The Pie Crust Experiment

Rlbpie_2

        Talking with my sister-in-law one day, she told me how my mom was trying to teach her how to make pie crusts. My mom is 79 years old and lives oceans away from me. I have never learned to cook from either my mom or my dad who are revered culinary geniuses in my hometown. I remember the competition in my family about who could cook better. When your parents ask you point blank:

“Who’s {insert food here} tastes better?”

  You just have to be diplomatic; I recall with nostalgia the funny bickering that would ensue in our household. (Actually, I think my dad was better at traditional Cantonese cooking and American Food while my mom was better at Filipino cuisine and baking). My dad had since passed away and with him he took those precious recipes of strip steak, pork ribs, roast duck and the best roast turkey ever. My mom, in her twilight years could still throw a party for a hundred (literally). She could still walk to the open market herself to pick out the freshest ingredients. I remember when “Hungry” hubby and I went home for a visit to the Philippines, my mom had roasted lamb, ox tongue with mushrooms, roast chicken, her famous spaghetti and other delectable dishes all in one banquet.  Of course she had other prep cooks under her but she does the marinade, proportions and final cooking herself.

Which brings us back to the funny point of this post.

You know how you were always taught in baking that ingredients should be measured precisely? Well according to my sister-in-law, during this pie crust lesson my mom used her hand to scoop the flour out while saying you take “some of this and a little of that mix together quickly …don’t mix too much or it becomes tough …and that’s how you make the crust”. No rolling pin, she just shaped the dough out with her hand and patted it into the pie plate. And guess what, the crust was very tender and flaky.

Yes, that sure is my mom. From the childhood recesses of my mind, when we first opened the restaurant bakeshop and had no trained bakers yet, I remember standing next to her on top of a chair – late into the night she would bake the pies and cakes to be sold the next day. Unfortunately, I was not interested in the making of it, just the eating of it.

Wasted opportunities come back to haunt us later in life, but it is never too late to start learning.

          And since I couldn’t make that trip home yet I decided to do some research into flaky pie crusts and have narrowed the field down to the following recipes.

            A pie crust is basically flour; some form of fat and some liquid.  There are endless recipes, one promising to be the flakiest or the more tender than the next so I had to pick and choose which ones to include in this test batch or I would be experimenting till the next Presidential Elections.

            Here are the contenders and I have put the measurements in table form as well as by weight when possible. I had to bump the version from Tartine for Kate Zuckerman’s because of the wonderful step-by-step tutorial Kate had here. Cook’s Illustrated(Nov/Dec 2007) had a recipe that called for vodka, Rose Levy Beranbaum in her book Pie and Pastry Bible uses cream cheese and now recommends substituting heavy cream for the water on her blog. And of course, Sherry Yard, the lady who opened my eyes to baking through her wonderful book, Secrets of Baking – I cannot NOT include her version.

Rose Levy

Beranbaum

Kate

Zuckerman

Sherry

Yard

Cook’s

Illustrated

* Flour

10 oz (284g)

12 oz (327g)

12.5 oz

12.5 oz

Butter

6 oz (170g)

7 oz (198g)

8 oz

6 oz.

Cream Cheese

4.5 oz (128g)

*

*

*

Ice Water

1 oz (28g)

3 oz (84g)

4 oz (112g)

2 oz. (56g)

Shortening

*

*

4 oz

Salt

¼ tsp

½ tsp

1 tsp

1 tsp.

Vinegar

.5 oz (14g)

½ tsp

Baking

Powder

¼ tsp

Vodka

*

*

*

2 oz.

Sugar

*

1 tsp

2 tbs

2 tbs.

* RLB uses pastry flour, the rest were All-Purpose Flour

Before you can make a good pie crust, you need to understand your ingredients and how they interact with each other. Below is a distillation of what I have learned by experimentation and by reading Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Pie and Pastry Bible – a must have for any serious pie maker.

The balance between tender and flaky is a real challenge in making this pastry.

Flakiness comes from large sheets of cold fat in between gluten structures that when subjected to heat, the moisture in the fat produces steam and leavens your layers.

Flour -Tenderness is governed by the amount of protein in your flour. A higher protein flour forms gluten more readily and makes your dough hard to roll out. Low protein flour like cake flour makes for a dough that is too delicate it breaks readily when transferring. Pastry flour is ideal.

