The Foolproof Pie Dough: A Primer (Part I)

As I mentioned in my first post, Cooks Illustrated  opened my eyes to the ease of making your own pie pastry. Cooks Illustrated is a wonderful bimonthly periodical that doesn’t just provide recipes; it delves into the science and chemistry behind the food and teaches you HOW to cook in addition to WHAT to cook. It explains the Maillard reaction resulting in fond, and osmosis in brining meat, and the breakdown of cell walls when salting zucchini. I read an article and I suddenly have my own tiny ghostly Chef Gusteau floating over my shoulder, saying, “Anyone can cook!” In addition to the science and imaginary culinary cheerleaders, the magazine provides equipment ratings and user-submitted life hacks (#1 life hack: running your blowdryer on one of those price sticker labels on jars or dishes for 10-15 seconds will soften up the glue and let you remove the sticker easily without having to scrape of all the annoying gummy bits left behind). Each magazine is only about 25 pages and features no color photos, but what it lacks in length and color, it makes up for with density of information. The hand-drawn pictures are actually quite charming as well.

Produced by America’s Test Kitchen based in Massachusetts, the authors of each article test every aspect of each recipe featured in the magazine in order to optimize results both in terms of flavor and convenience. They also explain the reason behind the choices they make and test the recipes out several times on 10,000+ taster volunteers before settling on a recipe worth releasing to the general public. This process can go through upwards of 50 iterations or so before the author is satisfied with the recipe. Now, I am not a food scientist. I didn’t even take a single chemistry class from high school on. I was more of a math and physics and computers nerd, but I have always wondered if I missed my calling by not majoring in Food Science like my beautiful friend chinitaspies, who not only loves food with unbridled passion but has also likely killed a man or two with her volleyball skills. I love knowing why food works the way it does. And that’s why I share. Because I love.

I’ve split this into two parts due to length: The Making of the Dough in Part I and The Rolling of the Dough in Part II.

The Science
(skip this part if you’re a fundamentalist Creationist, or don’t really care about the why)

When this recipe promised to be foolproof, I read the article closely. Their secret? Vodka! I’d already picked up the secret of chilling your fats before blending them in from Martha Stewart, whose show I may have gotten addicted to while on maternity leave with my first child. But vodka intrigued me. It turns out that water and flour form gluten together, which is the sticky protein that provides structure to your baked goods. By replacing half the volume of water with vodka (which is relatively flavorless when cooked), you avoid having to work with dough that forms gluten quickly and thus end up with something that rolls out more like Play-doh and is really easy to work with. Vodka doesn’t seem to affect the final product’s texture, but it does make the pastry more pliable while you’re working with it.

Could you just use pastry flour? Pastry flour works with a similar concept: it has less gluten-forming protein than whole wheat or all purpose flour. Cake flour has even less, which is why cakes are so fluffy and cookie recipes using cake flour end up chewier. If you do use pastry flour, you won’t need as much water to achieve the same kind of texture you’d get with all purpose flour, but you’ll still end up with the same issues of pliability. Just use the vodka.

Cooks Illustrated’s recipe also calls for a blend of fats: a stick and a half of butter (168 grams) and 1/2 cup of shortening (~100 grams). I’ve heard of all butter crusts, butter/shortening blend crusts, and (to my mind, vomitously) all shortening crusts. I like all butter crusts, but I find them to be a bit much in terms of butteriness. With butter/shortening blend crusts, apparently the shortening provides a bit more structural integrity to the pastry because it’s a pure fat, whereas butter, being made of cream, has more water content.  Once the water content gets hot enough, it turns to steam and makes the pastry puffy by sheer force, sort of like a car jack. Here, I’ve drawn a cartoon to explain both this concept and why I never pursued art (click to embiggen):

fats

One day I’d like to try butter/lard crust and an all lard crust, but lard just isn’t that easy to come by anymore.

The Recipe
You’ll need the following equipment at a minimum:

  • pastry blender, or even better, food processor
  • giant bowl
  • one butter knife
  • food scale if you’re like me, and you really REALLY like to make sure you split the dough evenly
  • wooden spatula
  • plastic wrap

Cooks Illustrated’s recipe appears untouched except for the metric conversions. I add my annotations and comments aftewards.

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 cups (238 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon (5.69 g) table salt
  • 2 tablespoons (28 g) sugar
  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks or 168 g) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch (.635 cm) slices
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
  • 1/4 cup (59.15 mL) cold vodka
  • 1/4 cup (59.15 mL) cold water

Procedure

  1. Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.
  2. Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

The Annotations and Comments

On Temperature: Keep the Temperature Low!
I keep the shortening and the vodka in the freezer at all times, and the water gets poured over ice and is then measured out. I don’t freeze the butter  because of the aforementioned water content: freezing butter makes it incredibly difficult to cut into 1/4 inch slices unless you like tiny shards of butter chipping and flying into your eye. Martha Stewart goes so far as to chill her bowls. My only advice here is not to work in an overly warm kitchen. Turn the A/C up if it’s summer, and maybe open a kitchen window if it’s winter and you keep your house balmy. If you keep your house frigid, perfect.

If you make a pie crust ahead of time, or plan to roll it out while cooking several other things in your kitchen, do the rolling out first and put the uncooked pie in the refrigerator, and then start cooking everything else. The reason for this is that if the ambient temperature in the kitchen is elevated because the oven and the stove are going at the same time, the fats in the pastry will start softening or even melting and make the dough impossible to work with (entry about lattice tops forthcoming). I even avoid touching the dough until the last possible minute, because having short T-rex arms means that blood has a shorter distance to travel to keep my hands warm.

On Blending
If you have a food processor, these instructions work wonderfully well. If you don’t have a food processor and only have a pastry blender, I hope you’ve been doing your pushups and shoulder presses, or have some kind of height advantage. The process works the same way: just keep mashing all the fats and the flour/salt/sugar blend together until you end up with something sort of cornmealy. It’s ok to leave bigger chunks of fat if your arms get tired though. If you have no food processor and no pastry blender and plan to use two knives, put your stupid knives away, drive to the grocery store, buy a pastry blender, and then return to this section because screw that. One day, if you decide to purchase a food processor and start to make your pie dough with it instead of the pastry blender, you’ll think, “My god, look at all this time I’ve saved. I think I’ll go watch Parks & Recreation.”

Also, that knife you used to cut up all your butter and shortening? Keep it handy for poking fat out from between pastry blender blades and cutting the dough in half. There, I’ve saved you from having to wash another knife or two.

On Spatulas
Rubber?? Are they nuts?! This dough is dense as all crap. I snapped a rubber spatula in half once trying to “press down on dough until dough is slightly tacky”; it doesn’t work. Use a wooden or bamboo one. Or your hands if you work quickly.

After 45 minutes or so of refrigeration, you now have your disks of dough and are ready to roll them out. Which means on to Part II! Next week.

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2 thoughts on “The Foolproof Pie Dough: A Primer (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Pie Week: Jack Daniel’s Chocolate Chip Pecan Pie | O Pie-oneers!

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