Pie Crust

Homemade pie crust on the left, Pillsbury frozen pie crust on the right

Last year I wrote a post comparing several different kind of pumpkin pie, but this year I wanted to focus on one specific element of pie:  the crust.  I have tried refrigerated pie dough in the past and found it very inferior to homemade.  It was thick and crisp rather than flaky and light and had a nasty, salty flavor.  Some people swear by frozen pie crusts and, as I’ve never tried one before, I decided to bake up a frozen pie crust and compare it to my tried-and-true homemade pie crust recipe.  I pre-baked one homemade and one homemade single pie crust and filled them with chocolate cream filling (I didn’t want to get too burnt out on pumpkin before Thanksgiving) and the tasting began.

If you were to just look at the ingredient list in the pie crust recipe below, you might imagine that pie crust was one of the simplest things in the world to make.  Flour, salt and shortening are the only ingredients needed, but the technique required to turn these three ingredients into a flaky, delicious pie crust is what makes this recipe complicated.  I have made many, many pie crusts and found that only through practice and trial and error can you learn to make pie crusts that turn out correctly every time.  And even now I have occasionally problems with the dough tearing or cracking.  I’m not mentioning all of this to scare you off of making homemade pie crusts, only to point out that there is more to this comparison than the time or cost that goes into making these pie crusts; there is also an element of experience that should be figured in.  It also explains why the instructions below are so detailed.  I wanted to try and share every tip and trick that I have learned in my many attempts to create the perfect pie crust (I still haven’t succeeded!).

Ingredients for pie crust: Flour, crisco, kosher salt

Cutting Shortening into the flour

Shortening Based Pie Crust

Makes 1 single pie crust for a 9-inch pie plate   (double recipe if you are making a pie with an upper and lower crust)

There are two kinds of fat normally used in pie crusts, either butter or shortening.  Butter tends to add more flavor to the crust, but I think it makes the dough more delicate and hard to work with.  Shortening makes the crust very flaky and the dough easier to handle without tearing, but does not provide the rich flavor that butter does.  Taking all of that into consideration, I have had a much easier time making crusts that use only shortening so that is the recipe I am posting here.  You really do want to use shortening and water that are as cold as possible.  The cold ingredients make the dough less crumbly and less likely to tear.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup cold shortening (I always use crisco)
3 to 5 Tablespoons ice water

1.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the flour and salt until well combined.

2.  Using a fork or a pastry cutter,

cut the cold shortening into the

Ball of pie dough ready to be rolled out

flour mixture until it resembles coarse oatmeal.  Add the ice water 2 Tablespoons at a time, mixing gently with a fork as you go until all the dough begins to stick together.  The more water and more mixing that goes into the dough, the tougher it will be, so try to use the least amount of water you can to make the dough stick together.

3. Gently press the dough together into a ball and place it on a lightly floured surface. I have found that pie dough tends to roll out better and stick less to a wooden surface than a completely smooth surface.  If you do not have a butcher block counter in your kitchen (as I do not) then I suggest rolling out the

Circle of dough placed in pie plate

dough on a large wood  board.

Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough out into a 12-inch circle (13-inch if you have a deep dish pie plate).  As you roll out the dough, try to rotate it often, lifting the dough and adding a little extra flour under it as you go.  This will keep the dough from sticking too much to the board.

4.  Once the dough is rolled into a big enough circel, fold the circle into fourths gently.  Lift the folded crust into the pie plate and then unfold it so that it cover the pie plate.  Gently press the dough into the edges of the pie plate, being careful not to tear it in the process. If there are any tears or cracks at this point, just gently press them back together as best you can.  Crimp the edges of the crust around the rim of the plate or press it into place with

Unbaked pie crust pricked with a fork and loaded with dried beans

the tines of a fork.  Trim excess crust that is hanging over the edge of plate.

5.  For a single pre-baked crust (used for cream pies or other pies with an unbaked filling), prick the crust all over with a fork to prevent the crust from warping and bubbling as it bakes.  Place some pie weights or dried beans in the bottom of the crust to hold it down as it bakes (I tie dry beans up in a double thickness of cheese cloth so that the beans are easier to remove).  Bake in a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes or until the edges of the crust begin to brown.  Remove the pie weights from the crust and bake for 5 more minutes to allow the bottom of the crust to crisp up.  Cool pie crust before filling.

6.  If you are making a double-crust pie with this recipe, just double the ingredients and press the dough into 2 separate balls in step 3.  After placing one rolled crust into the pie plate, do not trim or crimp the edges of the crust.  Instead, pour the desired filling into the pie and then top this with the second rolled pie crust.  Crimp the two crusts together to seal in the filling and then trim the crust as needed.  Cut slits in the top of the pie to allow steam to escape as it bakes and brush the top crust with a beaten egg so that it turns brown and shiny in the oven.  Bake pie according to the recipe instructions, usually about 30 minutes at 400 degrees or until top crust is golden brown.

I made one chocolate cream pie using the crust method outlined above and one using a PIllsbury Frozen pie crust that I had pre-baked according to the package directions.  I had three tasters for this comparison and we all agreed that the homemade pie crust was better in flavor and texture to the store bought, but the frozen pie crust wasn’t as bad as we had expected.  The frozen crust was certainly not as bad as refrigerated pie dough I have used in the past.  Although the frozen crust was thicker and denser than the homemade version, it did not have an unpleasant flavor and rather than being crunchy and tough, it had a sort of crumbly texture that was not unpleasing.  One big point in the homemade pie crusts flavor was it’s appearance.  The frozen pie crust looks fairly plain and unappetizing with a flat, non-crimped edge and it crumbled all over the place when I tried to cut into it, making for rather messy looking pieces of pie.  The homemade pie, in contrast, looked fancier, cut very neatly and the crust held together well but somehow tasted more delicate and flaky than the frozen variety.

Homemade pie crust is probably one of the cheapest things you could possibly make, but the frozen Pillsbury crust was not very expensive either as you can buy a package of 2 crusts for about $2.  The big area where the frozen pie crust won points was the preparation and clean up.  Making homemade pie dough is not only a difficult process to master,  it is also very messy with gummy, greasy dough covering kitchen counters and utensils.  With the frozen pie crust, there is no mess and no anxiety about whether the dough will tear or crack, just a simple pie crust you can pop in the oven and bake.

Bottom Line: Although homemade pie crust was the flakiest, cheapest and most attractive, frozen pie crusts are a great no-fail solution for those with little pie making experience.  If you want to make great homemade pie crusts for next Thanksgiving, start practicing now!  Anyone can learn to make pie crust from scratch with just a little patience and practice.

The costs and times below are for a single 9-inch pie crust, unfilled.

Homemade Pie Crust Pillsbury Frozen Pie Crust
Cost: 35 Cents Cost: $1.00
Time: 40 minutes Time: 12 minutes

For some last minute Thanksgiving menu ideas, check out these other holiday recipes from last year:  Stuffing, Cranberry sauce, Pumpkin Pie, and Sweet Potato Casserole.