The Perfect Pie Dough

Makes perfect pies.

It's amazing what you can make with just butter, flour and water.

It's amazing what you can make with just butter, flour and water.

I made my first pie last Thanksgiving: pumpkin, naturally. I followed the recipe in Jamie At Home for pie dough which, if you’re a Constant Reader you’ll know, is pretty much my favourite cook book and Joy Of Cooking for the pumpkin. And, well, it sucked.

I’ve been cooking pretty much daily for about three years as I write this. I still screw up regularly. Here’s the thing about screwing up in the kitchen: you can still eat your screw ups. I’ve made one dish – one dish – that was inedible: it was something with a caramel sauce and I burnt the sugar; it tasted like hate, and looked like pure evil. So when I say my pumpkin pie sucked, it didn’t really suck. It tasted like pumpkin pie. I came back for more (I’m the leftover eater in the house, especially pies).

But, as a cook, I knew I could do better.

So this summer, I set out to get comfortable with pies. Pies, for me, equal fruit pies in summer. Blackberry and apple were baked by Mom throughout my childhood. I think pie is my favourite dessert.

Like bread, it wasn’t until I picked up Ratio by Michael Ruhlman, that I got the “a-ha” moment. That’s right; pie dough is a ratio: 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, 1 part liquid. The Culinary Institute of America uses this ratio (a search for 3-2-1 pie dough in your favourite search engine will show tons of hits for it, it’s not really a secret). That ratio, is, of course, by weight. A pie with lid is about 12oz flour, 8 oz fat, 4 oz water. A tart shell is about half that; which brings up another great point about this dough: it’s extremely versatile. Learn it and you can make any pie or tart or pastry, sweet or savoury.

You may do this with your fingers in a bowl. That’s certainly how your mom must have done it. I use a food processor. It’s slightly more clean to up, but it does the job in seconds without getting my hands dirty. What’s not awesome about that?

Blend the flour and butter until you get "fine bread crumbs"

For one pie shell, plus lid, for a 9" pie dish

  • 12 oz flour
  • 8 oz cold or frozen butter
  • 4 oz water

If making a sweet pie or tart (don’t worry if you forget; I always forget and it doesn’t make much difference):

  • 2 tbsp icing sugar

Measure the flour, place in the food processor. Chop up the butter into squares, place in the food processor. Wazz for about 10 – 15 seconds until the butter is in a bunch of little pieces and combined with the flour into what looks like fine bread crumbs. This is when you add the sugar, if using. You can spike your pie dough at this point with anything: lemon or orange zest, spices like cinnamon or nutmeg, thyme, rosemary or parmesan cheese. Depending on sweet or savoury, of course.

This next step is the tricky bit. You want the mixture to barely become dough; mix any more and you start developing gluten, which makes your pie dough bread-like. This is bad: people love you less if this happens. So: add the water. Pulse a few times for a couple seconds until it just comes together into dough curds. Tip it all onto a lightly floured surface and mush it together with your hands until it becomes one hunk of dough, but no more. Split into two pieces, shape into discs, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate until ready to use, at least 30 minutes.

Wazz just a few times once the water is added until just combined into dough curds.

Pie Preparation Tips

Once you’re to bake your pie, take your dough out of the fridge and lay it out on a lightly floured surface. Lightly dust it with flour before you roll it out.

Always roll your rolling pin front to back. If you have roll in a different direction, move your dough, not your direction.

Once you’ve rolled your dough, to get it in the pie plate, use the rolling pin to roll up the dough, then unroll it over the pie plate.

To get the rolled dough into the pie plate, roll it around the rolling pin, then unroll it over the pie plate.

Like I mentioned earlier, this is quite versatile. When I first started this, the missus needed a tart shell, so I baked one; she was entertaining. She made some kind of onion or cheese tart, I don’t really remember. But what I do remember is that all her guests raved about the tart. One of them who couldn’t eat cheese or flour or something broke down and “just had to have some.” Something bad happens when she eats cheese or flour, something like the runs. That must have been one tasty tart! Could it have been the crust?

Jason Kemp is a geek trapped in a cool guy's body. He hand crafts software for the web and mobile devices. He excels at user interface design, the deadlift and barbecue. He is @ageektrapped across the internet.

One thought on “The Perfect Pie Dough

  1. I have been quite pleased with my pies as well but I don’t follow your method, but will give it a go. I mix my butter and flour with either sugar or salt in the processor first – remove and then add the water. Great success – ask Phaedra.

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