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In search of the perfect pastry crust


stellabella
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Pie crust is not at all difficult, does not take a lot of skill, hence the phrase, 'easy as pie'. I mean you can goof it up for sure but even Mary Poppins agreed when she said, "Pie crust promise, easily made easily broken."

If you're lucky enough to have a good baker show you, you'll be a pro in an hour. if you try to figure it out on your own by trial and error, or from sketchy instructions in a book, it will be a long road. And many have given up!

So yeah, it's not hard, but it's technique intensive. Especially if you're using butter, which requires much more precise technique. All complaints about butter crusts are the result of imprecise technique.

Mary wouldn't lie to us.

You cut cold fat into salted flour, toss with cold water, chill, roll, bake. Viola.

Apparently there's more than one way to make pie dough--it takes less than five minutes.

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Paulraphael -- The hydration and autolyse comments are a big help, as I do think I added too much water with my last crust -- I think I should have just shoved all the crumbs together (I added more water at that point) and refrigerated to let the flour hydrate.

Nonetheless, maybe its just me, but I find the tone of this thread to have gone a little sour -- I don't think there's really any need to get into what should or shouldn't be "easy," nor do I think its necessary to essentially say that butter crusts are really the only thing someone with a refined palate should want to eat.... But maybe I'm just a little too sensitive at the moment...

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You cut cold fat into salted flour, toss with cold water, chill, roll, bake. Viola.

Apparently there's more than one way to make pie dough--it takes less than five minutes.

I'm not quite sure what you're point is. Here's a subject that flummoxes more people than just about any in the kitchen. The current conversation is all about people's dificulties getting pastry to come out right. Yes, it's easy if you know how to do. And yes, it's hard if you don't. Maybe that's even the definition of easy ... stuff you know how to do?

Sure, it's not a lot of work and it's not complicated. If you have good technique. The difference between good technique and bad is the difference between good results and bad.

I've eaten many examples of each!

Notes from the underbelly

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Nonetheless, maybe its just me, but I find the tone of this thread to have gone a little sour -- I don't think there's really any need to get into what should or shouldn't be "easy," nor do I think its necessary to essentially say that butter crusts are really the only thing someone with a refined palate should want to eat.... But maybe I'm just a little too sensitive at the moment...

Well, I don't agree with any dismissal of the topic as easy.

And I didn't mean to suggest anything about refined palates.

I do believe that shortening-based pastry exists for two reasons: to save money, and to allow people to get decent results without refined technique. But if you can afford the butter, and if you're interested in learning the fussier requirements for handling the dough, I believe you WILL end up with pastry that tastes better. And I think anyone at the table, regardless of their sophistication (usually a self-declared quality ... ) will agree.

Notes from the underbelly

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Many chichi foofoo pastry chefs use half & half--nothing wrong with all butter--same process--no mysteries--clearly everyone does not agree that all butter is superior.

Nice pie crust can be elusive to produce but less is more with pie crust. Over thinking pie crust can lead to downfall. Unlike bread and cake that needs to be kneaded and beaten and worked and worked and worked, pie crust needs to be neglected and worked minimally. That's probably the magic if there is any. Abuse it ignore it abandon it.

You cut cold fat into salted flour, toss with cold water, chill, roll, bake. Viola

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Many chichi foofoo pastry chefs use half & half

I don't know what chichi foofoo means, but I'd be curious to know about any great pastry chefs who use half and half. They may well be out there, but I've yet to encounter one.

You cut cold fat into salted flour, toss with cold water, chill, roll, bake. Viola

Ok ... give those instructions to someone who's never done it and see how well they do! With shortening they'll probably end up with something that looks kind of like a pie crust, but with butter my hopes wouldn't be so high. It's much more sensitive to time and temp, because it melts easily.

Edited by paulraphael (log)

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Butter melting easily is not an overly advanced concept for a pie crust virgin to incorporate.