Fat – is what creates the flaky layers. Shortening is often used because it does not melt readily at room temperature but has little taste. Butter has great flavor and cream cheese? The best! But I am getting ahead of myself here.

Liquid – water is added to start gluten formation. It helps the dough stick together but you must be careful not to add too much or your resulting crust becomes tough. Vinegar adds acidity that interferes with gluten formation just enough to roll it out. Vodka was chosen by Cooks Illustrated version because ethanol that makes up 40 % of it does not affect gluten the way water does and adds enough moisture. It is tasteless and the alcohol evaporates in the oven. Your liquid must be kept ice cold so when it is added it keeps the fat from melting as you work the dough.

Baking powder- prevents dough from shrinking and tenderizes it.

So 7 apple pies and two weeks later…

Flakyclose

The first recipes I tried were Rose Levy Beranbaum’s (RLB) Deluxe Flaky Pie crust (recipe not included here) and her Cream Cheese Pie crust – I was convinced that I have found the ultimate recipe. It was relatively easy to make, she suggested the manual method first so you develop a feel for the dough. The resulting pastry was breeze to roll out.

My pet peeve with any pastry dough that had been refrigerated overnight was that you have to remember to take it out ahead of time so it can soften enough to roll out. This can take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes and can be quite annoying. Both of RLB’s recipes were ready in 15 minutes.

And what was my biggest fear whenever I made a pie? That the crust would break as I rolled it out thinly and I would end up with filling with no crust to put it in. This did not happen with any of the recipes I tried and believe me that speaks well of the recipes I had chosen because I’m the most clueless girl with a rolling pin which was why I made it my goal to at least be acceptably passable in this skill before the end of the year (yep this year – 2007).

Next one I tried was Cook’s Illustrated vodka version and Sherry Yard’s. The CI version uses the food processor but had the interesting method of adding the flour in two additions. Sherry Yard uses the Kitchen Aid mixer’s paddle attachment to beat the butter into the flour until they become walnut size chunks.

Another offshoot of this pie crust experiment was the mission to eliminate the soggy bottom crust of a two-crust pie that had a fruit filling. This led to the purchase of this perfect pie plate designed by RLB and let me tell you – perfect is an understatement.  I simply adore this pie plate. It gives you perfect borders, it is easy to clean and it conducts heat very well. But back to the subject of soggy crust- one solution to this was to add graham cracker crumbs to the bottom of the plate but I do not like the taste of this in my pie – so what to do?

A technique I learned from RLB’s All American Apple Pie, is to let the apples macerate and boil down the resulting liquid with your butter.

With this new method and pie plate I used Sherry Yard’s crust. I was making a special pie for the “Hungry” Hubby who was complaining of the sweetness of the apple pies produced thus far, he wanted the sugar cut to ¼ cup. Of course I wanted to hit him with the rolling pin ,but being a married couple you must exercise restraint and compromise. We finally settled on 1/3-cup sugar. I was not sure if it was the apples or the amount of sugar but the apples released very little liquid. And then I’m not sure if it was the apples, the amount of sugar, the pie plate or the crust recipe but I had a very crispy bottom crust! I was happy with the result but I did not know what made it that way. Argh!

Okay, I decided since it was RLB’s pie plate I needed to make one of her pie crust with it. I also decided to try Kate Zuckerman’s recipe to make two mini pies with the Norpro metal plates I had. So I decided to mix up a batch and a half of my apple pie recipe. It would have worked fine if I had calculated the ratios properly but I soon realized after I added the sugar and cinnamon that I doubled the sugar and cinnamon instead of multiplying it by 1.5 so I tried wiping sugar off not certain whether I have wiped off too much. My apples produced more than a cup of liquid after an hour and a half – uh oh. It took a while to reduce that liquid which was not typical from my previous two experiments.

So the cream cheese crust + RLB’s pie plate produced a nice flaky top crust, the bottom crust was not crisp but was not soggy either. RLB on her blog said that it was impossible to get a crisp crust on most fruit filled pies. I’m so tempted to say that it was Sherry Yard’s recipe that produced the crisp bottom crust but the recipe was not exactly the same and I blame the “Hungry” Hubby for convincing me to muck around with the sugar proportions. What happened to controlled testing?!

The final verdict:

For a flaky, tender, tasty pie crust and extreme ease with rolling out the dough, Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recipe is the clear winner. It was the amount of vinegar in her crust that allowed the rolling of it a dream.

