How to Make a Homemade Pie Crust, According to Science

iStock/bhofack2
iStock/bhofack2

If you've ever flipped through a cookbook, you could be forgiven for thinking that making a homemade pie crust looks easy. After all, the recipe calls for just three ingredients: flour, water, and fat (and a pinch of salt for flavor). What could go wrong?

Well, everything. Make one mistake, and your homemade pie crust could turn into a leathery, brittle, gummy, crumbly, tough, or—worst of all—soggy mess. And that’s because science is standing in the way of that flaky fulfillment.

Homemade Pie Crust: The Basics

Let’s start at the top of the recipe. Most cookbooks recommend “cutting in” (or incorporating) the fat into the flour until the mix resembles a coarsely ground meal. Then, you add cold water in small increments.

The reason? Gluten.

Gluten is a protein formed when two other protein molecules called glutenin and gliadin, found in wheat, interact with water. The more you mix or knead water into dry flour, the more cross-linked bonds between the molecules (and the more gluten) you’ll create, giving the dough strength and structure. Homemade pie crust, however, is delicate. Too little gluten, and your crust won't be strong enough to hold itself together. Too much gluten, and your crust will become tough and chewy [PDF].

And that’s why cutting in the fat properly is so important. If you under-mix the fat, the flour will be too powdery and might require extra water to create a malleable, workable dough. Each extra drop will increase the risk that you'll form too much gluten. On the other hand, if you over-cut the fat, you won’t have enough dry flour available to take in water at all. In that case, you won’t make enough gluten, and your piecrust will crumble.

Chill the Fat

Pie crust recipes universally agree that the fat must be well chilled. That's because, if the fat melts prematurely during mixing, you could introduce unwanted moisture to the flour—thus promoting the overproduction of gluten. (This is especially true if you're using butter, which is 15 percent water. It's less worrisome if you're baking with lard and shortening, which contain little—if any—water at all.)

Gluten-control aside, there's another reason to keep fat chilled. When you eventually roll the crust, layers of cold fat will be flattened and stretched throughout the dough. When this fat finally melts in the oven, it will leave behind air pockets that will expand as water in the dough evaporates. This sudden phase change is the secret to flaky crust—and it'll never occur if your fat melts too early.

While bakers like to bicker over what fat is best, we'll leave that up to you. Butter is praised for its taste. Shortening is praised for its consistency. Whatever you choose, work fast—butter melts around 95℉, lard around 110℉, and shortening at 117℉ [PDF]. And keep in mind that while it's easiest to cut in cold fats with your hands, it’s also the easiest way to accidentally warm the fat. Work quickly!

To ensure that fat stays cold until baking time comes, some bakers recommend refrigerating the rolling pin. Others go so far as to recommend rolling the dough with a chilled bottle of wine. (Frankly, we like this second idea because, after all, you can’t drink a rolling pin while waiting for a pie to bake.)

Pick the Proper Pan

Even if you cut in fat at the ideal consistency and the right temperature, you could still end up with a dreaded soggy bottom. To avoid a flabby pie, the bottom crust must harden before the wet filling above has a chance to seep in—and that means you need heat. We’ll let the folks at Cook’s Illustrated explain:

“In its raw state, pie dough is made up of cold, solid fat distributed among layers of moist flour. These layers are easily permeated by juices from the ... filling, which stay in the dough for the duration of  baking, producing a soggy crust. The key to protecting the dough is to partially liquefy the solid fat as quickly as possible so that it can better fill and coat the spaces among the particles of flour, creating a watertight barrier and preventing the juices from soaking in.”

The quicker the pastry heats, the less likely that juices from your filling will leech into the bottom crust. So when picking a pie tin, consider what conducts heat the quickest: Thick metal pans will heat faster than glass, and glass will generally heat faster than stoneware. (That’s not to say glass or stoneware are bad choices. Glass heats slowly but it will stay intensely hot for longer durations and, as a result, may actually bake something faster. And ceramic is generally agreed as the prettiest for serving, though people have different opinions on it for baking. But if you use either, you many want to place them in the hottest part of the oven for the first few minutes. Better yet, lay them on a pizza stone.)

There are plenty of other techniques to cook the bottom quickly. Some experts recommend placing the pie tin on a preheated baking sheet that has spent 15 minutes in a 400℉ oven. Others swear by using dark, metal tins. (According to the BBC, “black tins will absorb more heat than light-colored shiny tins, which reflect heat.”) You can also coat the pie’s bottom in an egg wash before adding any filling. Heat will cause the egg proteins to thicken and bind, creating an extra barrier between the crust and filling.

As the pie bakes, the filling will create steam within the crust, and you want to avoid trapping moisture. Cut generous slits into the pie’s top lid. Not only do these look attractive, they allow steam to escape.

