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.

A Shrine to Brine: The Mysterious Case of Missouri's Highway Pickle Jar

iStock.com/MorePixels
iStock.com/MorePixels

No one knows how it started. No one knows who was responsible. Some may even have dismissed it as an aberration, a glitch in the scenery that would soon be corrected. But eventually, drivers in and around Des Peres, Missouri who took a highway off-ramp connecting I-270 North to Manchester Road began to notice that a jar of pickles was sitting on a dividing barrier on the ramp. And it wasn’t going anywhere.

Since 2012, the pickle jar has confounded drivers and internet sleuths alike, according to Atlas Obscura. Some have speculated that someone was trying to send a secret message or share a private joke. Perhaps someone pulling off to the side due to car trouble felt the need to place the brine-filled jar on the concrete wall and then forgot about it. Maybe someone thought it would be a kind of three-dimensional graffiti, incongruous amid the bustling traffic. Maybe it’s an indictment of commerce.

Whatever the case, once the pickles appeared, advocates refused to let them go. Jars that end up toppled over or otherwise damaged are replaced. Sometimes they reappear in protective Tupperware or with a holiday-themed bow. Sightings are photographed for posterity and posted on a Facebook fan page devoted to the jar, which currently has over 4200 members and has morphed from a place to theorize about the mysterious jar's origins to a place where people swap pickle-related recipes and stories.

There are dry spells—no one has posted of a pickle sighting in several months—but followers remain optimistic the jar will continue to remain a presence in Des Peres even if the motivation for placing them near the roadway remains as murky as the briny juice inside.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Why the Filet-O-Fish Sandwich Has Been on the McDonald's Menu for Nearly 60 Years

McDonald's has introduced and quietly killed many dishes over the years (remember McDonald's pizza?), but there's a core group of items that have held their spot on the menu for decades. Listed alongside the Big Mac and McNuggets is the Filet-O-Fish—a McDonald's staple you may have forgotten about if you're not the type of person who orders seafood from fast food restaurants. But the classic sandwich, consisting of a fried fish filet, tartar sauce, and American cheese on a bun, didn't get on the menu by mistake—and thanks to its popularity around Lent, it's likely to stick around.

According to Taste of Home, the inception of the Filet-O-Fish can be traced back to a McDonald's franchise that opened near Cincinnati, Ohio in 1959. Back then the restaurant offered beef burgers as its only main dish, and for most of the year, diners couldn't get enough of them. Things changed during Lent: Many Catholics abstain from eating meat and poultry on Fridays during the holy season as a form of fasting, and in the early 1960s, Cincinnati was more than 85 percent Catholic. Fridays are supposed to be one of the busiest days of the week for restaurants, but sales at the Ohio McDonald's took a nosedive every Friday leading up to Easter.

Franchise owner Lou Groen went to McDonald's founder Ray Kroc with the plan of adding a meat alternative to the menu to lure back Catholic customers. He proposed a fried halibut sandwich with tartar sauce (though meat is off-limits for Catholics on Fridays during Lent, seafood doesn't count as meat). Kroc didn't love the idea, citing his fears of stores smelling like fish, and suggested a "Hula Burger" made from a pineapple slice with cheese instead. To decide which item would earn a permanent place on the menu, they put the two sandwiches head to head at Groen's McDonald's one Friday during Lent.

The restaurant sold 350 Filet-O-Fish sandwiches that day—clearly beating the Hula Burger (though exactly how many pineapple burgers sold, Kroc wouldn't say). The basic recipe has received a few tweaks, switching from halibut to the cheaper cod and from cod to the more sustainable Alaskan pollock, but the Filet-O-Fish has remained part of the McDonald's lineup in some form ever since. Today 300 million of the sandwiches are sold annually, and about a quarter of those sales are made during Lent.

Other seafood products McDonald's has introduced haven't had the same staying power as the Filet-O-Fish. In 2013, the chain rolled out Fish McBites, a chickenless take on McNuggets, only to pull them from menus that same year.

[h/t Taste of Home]

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