Sherry Yard’s version is a close runner up because it was pretty tasty but not as tender or flaky and was a bit tougher to roll out.  If I did not have cream cheese on hand and I was pressed for time I would surely use her recipe in a heartbeat.

            The Cook’s Illustrated version was not very tasty probably because of the shortening and I think the vodka made the dough pretty limp and easier to tear.

            Kate Zuckerman’s dough took forever to soften after taking it out from the refrigerator. It was not easy to roll out either so I was glad I was making minis with her version because I was not sure if I had a usable portion for an entire pie. The taste was okay but clearly not as good as the top two.

            Clearly more experiments need to be done. I really wanted to duplicate the success of that crisp bottom crust. But for now, I must declare that Veronica’s Test Kitchen is Apple Pied-Out.  I also need to give HH a break from skinning and slicing the apples even if he was the main benefactor. Besides, I think my thighs will thank me for giving them a break too.

Directions after the jump.

Rose Levy Beranbaum’s  Cream Cheese pastry for two-crust 9-inch pie

Follow ingredient list in table above.

Food Processor Method

Cut the butter into small (about 3/4 –inch) cubes. Wrap it in plastic wrap and freeze it until frozen solid, at least 30 minutes. Place the flour, salt, and baking powder in a reclosable gallon-size freezer bag and freeze for at least 30 minutes.

Place the flour mixture in a food processor with the metal blade and process for a few seconds to combine. Set the bag aside.

Cut the cream cheese into 3 or 4 pieces and add it to the flour. Process for about 20 seconds or until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the frozen butter cubes and pulse until none of the butter is larger than the size of a pea. (Toss with a fork to see it better.) Remove the cover and add the water and vinegar. Pulse until most of the butter is reduced to the size of small peas. The mixture will be in particles and will not hold together. Spoon it into the plastic bag. (For a double-crust pie, it is easiest to divide the mixture in half at this point.)

Holding both ends of the bag opening with your fingers, knead the mixture alternately pressing it from the outside of the bag, with the knuckles and heels of your hands until the mixture holds together in one piece and feels slightly stretchy when pulled.

Wrap the dough with plastic wrap, flatten it into a disc (or discs), and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes, preferably overnight.

Hand Method

Place a medium mixing bowl in the freezer to chill.

Cut the butter into small (about ¾-inch) cubes. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes.

Place the flour, salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Add the cream cheese and rub the mixture between your fingers to blend the cream cheese into the flour until it resembles coarse meal. Spoon the mixture together with the cold butter, into a reclosable gallon-size freezer bag. Expel any air from the bag and close it. Use a rolling pin to flatten the butter into thin flakes. Place the bag in the freezer for at least 10 minutes or until the butter is very firm.

Transfer the mixture to the chilled bowl, scraping the sides of the bag. Set the bag aside. Sprinkle the mixture with the water and vinegar, tossing lightly with a rubber spatula. Spoon it into the plastic bag. (For a two-crust pie it is easiest to divide the mixture in half at this point.)

Holding both ends of the bag opening with your fingers, knead the mixture by alternately pressing it, from the outside of the gag, with the knuckles and heels of your hands until the mixture holds together in one piece and feels slightly stretch when pulled.

Wrap the dough with plastic wrap, flatten it into a disc (or discs), and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes, preferably overnight.

Sherry Yard’s Flaky Pastry for Double-crust pastry for 9-inch pie

Follow ingredient list in table above

Cut the butter into 1-inch pieces and place it in the freezer to chill for 15 minutes.

To mix with a stand mixer: Sift together the flour, sugar, and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the partially frozen butter. Turn the machine on low and beat for 2 minutes or until the butter is broken down into the size of walnuts. Stop the machine, and by hand pinch flat any large pieces of butter that remain. In a small bowl, combine the ice water and vinegar. Turn the mixer on low speed and add the liquid all at once. Beat just until the dough comes together, about 15 seconds. The dough should be tacky not sticky. The amount of water is variable. It is better to have a slightly wet/tacky dough than one that is too dry: add a little water if your dough is too dry.

