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How To Make The Perfect All-Butter Pie Crust, According To Science

Pie pastry is tricky to master, because you want to achieve two opposing things at once: a flaky, tender, unstoppably delicious crust and a crust that’s strong enough to hold your careful crimping with swagger.
How To Make The Perfect All-Butter Pie Crust, According To Science (Produced by: Sun Ngo; Photography: Christie Vuong; Food styling: Sage Dakota; prop styling: Madeleine Johari)

To me, there is almost no pleasure greater than watching a few buttery pastry shards fly as my fork sinks without resistance into a golden pie crust.

I just know it’s going to be good. Pie pastry is tricky to master, because you want to achieve two opposing things at once: a flaky, tender, unstoppably delicious crust and a crust that’s strong enough to hold your careful crimping with swagger. This is elusive, because the science behind each goal is totally at odds. For a crust to be tender, it must have a lot of the fat worked into the flour. But to be flaky, it must have large chunks of fat, too. Let’s be real: To be delicious, a crust needs all the butter. But butter’s melting point is lower than shortening or lard. This means that it tends to spread quickly, making it more challenging to maintain decorative shaping.

Don’t bang your head on the wall just yet, though. I have tested and retested to develop an all-butter pie crust recipe that strikes the right balance in this science-y push and pull.

Here are my five secrets to the perfect all-butter pie crust

  1. Ensure enough of the flour is coated in fat to reduce gluten formation. To do this, divide your butter and rub two-thirds of it directly into the flour until it resembles almond meal. This creates a fat barrier that prevents water from entering the flour. The dough-toughening gluten protein complex is only created when water is introduced, so this step promotes crust tenderness.
  2. Incorporate the remaining butter separately, leaving it in perceptible shards and lumps. Larger pieces of fat create distinct pockets of steam in the baked pastry, which result in flakiness.
  3. Choose butter as the fat if you insist (as I do!) on a crust that is delicious and not just a necessary vessel for bubbly fillings. To get around the melting-point issue, make sure the dough is freezer-cold and start baking it in a super hot oven. This permits the starch to set before the butter has time to flatten any artistic details.
  4. Make the dough in advance. There are three crucial reasons to do this: A pre-bake freeze gives the butter a chance to harden up, encouraging flakiness and preventing spread. Mellow-out time also lets a tight gluten matrix relax, so that the crust is softer and won’t shrink. And, finally, resting allows hydration, when water absorbs into the starch molecules and moves from areas of higher concentration to drier parts of the mixture. You’ll find the dough smoother and more workable.
  5. Flex your brains and not your triceps: Roll out the dough before chilling it. It is absurd how much easier it is to smooth out pliable, room-temperature dough than to whack at a fridge-cold hunk. But beyond avoiding arm burn, you’re doing all the gluten-forming pressing and pulling before the long rest time, allowing the dough time to relax. It’ll be more tender and hold its shape better than ever.

That’s the wisdom I can impart. Now I hope you’re ready to create the flaky, tender, beautiful pies of your dreams.

A person serving a pie made with Master All-Butter Pie Dough

Our creative director said this was the best pie crust she'd ever had. Get Jennifer Pallian's master all-butter pie dough recipe here.

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Pumpkin-spiced apple pie served on a plate

Made with our Master All-Butter Pie Dough, this pie combines everyone's favourite fall flavours. Get our Pumpkin-Spiced Apple Pie recipe here.

Jennifer Pallian is a food scientist, recipe developer and blogger at Foodess. She lives in Vancouver.

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