Pie lovers know that an all-butter crust is the gold standard of flakiness and flavor. Sure, lard and shortening have their place, but you really can’t go wrong with butter.
Except that butter melts more easily. Ay, there’s the rub! Butter starts to melt around 89.5°F, but the average body temperature is 98.6°F. Many-a hopeful pie maker has been thwarted by pie dough that became greasy, sticky, or soft enough to fall apart as they handled it.
That’s why food processors gained ground as the tool of choice: they cut down on the time your warm hands get pawsy with the dough. The food processor method is how I learned, in fact. But over the years, I gained confidence and learned a few key secrets to making pie dough by hand, which I find easier and ultimately faster than using a food processor.
The Case for Pie Dough by Hand
- I hate washing a food processor
- Not everyone has one
- The baked crust is superior
Why does pie dough made by hand bake into a more noteworthy crust? Because pulsing cubes of butter in a food processor makes rounded bits. In the oven, these bake into a tender crust.
But when you make dough by hand, you use your fingertips to smoosh the cold butter bits into flakes. Rolling the dough out stretches these flakes into layers that puff up in the oven and become crispy, flaky pie dough versus the melty-tender pie dough you get from the food processor method.
Both have merit, but my preference is a flaky crust and no food processor to wash.
Temperature Is Everything
Have you ever heard the saying “cold hands, warm heart”? Its origins have nothing to do with pie, but it does illustrate an important point. The natural temperature of your hands will determine the ease with which you can make an all-butter crust.
My average body temperature seems to hover around 97°F and my hands in particular are always slightly warmer than a corpse. The only time this trait is advantageous is in working with pastry, when nuances of half a degree can make the difference between the pliable yet firm butter desirable for pie dough and the soft, greasy butter that’s better suited for slathering all over corn on the cob.
Generally speaking, the less handsy you are with pie dough, the better it will be. But this is especially true for those of you who run hot. Your hands are natural butter-melting machines. How, then, do you have any hope of making an all-butter crust with them?
Tips for Keeping Your Cool
- The tips are the coolest part of your fingers. Use your fingertips to bring the dough together rather than your whole hands.
- Rely on tools if it helps. For the hot-blooded, gadgets can be lifesavers. Pastry cutters are made just for cutting the butter into the dough in a hands-free manner. Or just use a fork.
- Your fridge and freezer are big assets. Keeping your ingredients and dough cold at all times during the process will make the path to perfect pie dough a smooth one. If your dough is getting soft or greasy, put it in the fridge or freezer for 15 minutes to get it firmed up again. As you wait, take a breather. Pie dough can tell when you are rushed or anxious. Remember, it’s only pie!
Thank you to The Castle in Marietta, Ohio, for hosting us for this photo shoot.
Pies to Bake With Buttery Crusts
How to Make Pie Dough by Hand
Instead of ice water, you can use any of the following, as long as it is very cold: apple juice, kombucha, mild beer, yogurt whey, or water with 1 teaspoon of apple cider vinegar added.
You can double this recipe for 2 crusts (for a double crust pie, for example), but for those who are first-timers, I recommend making one crust at a time until you have the hang of it.
1 1/4 cups (160g) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar, optional
1 stick (113g) cold unsalted butter
3 to 6 tablespoons ice water (see recipe note)
Prep your ingredients and work station:
On a clean countertop, set out a piece of plastic wrap about a foot and a half long.
Mix the flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Set aside.
Cube the butter into 1/4-inch chunks, or—this is my preference—quickly grate it using the coarse holes of a box grater. If the butter is starting to get soft, pop it in the freezer for 10 minutes.
Work the butter into the dough:
Add the butter bits to the bowl of dry ingredients and toss to coat. With the tips of your fingers, smash and pinch the tiny butter cubes to make crumbles and flakes no larger than peas. Stick the whole bowl in the freezer for a few minutes if the butter starts to feel greasy.
You may also use a pastry cutter or a large metal fork (good options for those with warm hands, as it keeps the butter from melting). Old cookbooks will recommend cutting the butter in with two table knives, but I’ve never had luck with that.
Add the chilled liquid:
Sprinkle about 3 tablespoons of ice water (or whichever chilled liquid you choose) over the mixture and toss it all together like a salad (don’t knead). Continue tossing and adding liquid, 1 tablespoon at a time, until everything comes together to form a rough, shaggy mass that holds its shape when you press a clump together. Err on the side of slightly sticky, rather than dry and crumbly, if you’re unsure when to stop.
Chill 30 minutes before rolling:
Shape into a ball, place on the precut plastic wrap, and flatten into a disc about 6 inches across. Wrap the disc securely and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before rolling.
You may refrigerate the dough for 2 to 3 days before rolling it out. Let the dough sit on the counter for 15 minutes before rolling. You may also freeze the wrapped disc of dough for up to 6 months.
Gather your tools:
This is best done in a cool kitchen, which keeps the dough from breaking down and becoming fragile and greasy. If your kitchen is hot, consider working early in the morning, when it’s coolest.
Generously flour a clean counter or pastry cloth. Dust the rolling pin and the dough itself on both sides well with flour. If the dough has been in the fridge for more than a few hours, let it sit out for 15 minutes before rolling it out.
Don’t have a pastry cloth? Line your countertop with a few overlapping large sheets of plastic wrap. This makes for easy cleanup.
Working from the center of the dough, roll away from you and then toward you, rotating the disk of dough bit by bit as you roll. This helps keep it from sticking. Dust the dough and/or the counter with more flour as needed to prevent the dough from sticking.
To line a 9-inch pie dish, you’ll want a circle of dough at least 14 inches across.
Transfer the rolled-out dough to the dish:
Brush the excess flour off the dough with a clean, dry pastry brush or your hand. Lift the rolled-out dough into the dish by rolling it up on the pin and letting it drape over the center of the dish. Carefully press down the dough to line the bottom and sides of the dish.
There’s usually no need to grease the pie dish, but it’s often easier for new bakers to grease it just to be safe.
Shape the crust:
Trim the excess from the sides of the pan. If you’d like to create a folded and pinched edge, leave about 1 inch of overhang. If the dough is too brittle to easily fold without it cracking, just trim it so the crust is even with the rim of the pan.
To make a fluted edge, gently fold the inch of overhanging dough so you can tuck it under itself, making a clean, thick edge. Then use your thumb and forefinger to pinch and flute the edges.
Don’t worry about a picture-perfect crust! Imperfections often disappear once the pie is baked.
To blind-bake the crust (fully bake the crust without any filling), proceed as you would with any other pie dough.
I like to take any trimmings left over from rolling out a pie crust, form them into a ball, and chill them for 5 or 10 minutes. Then I roll it into a rectangle, sprinkle it with cinnamon sugar, and fold it over before rolling it a second time to a 1/8-inch thickness. Cut into strips about 1/4 to 1/2 inch across, sprinkle with more cinnamon sugar, and bake at about 400°F until crispy and golden brown. What a treat!
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|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 12g||15%|
|Saturated Fat 7g||36%|
|Total Carbohydrate 16g||6%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||2%|
|Total Sugars 0g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|