Remove dough from bowl, divide into 2 equal pieces, and wrap each piece in plastic wrap. Do not squeeze the dough together or overwork. Chill the dough in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour before rolling it out. (The well-wrapped dough can be kept in the refrigerator for 3 days or frozen for up to two weeks)

My Mom’s Apple pie

(Using some methods from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Pie and Pastry bible)

1 recipe Double-Crust pie

5-6 granny smith apples

1-cup sugar (I usually use ¾ cup as a middle ground between the HH and me)

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tbs. lemon juice

1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

1.5 tbs cornstarch

2 tbs. butter

Peel and core apples and slice thinly about ¼ inch thick. Sprinkle lemon juice on the apple slices and toss to distribute evenly. Combine sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg and coat the apple slices leaving them to macerate from a minimum of 30 minutes to a maximum of 3 hours. Transfer the apple mixture to a colander set over a bowl to capture the juices. You should get around ½ cup.

Preheat the oven to 425 °F.

Boil the juices with the butter until you get a syrupy consistency. Meanwhile sprinkle the cornstarch over the apple slices until no traces of white can be seen. Pour the juice-syrup on the apple slices, it may stiffen on contact but it should melt and redistribute when you bake.

Refrigerate the apple mixture.

Roll out the bottom crust and line your pie plate leaving about ½ an inch pass the edge. Refrigerate the bottom crust while you roll out your top crust. After filling the pie, wet the edges of the bottom crust and lay the top crust over the filling. Tuck the edges of the top crust over the overhang of the bottom crust and design the border as desired.

Brush with egg yolk if desired.

Cut 5 vents on the top crust to allow the steam to escape.

Bake for about 45 minutes to an hour until juices bubble to the top and a paring knife inserted through the vents meet with very little resistance.

Let cool on a rack for about 4 hours before slicing. (Yeh right.)

Okay, I suck at recipe writing so if any of the instructions are not clear for the apple pie, let me know and I will clarify.

Cooking Notes:

As long as this post had gotten, is there anything more for me to add? Unfortunately, yes. The reason I refrigerated my apple mixture was because I was trying to get the bottom crust baked first before the mixture started to cook.

RLB even suggested freezing the entire pie and baking it straight from the freezer.  Your cooking time will be extended anywhere from 20 to 35 minutes. She also suggested baking the pie for the first 10 minutes at the bottom of the oven and then transferring the pie to the lower rack but I have not dared try this yet. Your borders might melt from the heat with this method, so you might want to cover them with foil.

I used the convection mode in my oven so I used temperatures 25 °F less than what was specified for in the recipe. Most of my pies baked in 50 minutes. I also used a dark colored baking sheet lined with foil and preheated the oven with it in all my experiments.

Other resources:

Please visit Rose Levy Beranbaum’s blog. She had answered a lot of my probing questions in the course of my pie crust adventures.

Also Kate Zuckerman has a wonderful treatise on Pie Crusts on her blog Pastry Chat. Who knows, you all might do a better rendition of her recipe than I did.

Minipies

31 thoughts on “The Pie Crust Experiment

  1. i'm waaaay behind in my blog postings and e/g mail but finally want to thank you for this gerat posting. and to add that i now protect the edges of the crust with a foil ring right from the beginning. also, with my pie plate you don't have to worry about the border drooping off because it is contained by the slight inward curve of the scalloped border!

  2. Try a 1:2 ratio of leaf lard and butter w your favorite recipe next time. You can find reliable lard usually at farmer's markets, or render your own after placing an order for the fat around the kidneys from pasture-raised pigs.

  3. You go girl! That was so much work but well worth it. I love Sherry Yard's flaky pie dough (no need for the food processor, just the KA). It's my go-to pie crust recipe. RLB's flaky pie crust is a close 2nd. I'll have to try her cream cheese dough soon.

    I hate that metallic taste the aluminum based baking powders impart to baked goods. So I always use Rumsford baking powder too – no aluminum.

  4. What a great post, Veronica! You've really outdone yourself with 7 comparisons! I often will make 2 versions of something, but 7 is a real test kitchen!
    I have loads of apples hanging around… hmmmm…

  5. Have I told you lately…? This is the kind of post I want to read and love to read. Thank you very much for this most useful information. It is bookmarked for reference.

  6. Thank you for this post! It was so informative. I've never baked an apple pie before because I hate soggy crusts but I feel empowered to try now. Thank you thank you!

  7. As I have not tasted yours :) I can say that my mom makes THE best pie crust in the world. She got the recipe from her mom, and it's aptly named Never Fail Pie Crust. (Don't know if G-ma named it, when she got it or anything.)
    But it uses vinegar and…an egg!!!!

