Monday, June 14, 2010

Basic Pie Crust

Often I don't go into as much depth as I could when giving crust directions and I'm starting to feel guilty about it. It's not that I don't want to, but many of the recipes that I've used don't detailed explanations about how to make crusts, which is why I thought it was time for an overall tutorial.

Also, you should know that I'm not an expert, but I've learned a couple of tricks in the past few months and so I hope that this will give you the added confidence to try a pie crust (if you haven't) or give a few extra tips to those who make a lot of pies. 

Oh, also, please note that I don't make my crusts in the food processor so I don't have any tutorials for you on how to do that. I'm not against that method (though I hear that you can quickly over-process your dough), but my food processor simply isn't big enough to make crusts so I've never tried it.

My most important tips for crust preparation:
1-Keep it cold: I mean, cold cold. Keep everything cold, refrigerate the fat (butter, shortening, or lard), refrigerate or freeze the flour, make sure the water is ice cold, try to avoid making a crust in a hot room (and if you do, slip it back into the freezer every few minutes to cool it off). The reason for keeping everything cold is that these little bits of solid fat won't melt until they hit the heat at the rest of the crust has already started to form. This is what makes a pie crust flaky and the key to a delicious flavor.

2-Be quick and efficient: This is partially to keep the crust cool, however, what I really mean by this is don't over work the dough. You're not making bread here and you don't want to release the glutton (because it will get tough) or allow the fats to melt (because it won't be flaky), so be quick. 

3-Use all-purpose flour: of course there are recipes where you might use wheat flour or cornmeal or a something else for a little extra pizazz, but for your basic recipe, you should just use all-purpose flour. Pastry flour is fine, but a second choice to all-purpose. Bread flour will give you a cracker-like crust, and cake flour is too delicate.

Pie Baking Tools:
1-A Large Mixing Bowl: obvious, I know. Make your crust in it. Use it to combine your fillings, etc. Mine is pretty average, but I like that it's ceramic (because it keeps cooler longer than plastic) and and it doesn't have extremely steep walls so I can press my pastry cutter up against it (not to mention that it doesn't bend when I cut my butter against it).

2-A Pastry Cutter: I love my pastry cutter. It makes life so much easier. However, my mother-in-law only uses a fork, I used a fork for the first 10 pies I made (not this year, last year), and I used a fork a few weeks ago. I'm basically just saying that you need something to cut your fats into your flour. Use whatever works for you. I have this pastry cutter and it's great. I'm certain it's not the best one out there, but it's perfect for my needs.

3-A Pie Pan: while you can use all types of pans for your pie (from aluminum to ceramic) I've found that the best, and my favorite, are the good old fashioned 9-inch Pyrex pans. First of all they make a very evenly browned bottom crust, you can see what's going on with your bottom crust, and (while this doesn't factor into the taste) they are so cheap, they're practically giving them away. One thing to note is that a 9-inch pie pan has about a 5-cup capacity and although it doesn't sound like it's much bigger, a 9 1/2-inch pan has about a 7-cup capacity so make note of what size you have when planning out your pies.

The basic crust-making process:
1-Take the cold fat you're using for the crust (butter, shortening, or anything else) and cut it into small squares on a plate. Put the plate into the freezer--I leave it uncovered--to re-chill it while preparing the other ingredients.

2-Combine flour, sugar, salt, and any other spice or dry ingredient in your mixing bowl. Stir it with a whisk to get rid of any lumps that may be there. Put mixing bowl and dry ingredients in the freezer (I also leave this uncovered).

3-Measure the liquid (milk, water, cream, etc) in a cup and stick it in the freezer. If you are using water as your liquid, put a few ice cubes in the cup before you add your water just for that added chill.

4-Don't think I'm crazy about telling you to freeze everything. Just submit.

5-Take you flour and fat out of the freezer and add the fat to your flour mixture (you might have to scrap your plate to get it all off).

6-Lightly stir so the fat is coated with flour mixture.

7-Start cutting the fat into the flour mixture. Cut the butter into the flour. To "cut" the flour means to use your pastry cutter to bear down onto the fat/flour mixture. It's kind of like making mashed potatoes. I like to work from the center out, bearing down first in the middle of the bowl and then working out as if I'm using my cutter to create a sunburst-like decoration.

7-Continue to cut until it looks like coarse meal or lentils or small peas. You want little balls of butter. If it looks like sand mixed with pebbles, you're not done yet.  If it's starting to become a paste, you've gone too far.

8-Once it looks like coarse meal, I usually put the flour mixture in the freezer for a few one or two more minutes.

9-Add the liquid. First of all, there are probably 2 schools of thought on this subject. One adds all the liquid at once (to avoid over-working the dough), and the other adds the liquid a teaspoon at a time. I personally add all the liquid upfront, because it often seems like I need to add an extra tablespoon at the end anyway, and I think this prevents over-working the dough.

10-Once you've added all the liquid, stir or flick the dough around the bowl so that all of your little balls get a bit of moisture on them. Once they are wet, use your hands to form them into a ball. This will takes some squeezing and pressing down on it with your palms. If it ever seems like the dough is getting too warm put it back in the freezer for a few minutes.

11-Also if you've been kneading and just can't get everything to stick, wet your hands or sprinkle another tablespoon (or less) of cold water on the dough. It's okay to use more liquid if it's not sticking, but just do little by little because you don't want your dough to be sticky.

12-Once it is formed into one ball, split into two (if doing a double crust) and form each side into balls. Often I make one side smaller than the other and use the larger ball for the bottom crust. Flatten the balls with the palms of you hand so they are like discs and will be easier to roll out. Wrap the discs in plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator for the allotted time (usually an hour).

Come back tomorrow when we talk about rolling it out and baking it.

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