K8, your comments could easily be seen as insulting to people who struggle with pastry. NOTHING is difficult if you know how to do it. YOU know how to do it--ergo, it's not difficult for you. That's not the same as saying there's nothing to learn.

Keeping butter from melting is indeed a very simple idea. Doing it, in practice, in a hot kitchen, when you're not fast at handling the dough because you don't have experience with it, is another story. This is why many people have a hard time getting good results, and end up giving up on butter crusts.

The problems can be solved with some clear technique description and some practice. They probably can't be solved by dismissing them as nonexistent.

In addition, the matter of how much water to use in completely unintuitive. I've seen people who have made pastry for years use close to twice as much water as they need, because they don't understand the principles of hydration. Because no one told them. Personally, I wish someone had told me a long time ago, so I wouldn't have wasted so much time figuring it out on my own.

Notes from the underbelly

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You cut cold fat into salted flour, toss with cold water, chill, roll, bake. Viola

If these instructions are followed a good pie crust will ensue. Not to say there's not a learning curve but every cookbook I've ever seen lists pie crust as an easy process.

But there's no 'refined technique' there's no big mystery to reveal, it doesn't take a lot of skill. Certain skill but it is easy. Results can be elusive but when you figure it out you will see how very easy it is. Just because someone has a problem making it does not then make the process complicated. Pie crust is an easy procedure.

The less you try with pie crust the better it is.

Some people like to use shortening in pie crust, they are not then palette-impaired.

It's ok if some people like all butter pie crust.

There's room for everyone.

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Not trying to harp on you, but I honestly think that those who prefer shortening in a crust do so because they lack the technique to get good results (which are always better tasting and more succulent results) with butter. Say it all you want that there's no refinement involved. If you're right that just means I've been hallucinating the improvements I've seen over the last many years.

Easy doesn't mean there's nothing to it. I agree it's easy to make a pie crust. I don't think it's easy to make a great one. And I believe the same can be said for anything, if you set your sights high enough. I spent two years working on roasted chickens, and almost as long working on brownies. You could interpret this as meaning I'm an idiot, or that these things are hard to do. But those are facile interpretations. The reality is that they are simple things to do, but doing them to a very high standard is not so simple.

I know this has turned into something of a perrenial debate, but I would be willing to pit an all butter crust that I make against ANY crust made with a significant percentage of shortening. And I would let any jury of tasters anywhere compare. I'd be willing to be a LOT of money on near unanimous preference for the butter crust. And if the the jury includes pastry chefs, I'd bet on complete unanimity.

I'm not blowing hot air ... if you know anyone who's up for the challenge in NYC, I'm there. At the very least it would be interesting, and there would be pastry to eat after the smoke clears.

Notes from the underbelly

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My 2¢:

I really love the cookbooks that I own from Julia Child. I know that no matter what, if I want to be sure it's going to be good, I turn to her books. That's why I started with her Perfect Pie Crust recipe in Baking with Julia. It's a butter/shortening crust.

I don't know why (maybe it's my technique :hmmm:) but I can definitely taste the shortening: a bitter, unpleasant note in the crust that I don't get from an all butter crust. Does no one else detect this?

John DePaula
formerly of DePaula Confections
Hand-crafted artisanal chocolates & gourmet confections - …Because Pleasure Matters…
--------------------
When asked “What are the secrets of good cooking? Escoffier replied, “There are three: butter, butter and butter.”

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My 2¢:

I really love the cookbooks that I own from Julia Child.  I know that no matter what, if I want to be sure it's going to be good, I turn to her books.  That's why I started with her Perfect Pie Crust recipe in Baking with Julia.  It's a butter/shortening crust.

I don't know why (maybe it's my technique  :hmmm:) but I can definitely taste the shortening:  a bitter, unpleasant note in the crust that I don't get from an all butter crust.  Does no one else detect this?

I hadn't used shortening in a crust in a long time but I did about a week ago and I could definitely taste it. I think it was the mouth-feel more than anything. At the moment I am most happy with a butter/lard crust.