  8. Rose – thank you so much for all your input! Your books have been a true inspiration to get me to understand whole lot of things not only about pie crust but the ingredients that go into it and baking in general. And guess what, I guess I'm not apple pied out anymore since I want to try your cream cheese crust with cream. And I do use rumsford baking powder.

  9. o.k. one more important point: use rumsford baking powder or else double the salt. it's calcium based instead of aluminum so it not only tenderizes the crust it also imparts a lightly sweet and good flavor. the SAS baking powders actually will contribute bitterness. rumsford is available in supermarkets and all health food markets including whole foods. alternatively omit the baking powder and double the salt. (editor's late which gave me the time to add this important point!)

  10. what a delightful and instructive commentary! thank you so very much. any second now my editor is arriving but i must post a quick p.s. for your next crust or if anyone else makes it: i now refrigerate my cream cheese crust (and do use the heavy cream instead of water!) 45 minutes and roll it out. that way i don't have to wait for it to soften and as for relaxing, what with the vinegar and the cream cheese and heavy cream it rolls like a dream. but when i think ahead i line the pie plate with the crust, cover it well and let it sit overnight or several hours refrigerated. that way it shrinks in less during baking but this magical crust really doesn't shrink much even if baked soon after rolling.
    thanks again for these fascinating experiments. i love your blob!

  11. Seven pies? That's real dedication. I'm a big fan of RLB's recipes–everything I've made from her books has turned out well, despite having to make substitutions now and then.

    Now you have me wanting to make apple pie….

  12. I am a big fan of Rose's cream chesse pie crust. In fact, I always have a portion frozen in the freezer to have a pie or tart fix! Recently I made something special from it, too. Will reveal hopefully before the year ends. And I will link to this fantastic post of yours :) *hugs*

  13. wow, that was a long post Veronica, but I got the message:) and I'm glad you tried this experiment:) I sure enjoyed reading about it, and your story:)

  14. Sorry folks, as many pies as Veron makes and as few as we are in our household, none will leave the house!! What is cooked here stays here!! You are more than welcome to come by and have some!!! This holds true for my wife's apple-pies, biscotties, anything with chocolate or cocoa-nibs!!

  15. I'm so glad you did this experiment so that I don't have to!! I tried the CI recipe at Thanksgiving – it was so hard to work with and shrunk on me! I am convinced that vinegar is the key ingredient in pie crusts, so I'm glad to see a recipe with it won out!

  16. Well,I have always used Gma's so I guess I need to see about all of these. Thanks for the sacrifice of baking just to report which worked best for you,eheheh!!! I notice that most doughs made with the KA are tougher to rolland shrink some as the gluten develops farther than by hand.

  17. I'm happy to help you keep testing — apple pie is the only fruit pie I eat. But (irony of ironies) I have a post going up tomorrow that extols the virtues of refrigerated pie crust, so perhaps I'm not the best person to assist with the pie crust experiments! I must admit that there is nothing quite so wonderful as a totally homemade apple pie, with wonderful flaky crust, so hooray for you for taking on this challenge in your test kitchen.

  18. Veron, thank you thank you thank you! I love the chart of comparison (appeals to the engineer in me) and all the work you did on this. As a pie novice I now which pie crust to use.

  19. I hope you learned all those YUMMY cantonese dishes from your Dad! Like your mom, I use 'pinches' and 'handfuls' but in cooking, not baking though. All that 'Great Cook Genes' – no wonder you do so well in cooking and baking, Veron!
    Have a wonderful and safe Christmas!

  20. I have a pie crust that has never failed me. One of the things I like best about the written recipe is that it gives amounts for one & two crust pies in 8 inch and 9 inch! Jason tried a bunch of others and came back to my tried and true. Still I may have to try the cream cheese one just to see.
    You've done an excellent comparison with this!!

  21. I just came over from Lydia's website where she talks about refrigerated pie crust and now I see this. Brave girl for taking this experiment on – maybe I should take your example and be a bit daring LOL!

  22. Now you've got me craving apple pie at 6:30 in the morning, Veron! Another excellent analysis from the Test Kitchen. The different ingredients, like vinegar and vodka are pretty fascinating. Next time you have extra pies, there's always the option of overnight delivery to Long Island!

  23. Pingback: Bring on the apples! | Kitchen Musings

  24. Pingback: The meaning of pie…is a pie pop! | Kitchen Musings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s