You can go straight to the pie crust tutorials linked below, but if you’re new to pie crusts, I suggest reading this entire post first.
I can cook well-enough, but I won’t win an innovation cook award anytime soon or all of a sudden learn how to take awesome food pictures. I’m pretty boring when it comes to cooking in general, likely because I have little time to do any real creative or fun cooking.
That said, one kitchen task I do actually rock at is pie crusts. My pie crusts actually turn out like they should – flaky, tasty and not rock hard. Sometimes I even get the fillings right! My biggest challenge is looks. I’m terribly pie designed challenged (see pie above). However, I’ve learned that if you make a pie crust that’s got amazing texture and taste, and add pretty good filling, no one even cares what the whole pie looks like.
Soon I’ll be posting some actual pie recipes, but first, we need to discuss the crust.
Best tip – act like the crust is HOT lava!
Touch your pie crust dough as little as humanly possible – only touch it enough to be somewhat workable. I’m serious, I barely look at my dough.
My favorite grandma, bless her, taught me to make pie crusts, but not very good ones. She was awesome at everything else (sewing, canning, etc) but her pie crusts were hard, somewhat overcooked and not too great. When I was younger, I kept her general pie crust recipe and simply tried to improve on it.
As I looked for hints in books and such, I came across something, somewhere that said, “Don’t touch the crust anymore than absolutely necessary.” That was key. My grandma used to knead, roll and mess with her dough, which was a big mistake. The more you mess with it, the tougher your dough will become. In fact, as it turns out, ingredients in dough crusts matter much less than how much you handle the darn thing. That advice changed my pie crusts for the better and I became the official family holiday pie maker.
Butter or shortening?
My grandma always used good ol’ lard (yikes). I was a vegetarian at a young age, so trying to keep with my grandma’s vision, I copied her somewhat and used Crisco. Not great or organic, but better than straight up lard. Later I moved on to butter crusts, which I had heard were harder to make flaky, but I found that to be a lie. If you don’t touch the crust, it doesn’t matter what you use.
Personally, I’ll use organic butter or organic shortening. Whatever is in the house. Both have pros and cons. For example, neither is a health food item. Butter has 100 calories per tablespoon while shortening has 110. Butter has 30% saturated fat while shortening has 36%. Butter has a little Vitamin A (8%) but shortening has zero vitamins. The only real difference is that butter is packed with sodium – 95 mg per serving, while shortening has none. Still, neither is too great for your health no matter how you slice it.
Just so you know, I never make crusts with other types of fats, so if you have a question about oil, clarified butter, lard or god forbid margarine, don’t ask me.
Organic butter pros & cons
- Butter crusts taste better than shortening crusts in my opinion, but don’t go with every filling.
- Butter crusts are harder to work with. I suck at making pretty crusts. Tasty and flaky, sure. Pretty – um, nope. Butter makes it that much harder, because it starts to melt as soon you touch it.
- Butter crusts have a slight pretty tinge of golden color, that shortening crusts lack.
- Butter has more larger flaky layers than shortening.
- Butter must be kept icy cold, so there’s a lot of back and fourth to the fridge involved with butter crusts.
Organic shortening pros & cons
- Shortening has no real flavor component. Some people like this, because they feel the butter doesn’t blend well with a specific filling. I agree. For example, fruit pies taste great with butter crust, but chocolate cream cheese raspberry pie is rich enough, that a shortening crust is the better choice. Personally, I like pumpkin better without butter too, but obviously everyone has their own taste preferences.
- Shortening crusts are WAY easier to work with. So, if you’re already seriously pie-design challenged, go with shortening. Personally I don’t care what my pies look like, (they’re not getting any prettier anyhow) so I ignore this.
- Organic shortening is very soft – if you’re used to Crisco or lard, you should know that organic shortening takes less time to work into pea sized pieces than conventional shortening – a good thing in my opinion, because less touching!
- There’s something a little more ‘natural’ about using butter, but that’s just aesthetics in my brain probably.
Which pie crust costs less?
Unless you find a killer deal, organic butter, even store brand organic butter runs about $4.50+ per box (4 sticks). Organic shortening costs about $6.50 per container. You can make four single pie crusts with an entire box of butter and ten single pie crusts with a container of shortening. The shortening is a better deal cost-wise.
Make your own organic pie crust
Both butter and shortening crusts go together in mostly the same way, but do have some key differences. So, below I’ve posted a tutorial of each.
Organic pie crust FAQ
What about a wheat crust? You can make a mostly wheat crust with either shortening or butter. I have a how-to for an organic mostly wheat pie crust in my Veggie Pot Pie post. I haven’t had great luck with ALL wheat flour pie crusts. They’re okay, but unless I add some white flour, it seems too tough.
Should you use pastry flour? I’ve heard rumors that pastry flour rocks. However, organic pastery flour can be expensive, and since I’ve never had an issue with basic organic flour, I leave it at that. I once ran out of flour and used some bread flour I had around, which I don’t recommend. Bread flour doesn’t make for as tender crust because of the gluten.
What if the edges cook quicker during baking? This usually does happen. It’s more a question of when, not if. However, you can easily manage this by placing foil on your pie edge for the first or second half of the cooking process. It’s easier to put foil on at first though then to deal with touching a hot pie. Even better than foil (which is disposable) is a handy and super inexpensive Silicone Pie Crust Shield.
What can you coat a pie with? An organic egg yolk mixed with a tablespoon of organic milk will make for a semi-shiny pie wash. For a richer color, brush on a bit of melted organic butter. You can also add a sprinkling of organic sugar for a pretty sparkle (you can add sugar alone, no wash needed). I don’t tend to do washes. I hate wasting an egg, and feel like butter is a bit much. If you want to learn more though, read this.
To bake a single shell crust, without filling. Use a basic set of pie weights. Better than beans, which sometimes make the crust soggy and you can’t use the beans after.
Why add sugar to pie crust? Sugar in dough works well if you want a bit of sweetness. It also helps turn out a more tender crust. I add it sometimes, but not all the time. Usually to fruit pie crusts.
Do you have to chill dough before rolling? It depends. With a butter crust, I would or your dough will be extra hard to handle – due to the butter melting. I never chill shortening dough, although some people think you should.
What if you suck at rolling dough? If you don’t care if your pie crust looks totally perfect, you can skip the rolling. Flatten your dough in your hand a bit then place it in your pie plate and start smooshing it towards the sides of the pie plate with your hands. It’ll be thicker of course and not super pretty and smooth, but it works fine if you’re in a rush, especially for pies like pot pie where the filling tends to make for a wetter crust.
Can you add spice and herbs? Sure. These won’t hurt a pie crust. Mix in spices or herbs like cinnamon, basil, sage or nutmeg, with the flour, before cutting in your butter or shortening. It won’t hurt and can add some pretty color and flavor.
Can you teach me how to make a pretty pie crust! Nope. As mentioned before, I’m design challenged and suck at the whole fluting, pricking, perfect lattice crusts and so on. My pies taste really good but look haphazard (see pumpkin pie above – bad edges). One, because frankly I’m not opening a pie shop anytime soon so there’s no incentive to learn plus, well, I guess I’m just better at other stuff. If you want to learn how to make fancy pie crusts check out the following links:
Hopefully this will at least get you going on your pie making adventures this holiday season. Got any more pie crust tips, share in the comments below.