Don't wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great. Orison Swett Marden

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To me, the primary reason for using part vegetable shortening over all-butter is that part shortening crusts are better at holding any type of decorative patterns/crimping during baking due to the shortening's higher melting point.

In a taste test, all-butter will generally beat one with veg shortening, but there are many chefs who prefer butter/lard or even all-lard best of all.

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I hadn't used shortening in a crust in a long time but I did about a week ago and I could definitely taste it. I think it was the mouth-feel more than anything. At the moment I am most happy with a butter/lard crust.

Yeah, I don't think I've ever noticed an actual off taste from shortening, but i notice a lack of flavor, and I notice the greasy mouthfeel.

Notes from the underbelly

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To me, the primary reason for using part vegetable shortening over all-butter is that part shortening crusts are better at holding any type of decorative patterns/crimping during baking due to the shortening's higher melting point.

In a taste test, all-butter will generally beat one with veg shortening, but there are many chefs who prefer butter/lard or even all-lard best of all.

lard is a whole different story, at least if you're talking about high quality leaf lard (supermarket lard is some nasty, nasty stuff). Suet and goose fat are also amazing alternatives. They all provide a buttery succulence, but have some of shortening's ability to hold shapes. And they're a bit easier to work with than butter, especially if you're going for a very crisp or flaky result. Personally, I've had best results with a 70/30 or thereabout mix of butter and rendered animal fat.

Of course, these are all fats with a very distinctive flavor, which you may or may not want. I don't want pork or goose or beef overtones in an apple tart. In a pot pie or a quiche they might be perfect.

Notes from the underbelly

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My 2¢:

I really love the cookbooks that I own from Julia Child.  I know that no matter what, if I want to be sure it's going to be good, I turn to her books.  That's why I started with her Perfect Pie Crust recipe in Baking with Julia.  It's a butter/shortening crust.

I don't know why (maybe it's my technique  :hmmm:) but I can definitely taste the shortening:  a bitter, unpleasant note in the crust that I don't get from an all butter crust.  Does no one else detect this?

When I eat pie crust or other pastries made with shortening it leaves an unpleasant coating in my mouth, and an unpleasant after taste. Apparently not everyone has the same experience. Body chemistry is variable, and I suspect this has a lot to do with it. Also, most Americans who probably don't bake much at home (if at all) have been conditioned by mass manufacturers to believe that their mass produced products represent what is to be considered high quality. The public has been hood-winked, and resultingly they don't appreciate the nuances of using fine ingredients.

I love the texture that is provided by using high-quality or freshly made lard in combination with butter in a crust, but I don't have access to that type of lard in my area, and usually don't have time to make freshly rendered lard.

I am hoping this thread doesn't become contentious.

Eileen

Edited by etalanian (log)

Eileen Talanian

HowThe Cookie Crumbles.com

HomemadeGourmetMarshmallows.com

As for butter versus margarine, I trust cows more than chemists. ~Joan Gussow

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I do what Paul has mentioned: primarily butter, but with some lard.

And I agree about perfecting the simple technique. It isn't easy, it's elusive. I've tasted a lot of pie and very, very few pie crusts are something I'd put in my mouth without the filling.

I like to bake nice things. And then I eat them. Then I can bake some more.

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I do what Paul has mentioned:  primarily butter, but with some lard.

And I agree about perfecting the simple technique.  It isn't easy, it's elusive.  I've tasted a lot of pie and very, very few pie crusts are something I'd put in my mouth without the filling.

Thank you people.

As a result of this thread, I had a frustrating pie dream last night involving an apparently endless apple pie and a *pie crust that I could never quite taste,* no matter how much I tried. I kept trying to taste the crust, but somehow could never determine the taste (butter or shortening).

Baker of "impaired" cakes...
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  • 2 weeks later...

I haven't recently re-read these pages, but the only other tips I can think of for pastry crust is:

My 1951 Betty Crocker red & white cookbook that my little Mom bought new says to incorporate the fat half at a time. The first half gets cut in till it resembles cornmeal. The second half gets incorporated till the mixture resembles small peas.

