Thursday, October 5, 2017

How to Make Flaky Pie Crust

One of the most important skills to learn in life: How to make flaky pie crust.

It's true! If you can make a good pie, then you will make friends, and making friends (even if they only like you for your pie) is a good skill to have!

In this post I will cover all of the techniques and tips for making the ultimate tender & flaky pastry for your pies and tarts. If you make more friends because of this then... well, you're welcome. 

First off, the golden rule for making flaky pastry is:

make it COLD
bake it HOT

Keep the fat cold
Keep your hands cold
Keep the bowl cold
Keep the liquid ice cold

 Keep your oven hot.
Start at 425 degrees F.

Steps to making flaky pie crust:

Step 1. Cut cold butter into small cubes.

Step 2.
 Combine flour, sugar and salt in a bowl.

Step 3. Using both hands, rub about 2 tablespoons of cold fat into the flour with your fingertips so it is well dispersed and the mixture looks like damp sand.

Step 4. Add remaining cold fat and use a pastry cutter (this is my all-time favourite one - it is strong and fits comfortably in the hand) to mince the butter into smaller pieces. If using your hands, press the butter between your thumbs and forefinger + middle finger to break it up into small bits about the size of hazelnuts or peas and flatten some pieces out too.

Step 5. Grab a fork and gently toss the mixture while you sprinkle in ice cold water just until the mixture starts to hold together in clumps but doesn't get soggy.

Step 6.
 Press it all into a ball, turning it over onto itself one or two times if necessary, and then flatten into a disc.

Step 7. Wrap with plastic and chill at least 2 hours (or better over night).

The aim of Step 3 is tenderness - finely dispersing some of the fat evenly into the flour so that it is well distributed will coat and separate small particles of flour from each other (like a moisture barrier) to achieve a tender texture. This serves to protect wheat proteins from linking up to form gluten which would make the pastry too strong and chewy like bread dough. Instead it will be crumbly and tender. It will also prevent it from absorbing too much liquid which can lead to a soggy crust. 

But, we don't just want tender. We want FLAKY

The purpose of 
Step 4 is to incorporate cold butter into the flour so that it ends up looking like rubble. Larger bits of fat will flatten out as you roll the pastry and create layers that separate stronger dough - that leads to flakes. On the other hand, if the fat bits are too large then they will just melt and leave gaping holes in the pastry - not a good scene. Aim to have most of the cold fat incorporated rather well and evenly dispersed with a few larger bits no bigger than the size of hazelnuts. It also helps to put the bowl with the cut-up fat and flour into the freezer for 5 minutes before adding any liquid. 

Since flaky pastry requires pliable solid fats, the trick is to avoid melting. Melted fat becomes oily, leaks water and tends to stick to the dough. If you have very warm hands, it is best to use a pastry cutter or two knives. My mother's genetics have proven handy in making pastry as our poor circulation leads to cold hands all year round! 

In Step 5 you dribble cold liquid into the dough until it comes together to form a mass but does not form a smooth ball. Use only enough liquid as it takes to make a shaggy but cohesive dough. Too much water will promote gluten formation and elasticity. Pie dough knows no smoothness because that means it is over-worked, tired and not-so-flaky. Wrap it up in plastic wrap and let it chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours to firm up the fat and hydrate the flour.

If you are using part lard or shortening, then there is more room for error since these fats contain no moisture (remember butter is only 82% fat and melts at a lower temperature than lard or shortening).

Key ingredients:

Lard or shortening (trans fat free please)
Lard and shortening are 100% pure fat compared to butter which is a mixture of fat and water. Pure fat tenderizes more effectively because it is insoluble in water, so it coats flour particles and prevents wheat proteins from hydrating and cross-linking to form a strong gluten network. Commercial shortening has a higher melting point than butter which means that it will withstand the warmer temperature of your hands and resist melting or "oiling out". This provides more insurance that your fat will remain solid in the dough, and solid fat is required for flakiness. Lard makes incredibly tender, crumbly and flaky pastry due to its particular fat composition. It consists of relatively large fat crystals and has a wide melting range so that it is still soft and pliable when cold making it easy to work with the dough.

Butter adds unmatchable flavour to pastry. Bottom line - butter is better, so never replace all of the butter with alternative fat in a recipe because shortening is essentially flavourless and butter is sensational. It also promotes browning of the crust thanks to the milk proteins and milk sugars that come together in a golden delicious reaction called Maillard Browning. The tricky thing about butter is that its unique fat composition makes it hard and solid when cold but soft and spreadable at room temperature. It melts between 32-35 degrees C. This is great for toast, but not easy to work with in pastry. Making pie dough is a balancing act between function and flavour.

Not all pie dough recipes contain sugar, such as the French "pate brisée" which is often used for savoury tarts too. I always use a bit of sugar (1-2 tablespoons per batch) in my sweet pie doughs because it achieves a few great things. For one, sugar enhances the flavour of the pastry; two, it makes the crust more tender as it interferes with gluten development; three, it promotes browning for both colour and flavour; and four, it helps the dough roll out smoother. 

Not beer, but spirits. Some of my recipes call for Vodka and it works! Spirits are around 40% ethanol and 60% water which means that although it is 100% effective at moistening the dough ingredients, only 60% of it can contribute to gluten development so that you can actually use a bit more liquid to help with smoothing and rolling out the dough without having a negative effect on texture. On the other hand, if you don't mind working with a drier dough like me, then it just means that there is less moisture in your dough if you replace some water with the same amount of vodka, and when the alcohol evaporates during baking you are left with a really dry and flaky crust. You know what else this means? Less chance of that soggy bottom! 

Why rest and chill pie dough before rolling and baking?
Resting the dough in the refrigerator will firm up the fat and allow the water to become absorbed and more evenly distributed. This makes the dough easier to work with. Rolling chilled dough will press solid fat into flattened sheets which separates flattened layers of dough for flakiness. The end result is a laminating effect with layers of flour aggregates that are mostly untouched by the fat alternating with layers of fat particles embedded with flour. Some gluten develops in the layers of flour and the fat layers melt upon baking to leave spaces between sheets of dough.

What temperature should you bake your pie?
Initially it is important to bake the pie at a very high temperature (400-425 degrees F) to both set the dough layers before the fat melts completely and to set the crust before the fruit filling makes it soggy. This rapid heating also causes the ~16% water in the butter to evaporate quickly so that the steam separates dough layers.

How to get that golden pie crust?
Whatever you do, don't go to the effort of making a lovely pie and then not brush the crust with egg. What a shame that would be! An egg wash is the ultimate signature of home-baked pie. A whole egg will do, but for that ultimate golden shiny crust, combine one yolk with 2 teaspoons of water or milk and brush it lightly all over the surface just before baking.

You are ready. Make that pie! And make it like a pro!

Recipes you might want to try to practice your awesome new pastry skills:
Raspberry Hand Pies
Strawberry Apple Stracciatella Pie
Gooey Little Pecan Tarts
Raspberry Peach Pie
Deep Dish Slab Apple Pie
Sweet Cherry Pie
Maple Pumpkin Pies with Pecan Praline
Butter Tarts

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