry tears because there’s not enough gluten development.
Kitchen temperature alert: Preparing dough in a room above 74 degrees “can cause pie dough to go sideways really easily,” Parks warns. Make sure the countertop, the mixing bowl, even the flour are not too warm. Don’t hesitate to use the refrigerator to cool ingredients and utensils.
Chill the dough before rolling: Benaroch flattens the dough into a disk, tightly ensconced in plastic wrap before popping it into the refrigerator. She says chilling allows the gluten to relax. Parks concurs. “How many times have people said their pie dough shrunk or it was tough? That is because it hasn’t relaxed.”
Consider parchment paper and a nonstick rolling mat: Benaroch recommends dusting the dough with flour, then placing it on Silpat mat or hard plastic on the bottom, topped with parchment paper. “You have a sandwich [effect] and, this way, as you roll, the heat of your hands isn’t transferring to the dough,” she says. Remove the parchment, flip over onto the pie plate and peel the Silpat/plastic off.
Use a glass pie plate: Benaroch likes to view the bottom of a baking pie for doneness. Parks says most recipes assume a glass plate is being used. Cooking time may be faster with a nonglass pan. Do not put anything else in the oven during baking.
Let the freshly baked pie cool: Parks and Benaroch say pies need to set, even before refrigeration. Parks recommends two hours to cool.
Make holiday pies in advance: Crusts can be made one day ahead. Benaroch completes her pies two days before serving. “Just keep them well covered in the refrigerator and they’ll be fine, she says.
Remember, your tips might be better. “It’s really hard to give universal advice because there are so many different recipes and techniques for dough,” Parks says. As for the anxious cook, she has one dictum: “Just get in there!” Dear Kitchen: Ready or not!Peggy Hernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.