Maybe refrigerating the flour in advance of cutting in the fat would help a bit on the time line.

I also have Mom's real wide shallow glass bowl that I use to do pastry crust. The sides of the bowl mimic the angle of my pastry cutter and I literally mark my starting point and count how many times I go around the bowl cutting into the flour so I don't over do.

So I cut through the flour & fat then comb through that portion with the pastry cutter once to fluff it up. Repeat all around. So all told for a crust that starts with 2 cups of flour, I go around the bowl 4 or 5 times. If I do the fat in two portions, I would go approximately three to four times the first go round then once or twice for the second half. Maybe that gives a visual for how little you diddle with it. But you can use your fingers or a food processor too.

Of course the fat is initially prepared into equal little portions that I toss in the flour before cutting.

Some people use an egg in their pie crust. I often add nut meal to balance out the sweetness. And like I said, less is more with pie crust.

There's lots of ways to do this.

Hope all your pies come out great for Christmas and forever.

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  • 7 months later...

When I make pies I generally use the Foolproof Pie recipe from CI. I pre bake to try to avoid a soggy bottom. However, when I add fillings and bake it seems like the edges of the crust are always overdone, too brown and dry. I've tried covering the whole pie for the first half of baking and trying to cover just the edges with aluminum foil (kind of a pain).

Any advice or techniques? Not pre-baking? Using two temperatures?

Thanks for any thoughts...

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I'm not a CI member, so I cannot access the recipe. Is it a shortening-based crust?

Why don't you try covering the edges of the crust during your pre-bake, instead of during the full bake?

I use Martha's pate brisee recipe, and never have a problem with it. It's flaky, buttery, and bakes through, even on the bottom.

Theresa :biggrin:

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

- Abraham Lincoln

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Hi,

My guess is that your prebake is being followed by a full baking period; that means your crust is being baked a lot longer than intended by the recipe.

If you have good luck with the prebaking, you can limit the time of the finished baking by pre-cooking the ingredients. Many cooks will cook apple pie filling to add color and flavor before filling their pies and baking for a short period.

I also find that fresh peach pies are much better when baked for a short time. I think 40 minutes makes wonderful fresh peaches taste like canned peaches.

This recipe seems to result in slumping crusts for many. There are recommendations to place the pie in a freezer for a period before baking. Whatever works for you.

Tim

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I can't find the method on CI but I have great success with the method used in Baking Illustrated.

Adjust oven rack to lowest position and put a rimmed baking sheet on it. Preheat oven (and pan) to 500F. Place pie on preheated pan and reduce heat to 425F for 25 minutes. Rotate pie and reduce temp to 375F. Bake for 30 - 35 minutes more. Towards the end I sometimes use a shield made out of foil. The easiest way I've found to do this is to tear off a square of foil. Fold it in half and then half again so you have a square. Cut about a 3" corner off the point with all the folds. When you open it up you have a hole in the middle. Easy to place over your pie to allow the pastry to continue to brown while protecting the crust.

Don't wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great. Orison Swett Marden

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What kind of pan are you using? I've found pyrex pans to work best for browning pie shells. For tarts I like black steel.

All the other suggestions are good ones. Though I treat Cook's Illustrated methods as a kind of last resort. Their techniques often seem like the brainchild of a committee of amature scientists, who psych themselves up for baking by smoking a bowl and watching MacGyver.

Which isn't to say their methods don't work ... just that there's probably an easier way. My recipes tend to look like CI recipes when I'm halfway done with them, before I've had a chance to streamline.

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I've used Pyrex before. But the one I used yesterday was a ceramic pie pan. Thought I'd see how that worked.

Thanks for the ideas. I think I will definitely try two things next time. 1) making sure my filling is room temperature or warmer and 2) trying to cover the edges of the crust during the pre bake, since those are not covered with filling, they have time to brown during "actual" pie cooking.

For clarity, the recipe I used from CI was for the crust only. I found another mixed berry recipe online.

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