Finally, the best part about making a homemade pie crust is eating the pie. Pop that bottle of wine/rolling pin and get slicing.

Ninja’s Hot & Cold Brewed System Is the Only Coffee Maker You’ll Ever Need

Amazon
Amazon

Update: The Ninja Hot & Cold Brewed System is on sale for $120 ($40 off) for Sam's Club members until May 19.

For people who just want a cup of joe to help them get out the door in the morning, the French presses, Chemexes, Aeropresses, Moka pots, and other specialized devices that coffee aficionados swear by probably seem more overwhelming than appealing. Ditto the fancy cappuccino machines at local cafes. That’s where Ninja’s new Hot & Cold Brewed System comes in: It was created to give coffee addicts a myriad of options with minimal fuss, not to mention minimal equipment. And it makes tea, too!

“Coffeehouses are known for having an endless selection, but current at-home brewers haven't given users the vast variety of choice we thought possible, and certainly not all in one product," Mark Rosenzweig, CEO of SharkNinja, said in a press release. "The Ninja Hot & Cold Brewed System changes the category entirely. This innovative system is more than just a machine you use in the morning; it's your all-day brewing partner.”

The Hot & Cold Brewed System comes with two baskets: one for coffee and one for tea. It knows what you're making to make based on the basket you insert, and the available options for that basket will light up. The machine allows the user to make six different sizes of coffee or tea, from a single cup all the way up to a full 50-ounce (10-cup) carafe.

And of course, as the name suggests, the system can make both hot and iced beverages. For coffee, it has five brew options: classic, rich, over ice, cold brew, and specialty (a concentrated brew for milky drinks like cappuccinos). If you’re making tea, you can choose between hot and cold brews optimized for herbal, black, oolong, white, or green tea.

When you select an over ice or cold brew, the machine automatically doubles the strength of your beverage so it doesn't get overly diluted by the ice cubes in the carafe. Even better, the Ninja can make cold brew in just 10 to 15 minutes, whereas other systems and methods typically take hours. (Hot coffee is brewed at 205°F, while the cold brew is made at 101°F.) And the system has a hot and cold frother that folds into the side so you can make barista-level lattes, too.

These bells and whistles sound impressive on paper, but how do they perform in real life? Ninja sent me Hot & Cold Brewed System to test for myself.

Ease of Use

Though it might look like something developed by NASA, the Hot & Cold Brewed System is designed to easily work with the twist of a dial and the push of a button, and it delivers. From loading in the correct amount of grounds with the system’s “smart scoop” to picking what type of brew you’d like, it’s simple enough to use even while bleary-eyed in the morning. It’s also easy to schedule a delayed brew so you can do the rest of your morning routine while your coffee brews. (Here’s the only drawback I can think of about this machine: When it starts brewing, it’s kind of noisy—loud enough to make my cats jump. It’s not a dealbreaker, but if you live in a small apartment and plan to brew coffee so that it’s ready right when you wake up, it might be something to consider.)

The system even tells you when it needs to be descaled. The “clean” button will light up, at which point you simply fill the water reservoir with descaling solution and water and press the clean button. A countdown lets you know how much longer the clean cycle will last.

Taste and Flavor

I swapped out an old, cheap coffee maker for the Hot & Cold Brewed System, and the difference was immediately noticeable. Whether hot or cold, the coffee made by the H&CBS was a better, smoother cup of joe. That’s due to what Ninja has dubbed Thermal Flavor Extraction automated brewing technology, which, according to a press release, “knows the precise temperatures, correct bloom times, and proper levels of saturation for every possible beverage combination to ensure a great taste every time.”

Whatever tech they use, it works. The coffee I make in this machine is consistently tasty. The rich brew setting works exactly as advertised, too, providing a richer, bolder flavor than the classic brew.

Features and Accessories

One of the best things about the H&CBS is the fact that it cuts down on waste significantly. Unlike other machines, it doesn't require any plastic pods or paper filters. Instead, it comes with two permanent filters, one for coffee and one for tea.

And the cold brew function is a game changer if you prefer iced coffee to hot. Not only does it brew quickly, but it eliminates the messy cleanup that comes with making cold brew yourself.

Typically priced at $230 for the thermal carafe version (or $200 for the glass carafe), the Hot & Cold Brewed System is significantly more expensive than a simpler drip coffee machine. But if you’re a cold brew addict looking to treat yourself, it’s worth it. Consider springing for the slightly more expensive thermal carafe model, which will keep your java hot or cold for hours. (I’ve left ice in it overnight and found cubes the next morning.)

You can get the Hot & Cold Brewed System on Amazon, Walmart, Macy's, Sam's Club, or directly on Ninja’s website starting at $160.

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