Maybe twice a year, maybe more often if we get a lot of rhubarb growing in the backyard, I make pie. In other words, I can hardly claim to have a lot of practice. Still, year after year I resist buying ready-made pie shells because I don’t want to pay that much for something that’s just flour, shortening, and water. (Okay, there’s also salt and maybe some other stuff in there, but nothing I don’t have in the cupboard.)
I usually use a Joy of Cooking pie crust recipe for the simple reason that it calls for only five tablespoons of fat. (Something else I resist is using half a pound of butter and/or shortening to make a dish my family’s going to finish in two days at most.)
But I’ve always struggled with this recipe — it’s hard to roll out the dough, and unfortunately it’s sometimes hard to eat the crust, too. So I’ve been looking into others, and finding many that use a lot more fat.
Michael Ruhlman,author of Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, is on board with this — he says the ratio for a good pie crust is three parts flour, two parts fat, and one part water. That’s by weight, not volume, and in measurement it works out to about 2 1/4 cups of flour, a cup of fat, and a quarter cup to half a cup of water — you never really know how much water you need till you’ve mixed the fat and flour. Your goal, as Ruhlman explains, is to end up with pea-sized chunks consisting of fat coated with flour. Then you add just enough water to make it hold together while you roll it out. (One recipe I found calls for vodka instead of water — it burns off quickly in the oven so the crust isn’t soggy.)Whatever recipe and ratio you use, the crust will work if you do this.
A few more basic points:
However much or little fat you use, whether butter, shortening, or both, it needs to be cold and cut into small pieces. You may even want to freeze it, then grate it with a cheese grater.
Add the water gradually, by the spoonful.
Too much mixing, or even too much water, makes too much gluten and a tough crust.
When you do get the dough rolled out, make a circle about an inch bigger than the rim of your pan. You can trim off any overhang, but it’s not so easy to add more. At least you don’t have to grease the pan; the fat in the crust takes care of that (even if you use the minimal-fat recipe).
Depending on the filling, you may have to bake the crust by itself for a few minutes first. Watch for this in the recipe.
So my next pie crust (long about Christmas) may be much fattier than the last — but a little easier to handle.