Easy As Pie Crust – #foodchem carnival

Purple plum pie from my own kitchen. OK, so it's got a crumb topping, but the bottom crust was made with my old family recipe.

When this science writing gig gets tough—like when I’ve failed to balance an equation in a story or when an egomaniac chemist is on my case—I tell my editor that I’m going to give it all up to open a pie shop.  Baking pie is a meditative exercise for me, and though I don’t make pies as much as I’d like, any day that I can make a pie is one I give thanks for. So, I was hoping to devote this column to pie crust science. The problem is, well, the science of pie crust making is a little murky. Most experts say the key is to cover small lumps of fat, such as butter or lard, with flour and then moisten. The key, they contend, is to not form too much gluten—the stretchy protein that gives elasticity to dough. Anyway, the experts’ recipes seem pretty tough. Carefully cut butter into flour. Chill overnight. How could that ever be calming? Rather than give you a good dose of pie crust chemistry, I’m just going to give you my recipe (actually my mother’s recipe and her aunt’s recipe before that). It’s easy and it makes a great crust. If you have any idea why that is, chemically speaking, please enlighten me in the comments. For a top and bottom crust:
  • 2 ½ cups flour
  • 2/3 cup vegetable or canola oil
  • 6 tablespoons milk (whole milk, ½ & ½, or cream) plus some extra
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
Combine flour and salt in a bowl and add oil and milk. Mix with a fork. The mix should be moist throughout but not sticky. You’ll probably need to add a couple more tablespoons of milk. Work dough with your hands into two balls of equal size. Roll out each ball between two sheets of parchment or waxed paper until each is large enough to cover your pie plate. Filling recipes vary, but I usually bake the whole thing at 375 °F. One last thing: If you do use this recipe and find it to be as easy as I’ve promised, you can’t use it to open a pie shop. I’m still keeping that plan on the back burner.    

Author: Bethany Halford

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  1. Awesome, Bethany!
    My wife, bless her soul, adds a little bacon fat in the place of a little bit of the butter. omnomnom

  2. Ben, the chef at The Finch & Pea has written an entire post not only explaining how to make a great pie crust, but also the chemistry involved, including why you want flattened disks of lard and that it really isnt all about gluten. Neither is particularly hard and particular steps don’t seem too time consuming (cutting butter in is not a good idea no matter how carefully done) when you know why you are doing them. He teaches beginner cooks, including myself, to make perfect pie crusts all the time.


  3. Thanks Josh, I’m still sticking with my oil-based crust. It’s so easy. Bacon you say, Matt, that might be worth a shot.

  4. i was an oil-based crust skeptic, but having tasted more than one of beth’s pies, can attest to the deliciousness of her methodology.


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